Willie Lee Thrower, Sunrise March 22, 1930–Sunset February 20, 2002.
My great-great-uncle was a man of small stature but great power. Power so great that he was said to be able to throw a football 80 yards without even breaking a sweat. He had help from his hands. They called him “Mitts” because they were big enough to fit around a whole football. Ripley’s Believe It or Not even featured him because of those monstrous things he carried around.
But his legacy wasn’t solidified by slinging passes or his supernatural palms. On October 18, 1953, when he replaced George Blanda, starting quarterback at the time for the Chicago Bears, he became the first African-American quarterback in NFL history.
Now, legacies aren’t created overnight; they’re molded by the things that are left behind and imprinted on the lives of the people you touch.
Uncle Willie or the “Gentle Giant,” as my family would call him, was a man of many firsts. Aside from being the first African-American quarterback in the NFL, he received a college football scholarship at Michigan State University where he went on to be the first in his family to earn a college degree. Getting that degree mattered to him. What mattered more was making sure people close to him got one as well.
“I was pregnant in high school. Tony, my son, was born in June but I graduated in May. Uncle Willie came to the house to see Tony and he asked me if there was anything that he could do for me,” my great-aunt Sharmayne Thrower told me. “I told him I wanted to go to the high school because I still needed my diploma. My pregnancy at the time was so close to the day that I graduated that my doctor wouldn’t let me march across the stage. When I told him I didn’t have my diploma yet, he about lost it. He said, ‘first things first is that we are going to the schoolhouse to get that dang diploma then we can take care of whatever else needs to be done.’”
His heart was with his family because he knew everybody looked up to him and wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“Uncle Willie was a big reason that I got to see other things before I started working for the government and traveling the world,” said Aunt Sharmayne. Uncle Willie came from a small town called New Kensington, Pennsylvania. He understood that there wasn’t much there to be successful, so he made the best of the gifts God blessed him with and shared those gifts with others. “When I was younger, I would stay with Uncle Willie in New York. He would bring me up there in the summer and whatever I made in the summer I would take up there and shop,” Aunt Sharmayne recalled with a smile on her face.
Uncle Willie’s family weren’t the only ones impacted by his efforts. Warren Moon, distinguished NFL and CFL pro, credited him in his Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech for helping pave the way for athletes of color and breaking boundaries to better the world and its people.
In 2006, a statue was built in his honor at his former high school to honor his legacy and accomplishments.
Though many people are unfamiliar and unaware of the barrier Willie broke... I will never forget.
Willie Lee Thrower. Gentle Giant. Boundary Breaker. My Hero.
- Sterling Manley