By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus
The National Football League is spending the entire 2019 season in celebration of their 100th anniversary. From Jim Thorpe to Jim Brown, Red Grange to Mean Joe Greene, and everyone in between, there is plenty to celebrate.
We here at BASN Newsroom will join in the celebration as we take our own unique look at pro football’s 100th anniversary. Throughout the season, we’ll celebrate the greatest HBCU products in pro football history and their contributions.
Since so many HBCU players have left an indelible mark on the history of the league, there are so many ways we can display and tell their stories. We decided to take a simple approach in telling these stories — simply by the numbers.
Over the course of the season, we’ll list the greatest HBCU players in NFL history by the numbers. Now there will be some duplicates along the way, but it just further emphasizes the importance and greatness of their careers.
Last week, we began with numbers 00 through 10. Today, it’s 11 through 20.
11 Johnnie Walton (Elizabeth City State) QB
“Have arm, will travel” could truly sum up the career of this former CIAA standout. From Indianapolis to New Orleans, the North Carolina native put in yeoman work under center through 12 seasons, five teams, and four professional leagues. An All-CIAA selection as a senior in 1968, Walton was signed as a free agent by the L.A. Rams a year later. After being cut, Walton joined the Indianapolis Capitals of the Continental Football League and led them to the league crown. He participated in several preseason games with the Rams in 1970–72, but spent most of his time on the taxi squad. In 1974, Walton joined the World Football League to play for the Chicago Fire. A year later, Walton joined the San Antonio Wings and led the league in passing yards and touchdowns and was named to the All-Pro team. After serving four years (1976-79) as a backup for the Philadelphia Eagles, Walton would spend the most productive years of his career with the USFL’s Boston-New Orleans Breakers. Walton was one of the league’s top passers finishing second in the league in 1983 with 3,772 yards passing and third in the league with 20 touchdowns while leading the Breakers to an 11-7 record and a second-place finish in the Atlantic Division. In 1984, he finished fifth in the league in passing yards with 3,554. Walton owns the USFL record for most passing attempts in a season (589) which was set during the 1983 season.
12 James Harris (Grambling State) QB
An early pioneer and inspiration to many future quarterbacks as he paved the way for many of them on and off the field. The soft-spoken Louisiana native known as “Shack” shared or won four straight SWAC titles (1965-68) during his GSU tenure. Harris was specifically trained as a prototypical pocket-passer by Coach Eddie Robinson and broke numerous passing records with the Tigers. Drafted in the 6th round (192nd overall) by the Bills in the 1969 NFL Draft, Harris started as a rookie and became the second modern-day black quarterback in league history. However, he only played sparing during his three years in Buffalo before being released and signed by the Rams in 1972. After serving as John Hadl’s backup during his first season in L.A., Harris would eventually become the starter midway through the 1974 season. After Hadl was traded to the Packers, Harris led the team to seven wins in its last nine regular-season games. He led the team to its second straight NFC West title, which was also their first playoff victory since 1951. Harris led the Rams to the NFC Championship Game two years in a row before injuries and front office interference would end his tenure in Hollywood. Harris would end his career as a backup to Dan Fouts in San Diego from 1977-79. Harris would also make an impact as an executive serving as a player personnel director for the Jets, Ravens, Jaguars, and Lions. During his tenure at Jacksonville, Harris employed the only all black quarterback tandem (Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, and Quinn Gary) in league history. Harris has been inducted into the SWAC Hall of Fame, the Grambling Athletic Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Black College Football Hall of Fame.
12 Jacoby Jones (Lane College) WR/KR
A three-time All-SIAC performer as a kick returner and wide receiver during his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons for the Dragons, the Louisiana native was chosen in the 3rd round (73rd overall) of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Texans. After four productive seasons in Houston, Jones would sign a free agent deal with the Ravens in 2012. That season, Jones’ most memorable moments of his career would come to the surface. He became the first player to return two kicks for 105 yards or more in a season while being tabbed for the Pro Bowl and was an All-Pro selection. During the playoffs, he had to two of the most iconic moments in franchise history enroute to a Super Bowl title. In the Divisional Playoffs at Denver with the Ravens trailing the Broncos 35–28 with 31 seconds remaining, Jones caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to tie the game. Baltimore would eventually win 38-35 in double overtime. Two weeks later in Super Bowl XLVII in his hometown, Jones became the first player to score a receiving touchdown and return touchdown in the same game in Super Bowl history. He also returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a 109-yard touchdown for the longest play in Super Bowl or postseason history.
