By Zane Miller

After being drafted by the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills with the 192nd overall pick of the 1969 AFL-NFL Draft, quarterback James “Shack” Harris would have a long wait for his opportunity to shine in a full-time starting role. While Harris would become notable in his brief stint in the AFL as one of two African-American quarterbacks to start a game in the league, he would make the leap with the Bills to the NFL following the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. As an eighth-round pick, Harris was utilized in a backup role for his first two seasons in the league, before heading across the country to join the Los Angeles Rams for the 1972 season, a move which would eventually lead to his breakthrough.

After backing up starter John Hadl in 1973 during his run to a double-digit win season, Harris would finally secure a starting job in 1974, following Hadl’s trade to the Green Bay Packers. He did not disappoint, going 7-2 in his starts to lead the Rams to back-to-back playoff appearances, though the team would be knocked out in the NFC Championship Game by the Minnesota Vikings. In 1975, with over half a season of on-field experience and the reigns of the team in his control, Harris would indeed have his career-best season. However, it would not end anywhere near the way he had in mind.

Harris would have his best performance of the 1975 campaign on November 3rd, in a 42-3 win on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football. Throwing for three touchdowns and 207 yards with no interceptions, he and the Rams pounded the Eagles to improve to a 6-1 record, eventually culminating in a 12-2 result to handily win the NFC West with Harris starting in all but one of those wins. However, on December 14th at home against the Packers, he suffered what would essentially become a season-threatening shoulder injury. Backup Ron Jaworski held the starting role for the remainder of the regular season and opening round of the playoffs. Following a 35-23 win in their first-round matchup against the NFC East-winning St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals, the Rams would take on the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game on January 4th, 1976. Fortunately for Harris, he would be deemed healthy enough to return and be named the starter. However, the excitement would evaporate quickly.

Despite playing at home, the Rams did not stand a chance from the get-go, as Harris being intercepted on his first pass of the game was a bad omen of how the rest of the afternoon would shake out. Harris would only get one more pass attempt in before being pulled in favor of Jaworski, with no completions and one interception being his final stat line. This move would do nothing to stop the bleeding for Los Angeles, as the Cowboys rampaged to a 21-0 lead at halftime and eventually won it 37-7 to reach their third Super Bowl in franchise history, as quarterback Roger Staubach threw four touchdown passes, with three of them going to running back Preston Pearson.

Harris ended 1975 with a total of 14 passing touchdowns, tying for 11th in the league with Bob Griese of the Miami Dolphins and Dan Pastorini of the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans). Harris also finished just outside the top-10 in passing yardage, also claiming the 11th spot with 2,148 yards through the air, 138 behind New York Jets starter Joe Namath in 10th.

Harris would never again reach the same level of success he had in 1975, as he was traded to the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers in 1977 following an injury-plagued 1976 campaign. Harris started the majority of games in his debut year with the team, thanks to a holdout by the team’s regular starting quarterback, Dan Fouts. Once Fouts returned, Harris would be relegated to backup duty with the Chargers before his retirement following the 1979 season, ending his career with 25 victories at the NFL level.

Harris resurfaced in 1997 as he was named the director of personnel for the newly christened Baltimore Ravens, a role he held through the 2003 season which enabled him to earn his first Super Bowl ring in 2000. Once his stint with the Ravens was up, he became the vice president of player personnel with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2004 to 2008. Harris then joined the Detroit Lions organization as senior personnel executive in 2009, holding the position prior to his retirement from the front office after the 2014 season.