Warren Moon quarterbacked the Edmonton Eskimos to five straight Grey Cups before going on to a 17-year career in the National Football League, retiring in 2001 at the age of 44. He is the only black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He recently published a book, Never Give Up On Your Dream.
Q: You’ve said that playing in the CFL was one of your greatest career moves, but it must have been tough showing up in 1978 after winning the Rose Bowl with the University of Washington but getting no interest from any NFL team.
A: It definitely wasn’t a goal of mine to have a great college career and then go to the CFL to play. My dream had always been to play in the National Football League. But I also looked at the CFL as a great opportunity for me to keep playing football and to develop my game. I never thought I would have as much success as early as I did in the CFL and I never thought I’d enjoy it as much as I did.
Q: A lot of people in your situation would have been bitter about being ignored by the NFL.
A: I was disappointed, but so much disappointment had happened to me even before I got to that point, like the fact that I had to go to junior college to prove that I could play quarterback before I could go to a major college. Even in high school, my sophomore coach wouldn’t let me play because he didn’t think I could play quarterback. I understood rejection early and as I got older I just accepted it a little more and said, this is the way it’s going to be.
Q: Why were you so successful in the CFL? Was there less pressure?
A: The biggest thing was, for me, you could really feel that I was only being judged by how I played on the field and that was it. I wasn’t being judged by the colour of my skin. I never heard any type of racial slurs while I was up there. It was very refreshing to know that I could just prepare for a game, go out there and not have to worry about anything else.
Q: When did you first feel you were being judged as a black quarterback rather than just a quarterback?
A: I think in high school. My sophomore coach, Mel Klein, really had a disdain for African-American quarterbacks. It was so clear and obvious, my ability over the guy he was starting.
Q: I was surprised to read that when he collapsed and died some years later, you weren’t upset.
A: I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t sad either. It bothered me at the time that I was that way because I was a pretty compassionate kid. It wasn’t like I wished that upon him, but I wasn’t upset when I heard the news.
Q: You went from the CFL to Houston in 1984, and signed the biggest NFL contract ever up to that point. How did that happen to a lowly CFLer who six years earlier had been rejected by the league?
A: It was just the situation with free agency that really kind of put me in a place where I could pick where I wanted to play. I created a bidding war between teams and that’s something that had never happened before. But because I wasn’t drafted and was a quarterback that people highly touted, it made my value go up.
Q: So NFL teams were watching your CFL career?
A: Oh yeah, they had tried to get me out of my contract the year before I actually came out. But there was a time in my CFL career, after my third year, that I thought I was going to spend my whole career up there. That’s how much I was really enjoying it. We had so much success. But in the back of my mind I always wanted to see if I was good enough to play in the NFL.
Q: In both Washington and your first NFL team in Houston, you had a couple of years where things weren’t going well at all. How did you manage to turns things around?
A: I think just winning. Winning seems to solve everything for fans, the media, for criticism. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some underlying prejudice or bigotry inside of people. But it’s hard for them to bring it out if you’re winning. It’s hard for them to call you a name if you’re throwing touchdown passes. But as soon as things go negative and you’re not winning, that’s when the ugliness comes out.
Q: In your book, Never Give Up On Your Dream, you write about those first tough years at the University of Washington where you learned the difference between the crowd yelling “Moon” and “boo.”
A: No question about it. You know the difference!
Q: You must have developed a thick skin.
A: I really did. I think that’s what helped me once I went to Houston. I knew I was going down to the South. I knew they had never had an African-American quarterback down there playing or starting. With the amount of money I was being paid, you know there was a lot of prejudice. It was just a matter of time before it came out.