13 Ken Riley (Florida A&M) DB
When “The Rattler” ended his career in 1983, only three players in NFL history (Hall of Famers Paul Krause, Emlen Tunnell, and Night Train Lane) had more career interceptions. A standout quarterback and Rhodes Scholar during his tenure in Tallahassee, the Florida native was drafted in the 6th round (135th overall) by the Bengals. Converted to a defensive back, Riley established himself as one of the top defensive backs in the league, recording 3 or more interceptions in all but 3 of his 15 seasons. His best season was in 1976 when he recorded 9 interceptions, 141 return yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 fumble recoveries. His 9 interceptions set a franchise record for most interceptions in one season, and would remain the team record for 30 years. In his 15 seasons in the NFL, Riley recorded a total of 65 interceptions, 596 return yards, 5 touchdowns, 18 fumble recoveries, 96 fumble return yards, 334 kickoff return yards, and 15 receiving yards. His interceptions, interception return yards, and interceptions returned for touchdowns are all Bengals records. In 1977, Riley was enshrined in Florida A&M’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
14 Eric Weems (Bethune-Cookman) WR/KR
A stand-out wide receiver/A-back for the Wildcats from 2003-07, the Florida native left with his name in the BCC record books for numerous receiving categories throughout his four-year career. In his senior year, Weems added special teams to his portfolio, serving as a kickoff and punt return specialist. Despite not being drafted, the 5-foot-9 dynamo parlayed his speed and elusiveness to become a standout specalist in the NFL for over a decade. Spending the majority of his career with the Falcons (he also played with the Bears and Titans), Weems was a two-time Pro Bowl selection as a kick specialist with Atlanta. In 2010, he returned 40 kickoffs for a 1,100 yards with one touchdown. Weems returned 18 punts for 230 yards with one touchdown. Weems also recorded 16 tackles on special teams. He was the only player in the NFC to return a kick and a punt for a touchdown that season. During his second stint with the Dirty Birds, Weems was part of Atlanta’s 2016 NFC Championship squad.
17 Doug Williams (Grambling State) QB
You know some of his story: Grambling standout. The first real QB for the woeful Bucs. He nearly takes them to a Super Bowl in his second season. Of course, they don’t wanna pay him. A brief stay in the USFL. A return to the NFL in D.C. Slowly works his way up the food chain to become the starter. Within a year, he orchestrates a memorable playoff run from Chicago to San Diego. It culminates into history and the greatest performance by a quarterback in any quarter. Williams became the first player in Super Bowl history to pass for four touchdowns in a half, and the only quarterback to throw for four touchdowns in a single quarter. Then there’s the career after the cheering stopped. After a brief stint coaching at Morehouse College, the prodigal son returned to GSU in 1998. How did it go, you ask? Four shared or outright SWAC titles in six seasons including a National Championship in 2001. Then another homecoming, this time with the Bucs, as the director of pro scouting. Following a second stint at GSU as head coach, Williams has another homecoming. This time it’s with Washington as a front office personnel executive. He’s eventually named the Senior Vice President of Player Personnel. Along the way, he and his GSU mentor James Harris founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame. Not bad for a quiet kid from the little town of Zachary, Louisiana.
17 Harold Carmichael (Southern) WR
At 6-feet-8 and 225 pounds, this Jacksonville native always stood out on and off the field. After a productive career in Baton Rouge where he played basketball, football, and track, Carmichael was drafted by the Eagles in the 7th round (161st overall) of the 1971 NFL Draft. Ironically, he played tight end during his rookie season in Philly. That season, he started starting in 6 out of the 9 games he played in and led the team’s tight ends with 20 receptions (fourth on the team). A year later after being converted back into a wideout, Carmichael led the league with 67 receptions for 1,116 yards (16.7-yard average) and was tied for fourth with 9 TDs. A four-time Pro Bowler, he set a then NFL record in 1980 by catching passes in 127 consecutive games. He ended his career with 590 receptions for 8,985 yards with 79 career touchdown catches, along with 64 rushing yards on nine carries. He currently ranks 25th all-time in career touchdown receptions, but he was 7th all-time at the time of his retirement. His career catches ranked fifth all-time when he retired. He retired as the Eagles’ all-time leader in pass receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and total touchdowns (79), with all four records still standing as of early 2017. He also holds Eagles post-season records for receiving yards (465), touchdowns (6), yards per reception (16.0), and yards per game (66.4).
