The late Sam Cooke once sang, "It's been a long, a long time coming but I know a change gonna come. Oh yes it will."
When the San Francisco 49ers take on the Seattle Seahawks this weekend it represent more than a berth to the Super Bowl -- it will signify some noted change that's been manifesting for decades.
Both Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks are African-American quarterbacks. Both signal callers have the ability to win games with their strong arms and their athleticism. This is the second time two African-American quarterbacks will square off in the NFC Championship Game for a spot in the Super Bowl.
In the not so distant past so-called experts embraced the belief African-American quarterbacks didn't have the intellectual ability to lead an NFL franchise -- let alone guide a team to the Super Bowl. A widely held stereotype was a so-called running athletic would never win a Super Bowl. Well, at games end one thing is for certain: An African-American quarterback with the ability to throw and run with equal precision will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl with a legit chance to win it.
As far as the AFC is concerned it gets no better for those who embrace tradition. For the New England Patriots Tom Brady and the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, they represent what the prototypical signal-caller is supposed to be. Both are tall white quarterbacks who play the game from the pocket.
Brady and Manning will methodically read the defenses, goes through the progressions and/or take the sack as necessary. Kaepernick and Wilson do the latter at very high level as well but they have an extra dimension to their skill set that Brady and Manning lack, and that's the ability to make plays with their legs.
In essence, these conference championship games are more than simply contests to determine who'll face off in the Super Bowl: It represents the meticulous change teams are making in the name of diversity to make room for a style of play from the quarterback position that's historically been frowned upon.
For instance, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh sent a very capable quarterback in Alex Smith to the bench then to the Kansas City Chiefs because he saw something special in Kaepernick. Harbaugh debunked conventional wisdom and the archaic stereotypes that still abound in naming Kaepernick his starter over Smith.
Smith was a highly efficient quarterback who was capable of making plays with legs. Harbaugh turned him into a winner but despite Smiths' tools, Kaepernick has proven to be better because of the explosive plays he can make with both his arm and his legs.
Wilson was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. The Seahawks had signed an unproven Matt Flynn to be their starter in the offseason. A training camp and preseason later Flynn lost his job to the persistent Wilson.
In essence the two conference championship games represent what's old about the NFL and what's to come. Kaepernick recently issued the following, "I don't ever want to take it to a race level. But, I mean, even with a lot of the quarterbacks in the league who are Black, it's 'oh you're a Black quarterback,' or 'you're just a running quarterback.' And I think that's another stereotype that I really feel like I'm trying to break," said Kaepernick, according to Time.com. "I don't want to be someone that they say, 'oh, he can run, but he can't throw.' And I think that's another perception that's been around for a long time that needs to be changed."
The African-American quarterback historically has faced the type of racism the African-American citizen has faced in society. In short, people generally fear that which they don't understand. Therefore it's important to understand some of the history of the African-American quarterback to gain perspective as to why Kaepernick and Wilson squaring off has special significance.
In 1968 Marlin Briscoe became the first African-American to start a regular season game when he quarterbacked the Denver Broncos. Despite setting a rookie record for touchdowns that still stands (14) Briscoe was released by Denver where he was promptly switched to wide receiver primarily resulting from racial stereotypes.
In the same year Eldridge Dickey was the first African-American quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. The former Tennessee State standout outplayed second-round draft pick Ken Stabler in preseason. Despite Dickey's efforts he wasn't given a chance to play quarterback. Like Briscoe before him he was switched to wide-receiver.
In 1974 when Joe "Jefferson Street" Gilliam wrestled the starting quarterback job away from an inconsistent Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh he became the first African-American to open a season as a starter in the NFL. The ultra-talented Gilliam led the Steelers to a 6-0 preseason record and a 4-1-1 start to the regular season.
Ultimately a combination of race, the societal conditions, death-threats and Gilliam's personal struggles with drugs stole his potential long-term glory. Gilliam helped lead the Steelers to their first Super Bowl during the 1974 campaign but was out of the NFL after the 1975 season depressed and hooked on drugs.
In 1993 Charlie Ward led the Florida State Seminoles to a National Championship -- he also claimed the Heisman Trophy. Ward possessed a skill set similar to Robert Griffin III. Despite his talent Ward was snubbed by the NFL. Being a multi-athlete star at Florida State, Ward opted to play in the NBA instead of brewing over the disrespect he received from the NFL.
Today even though race relations in society and sport are not where they should be progress is being made. For instance, quarterback Cam Newton won the National Championship for the Auburn Tigers and the Heisman Trophy in 2010. Newton was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft and is currently the face of the Carolina Panthers franchise.
Newton was not switched to wide receiver like Briscoe and Dickey. He was not unceremoniously benched and victimized by death threats like Gilliam. Nor was Newton snubbed by the NFL like the Charlie Ward. Instead Newton is being afforded the opportunity to exercise his potential to possibly win a Super Bowl like Doug Williams and have a Hall of Fame career like Warren Moon.
No matter the outcome of the NFC Championship game, the Super Bowl is ensured of having a quarterback with a skill set that historically has been ridiculed by the NFL.
No matter the outcome of the AFC Championship game, Brady or Manning will represent the type of quarterback the NFL has grown accustomed to.
Despite the outcome of the championship games and the upcoming Super Bowl the sporting world is witnessing a methodical change of the guard. There will always be a place for the prototypical quarterback in the NFL, but we must also make room for another way of getting the job done.
As African-American quarterbacks like Kaepernick and Wilson continue to thrive and succeed it further establishes what's possible for others with similar skill sets if given the opportunity.
In my opinion, change has not only come, but it has now arrived.
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CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified this year's NFC Championship game as the first time two African-American quarterbacks have competed against one another. The post has been updated to correct this.