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Spartan passer broke barrier

1st black Big Ten, NFL QB played on '52 title team

October 24, 2003

He's part of NFL history, a national champion Spartan and has said he felt like Jackie Robinson.

But in East Lansing, most have never heard of him.

On Oct. 18, 1953, former MSU quarterback Willie Thrower became the first black quarterback in the NFL. Coming off the bench for the Chicago Bears, he threw only eight passes - connecting on three - but became an immediate trailblazer for black athletes everywhere.

More than 50 years ago when the Spartans won a national championship in 1952, Thrower was there, too. Backing up All-American quarterback Tom Yewcic that season, Thrower was the Big Ten's first black quarterback.

Thrower died on Feb. 20, 2002, of a heart attack, but teammates and family members remember what stood out the most about him - his hands.

"He had big hands," Yewcic said. "That's why they called him 'The Thrower.' Probably threw the ball as good as anyone in football."

Known as "The Thrower," "The Pro" and "Mitts," as well as for his cannon arm strength and bull's-eye accuracy, Yewcic said a game against Texas A&M in 1952 is what he remembered most about his backup and friend.

"He came in against A&M, went 7-for-9 and passed for two touchdowns in the last quarter," Yewcic said. "That was typical Willie. That's what he was capable of doing."

At only 5-foot-11, Thrower was not a prototypical beefy quarterback. At New Kensington High in the late 1940s, Thrower was a halfback in the old-school single-wing offense.

Recruited as a halfback to MSU, head coach Clarence "Biggie" Munn made him a quarterback. One of the great ironies of Thrower's career was that he never started a football game as a quarterback.

When Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1948, he received death threats. But if Thrower was the target of any racism, Yewcic said he wasn't the type to show it.

"He was not the kind of guy to complain about it," Yewcic said. "That was never a big factor for him. He was too likable a guy for that to happen."

After being cut by Chicago in 1954, Thrower played in the Canadian Football League until a separated shoulder forced him from the game at age 27. Following his short career, he returned to New Kensington.

After his 1969 return, Thrower's sister-in-law Vivian Thrower said he came home a hero.

"He was real friendly with everybody," she said. "We got along real well together."

Thrower was especially well-liked by his high school coach, Don Fletcher. Fletcher's wife, now in her 90s, still tells Willie Thrower stories, Vivian Thrower said.

"(Fletcher) would go around and check on Willie to make sure he was home," Vivian Thrower laughed. "He was almost like a son to them, the coach and his wife."

Although not enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame, Thrower is displayed as a builder among black professional football players. In western Pennsylvania, Thrower's name is known. He also is not enshrined in MSU's Athletics Hall of Fame.

"They didn't really get him the recognition he should've gotten while he was living," Vivian Thrower said. "They should've done some of these things for him while he was alive."

But a group of people in New Kensington have begun a mission to get Thrower noticed. Starting in June, Chip Harris and a group of seven residents began the Willie Thrower All-Pro Memorial Committee to work on recognition for the barrier-breaker.

The committee's first objective now is within reach, as a life-size ceramic statue was commissioned to be built in Thrower's honor.

It will be built by former New Kensington resident Steve Paulovich, who received $7,000 to begin building the statue that will eventually cost the committee $30,000. It will be located in a park around Thrower's hometown. They've also built a Web site, williethepro.com, to make Thrower's story mainstream. Other plans are in the works, including a youth center and two scholarships.

"The funny part about this is that the people of New Kensington don't know about him," Harris said. "We are trying to tell that story and ride it and ignite it."

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