On Wednesday, we began a tribute to the Trojans of the past that made their mark on history. We started with Sam “Bam Cunningham, and how he helped pave the way for integrating football in the south. Now it’s time to look at another Trojan that challenged another stereotype about black athletes, one that is still being challenged today: Rodney Peete.
Even after collegiate football had been integrated during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, black athletes still saw their abilities limited. Sure, black players could run and catch the ball, and bring the pain train on the other side of the ball, but to lead a team? That was out of the question. White coaches and team owners did not believe that black athletes could be the quarterback; their prejudices led them to believe that black athletes were not smart enough to do so.
Apparently, Rodney Peete didn’t get the memo.
Peete was not USC’s first black QB (that actually was Willie Wood, the first black QB EVER in the Pac-10, who we will talk about later), but Peete’s legacy cannot be ignored. He was the starting quarterback for USC during the late 80s, leading the Trojans to the back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1988 and 1989. Even better than that, when he faced off against Troy Aikman and UCLA in those same years, his squad remained triumphant both times. And Peete proved the he completely understood the meaning of “Fight On!” during the 1988 rivalry game, when he managed to suit up and beat the Bruins after having been hospitalized with the measles the week before.
So yeah, Rodney Peete was pretty much the truth, and people outside the Trojan family knew it too.
At the end of the 1989 season, Peete won the Johnny Unitas award, given to the nation’s best senior quarterback. He was the first Trojan quarterback EVER to receive this award (Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart would later get this honor as well), which is a pretty huge benchmark who a QB whose leadership capabilities, because of the color of his skin, were often doubted. Peete is also only one of three black QBS to get this award, which says something about how America’s stance on black quarterbacks hasn’t changed all that much over the years. Much like Sam “Bam” Cunningham, Rodney Peete probably didn’t experience much outward prejudice playing at a school in Southern California, but I would be that he had plenty of haters outside the program. Peete helped show that black QBs can be just as strong of leaders as white QBs, and he helped kick the door down for more to follow in his footsteps.
Though black quarterbacks have come a long way in terms of acceptance, there is still the notion that black QBs are in a separate category from their white quarterbacks. Where LaDanian Tomlison, Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster are just “running backs”, Cam Newton, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick are still “black quarterbacks”. So clearly, we as a people still have a lot to work on in regards to the way we perceive what black athletes can do for a team. Maybe in another ten years or so, we will truly believe and accept the fact that on the football field, skin color isn’t a factor at any position, and that the player with the most heart and the best skill set is the one that deserves to lead the team, score the points, or put opponents into the turf. For now though, we must thank black quarterbacks like Rodney Peete and others who, in the face of criticism and doubt, played their game their way, and showed the non-believers that being a leader is not limited to those with fairer skin.
Fight On Forever, Rodney Peete!