Maclean’s Interview: Warren Moon

Quarterback Warren Moon on Michael Vick, racism, and why he wouldn’t trade his five Grey Cups for one Super Bowl win

Maclean's Interview: Warren MoonWarren 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.

Q: You mention in the book that you’d bake cookies before games to calm your nerves.

A: My mother taught me to cook at a very young age. To this day I do a lot of cooking. It gets my mind away from the pressures of the day. It’s a way of creating things, and it’s something I enjoy—eating. Another thing I’d do after a game, whether we won or lost, is come home and start cleaning the house. One of my buddies, Lorenzo Romar, said, “I’ve never seen a guy who on his way home from a game would stop and buy some Windex and start washing his windows.”

Q: Your teammates had a few nicknames for you—Pops and Yoda was it?

A: I got those names early and I think it was because of my upbringing. I took that fatherly role in my house at a very young age so I just matured faster than most my age.

Q: Your father died when you were seven and you grew up in Los Angeles in a time when gangs were growing in influence. For a lot of people, that’s a recipe for disaster. How did you overcome that?

A: A lot of it was my mom. She kept me involved in sports, obviously. In the summer I’d go to Bible school. There was Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts. Lots of things like that always kept me busy and on a schedule.

Q: You must have had a few coaches who helped as well.

A: No question about it. All my football coaches were ex-policemen or on the police force. They were big disciplinarians. It really gets your attention when your coach pulls up in a squad car and parks in the lot for practice.

Q: Was there one coach you can single out as the most important?

A: Probably Joe Rouzan. He ended up being chief of police in Inglewood. He really got my attention when I was 11 playing quarterback. I threw an interception and came off the field and he looked at me and yelled, “Moon! You stink!” I’ll never forget him telling me that. I remember going to the bench in tears. I didn’t want anyone to see how much that hurt me. But from then on, my whole attitude changed.

Q: That’s a mean thing for a coach to yell at an 11-year-old!

A: Yeah, it really was. He came over and apologized for it later. But I look at it as, yeah, I wasn’t playing well and I’ve got to do something about that. I took the negative and tried to make it a positive. But it hurt at the time.

Q: You write that you felt like you carried the extra burden of playing for other black players. Looking back on your career, do you feel like you’ve made a big difference?

A: That’s one of the things I’m most proud of. There were guys before me like James Harris, Marlin Briscoe, and Joe Gilliam, guys who motivated me. I think when I got my chance to play, I felt like it was my responsibility to help other guys who were going to come after me. I think with what Doug Williams did, winning the first Super Bowl as an African-American quarterback, and then my own longevity, it opened a lot of people’s eyes.

Q: When Williams won the Super Bowl in 1988 you said you were crying. Did it bother you that you weren’t the first?

A: Yeah. That was one my goals coming into the league, to be the first African-American to win a Super Bowl. Doug did it first. There was a little bit of envy, but a lot of joy that someone had finally done it.

Q: Steve McNair, who was killed recently, was one of the players who followed in your footsteps. Did you know him?

A: I knew Steve. He sought advice from me when he first came into the league. He told me I was one of the guys he looked up to when he was in high school. It was very flattering.

Q: He seemed to struggle with life after football. Is that a hard transition?

A: It’s a real tough transition, even for guys who are prepared for it. Your second career comes very abruptly. You don’t know how to capture the same things you get from football, that high that you get. Maybe in Steve’s situation he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do. A lot of guys need that structure that football gives you.

Q: In your Hall of Fame acceptance speech, you seemed to purposefully avoid talking a lot about race, and the troubles you faced in your career. Why?

A: I didn’t want that to override the accomplishment. Even when I played, I didn’t want it to be at the forefront of my career. It was there and I dealt with it. I wasn’t going to be on a soapbox crying about it.

Q: What did you think about Michael Vick’s suspension and dog-fighting charges?

A: I thought it was harsh. I don’t think the penalty fit the crime. But there’s a huge compassion for animals, more than human beings sometimes.

Q: A lot of people have argued that a white quarterback wouldn’t have been treated the same way.

A: Again, that shows even though we’ve come a long way in race relations there’s still a lot of that out there.

Q: Looking back at your career, one of the big low points was the 1993 playoff collapse against Buffalo that’s known simply as “the comeback.” What happened?

A: We got off to a great start, but once we got into halftime we just had a natural let-up. I’ve never seen a game with momentum change like that. It’s one of those games you want back because I feel that team was good enough to go to the Super Bowl.

Q: The fact that you didn’t get to the Super Bowl has to be a big regret.

A: That’s the biggest regret of my career. But I accomplished so many other things that I never thought I’d accomplish, so there’s a lot of bittersweet that came along with my career in the NFL.

Q: Would you trade your five Grey Cups for a shot at the Super Bowl?

A: No. Those were unbelievable experiences for me, things that really boosted my confidence. And I don’t think you’ll ever see a team win five straight championships at the pro level in any sport. I think we’ll be the last ones to do it. That’s a very special part of my life.

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