18 Charlie Joiner (Grambling State) WR
Here’s the measure of greatness from this quiet man from Many, Louisiana. When the talented Mr. Joiner caught his final pass in 1986, he had most career catches, yards, and games played of any wide receiver in NFL history. Although he’s been surpassed in that mark, that can deter from his gifts and his contributions to the game. After being a three-time All-SWAC wideout with Grambling State and a favorite target for James “Shack” Harris, Joiner was drafted in the 4th Round (93rd overall) by the Houston Oilers in the 1969 AFL Draft. After beginning his pro career as defensive back, the Oilers finally came to their senses and put him back at his normal position. By 1972, he was dealt to the Bengals where he was starting to blossom before being traded again three years later, this time to the Chargers. Before leaving the Bengals, he set a franchise record with 200 receiving yards in a single game. To say he “blew up” when he reached San Diego would be an understatement. In 11 seasons, Joiner was a three-time Pro Bowler and had four 1,000-yard campaigns. Joiner finished his 18 AFL/NFL seasons with 750 receptions for 12,146 yards (16.2 average per catch) and 65 touchdowns. He was the last former American Football League player to retire from pro football and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
18 Emmitt Thomas (Bishop College) DB
Long before there was such of phrase as “shutdown corner”, this Texas native redefined the position. One of several HBCU standouts that were either drafted or signed by Hank Stram and the Chiefs of the 1960’s, Thomas was a five-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro selection in 13 seasons with Kansas City. During their Super Bowl season of 1969, Thomas led all pro football with 9 interceptions, which he returned for 146 yards and a touchdown. In 1974, he again led the NFL in interceptions (12), return yards (214), and return touchdowns (2). He finished his career with 58 interceptions, which he returned for 937 yards and five touchdowns. He also recovered four fumbles, gained 64 yards returning punts, and returned 29 kickoffs for 673 yards. He played in 181 career games, tying for the fifth-most in club annals, and his 58 interceptions are a franchise record. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
19 Essex Johnson (Grambling State) RB
A two-way standout (defensive back/wingback) under Coach Eddie Robinson in the late 1960’s, the Louisiana native was part of three straight SWAC championships at GSU. Drafted in the 6th round (156th overall) of 1968 AFL Draft by the Bengals, Johnson became a fullback at Cincy and played sparingly his first two seasons behind Paul Robinson and Jess Phillips. In 1970 as the Bengals entered the NFL, his playing time increased, as he rushed for 273 carries on 65 attempts (a 4.2 average) with two touchdowns and 15 receptions for 190 yards (a 12.7 average) and two touchdowns. He returned seven punts for 72 yards (a 10.3 average) and three kicks for 68 yards, a 22.7 average. In 1972, Johnson earned his nickname “The Essex Express” as he had a breakout year as the Bengals’ featured running back, starting 11 games. He gained 825 yards in 212 attempts (a 3.9 average) and four touchdowns. He caught a career-best 29 passes for 420 yards (a 14.5 average) and two touchdowns. In 1973, he started all 14 games and finished just shy of the 1,000-yard mark with a career-best 997 yards in 195 attempts (a 5.1 average) and four touchdowns. He added 28 receptions (including a career-long 78-yarder catch) for 356 yards (a 12.7 average) and three touchdowns. Johnson would end his career with the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976.
20 Lem Barney (Jackson State) DB
The tradition of the No. 20 with the Lions franchise has been legendary. Whether it be Barry Sanders or Billy Sims, the legacy has been cemented. However, it was this Jackson State dynamo that set the original standard. A second round pick (34th overall) in the 1967 NFL Draft, Barney appeared in all 14 games as a starting cornerback and led the NFL with 10 interceptions, 232 interception return yards and three interceptions returned for touchdowns. That same season, he briefly took over as the Lions’ punter, punting 47 times for an average of 37.4 yards. For his career, Barney selected to seven Pro Bowls and was selected as a first-team All-NFL player in 1968 and 1969. During his 11 years in the NFL, Barney had 56 interceptions, 1,011 interception return yards, and seven interceptions returned for touchdowns. He also returned 143 punts for 1,312 yards and three touchdowns as well as 50 kickoff returns for 1,274 yards, including a 98-yard return for touchdown. In 1992, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Next: Numbers 21 through 30
Anthony McClean can be reached via email at email@example.com.