There were others before him, there have been others since.
But few, in fact none, have thrown spirals so sweet or terrorized defences in quite the way Warren Moon – the first African-American quarterback to make himself a place among the modern game’s all-time greats – did after arriving in the home dressing room at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.
Football fans in the U.S. northwest know Moon primarily as a television and radio analyst for the Seattle Seahawks and for his storied NFL career, but years before he got his plaque in Canton, Ohio, he was inducted into another Hall of Fame – Canada’s.
It’s no accident that after a noteworthy career at the University of Washington, where he was the Rose Bowl MVP in 1978, that he headed north to start his pro career.
“It was an opportunity to showcase my skills and to keep playing quarterback, I hadn’t ever played any other position,” Moon said from Irvine, Calif., where he’s the principal in a sports-marketing company.
Like many big-time National Collegiate Athletic Association stars, Moon didn’t know all that much about the CFL before he joined the league – just that no one wanted to turn him into a receiver or a defensive back, and that it had been a welcoming place for black quarterbacks such as Chuck Ealey, Jimmy Jones and Condredge Holloway (“all guys I had looked up to growing up and in college,” he said).
By the time Doug Williams became the first black man to play quarterback for a Super Bowl winner in 1988, Moon already had five championship rings with the Edmonton Eskimos – the penta-peat from 1978-82 that ranks the Esks among football’s great dynasties.
“I was really happy playing in Edmonton, I signed a long-term contract there, I genuinely loved it, but I had pretty much done everything there was to do in the CFL,” he said.
Five Grey Cup rings in six seasons will do that to a guy.
The era’s most dominant CFL quarterback had drawn significant notice in the NFL during the 1982 strike season, when football-hungry television networks showed the Canadian game in lieu of regular Sunday afternoon programming.
And when the free agent Moon took his talents to south Texas – the Houston Oilers, to be precise, coached by former Esks head man Hugh Campbell – it was for serious bucks.
But more than that, it was the chance for the nurse’s son – he grew up with five sisters and his father died from alcoholism-related liver disease when he was in elementary school – who decided to go to junior college rather than changing positions could play with the big boys in the NFL.
He never did win a Super Bowl as an NFL quarterback, and may be best remembered by casual fans for being on the losing side of The Comeback – wherein the Buffalo Bills overcame a 35-7 deficit to win the 1993 AFC Championship game.
After his years in Houston followed stints in Minnesota, Seattle and, finally, a somewhat less memorable stretch with the Kansas City Chiefs.
But the nine-time Pro Bowler, who at one point was the NFL’s highest-paid player, retired after 23 seasons with some of the gaudier passing numbers in the sport’s history and a handful of championship rings from the CFL.
Moon retired in 2001, and in 2006 became the first undrafted quarterback and the first African-American pivot inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (he and Bud Grant are the only two also enshrined in the Canadian hall in Hamilton).
Since then he’s never strayed very far from the game.
In addition to looking for broadcast work (“I studied communications in college, and quarterbacks love to be in front of cameras so it’s a natural fit,” he chuckled), he started working in a sports business venture with good friend and agent Leigh Steinberg.
He eventually became vice-president of business development, but later struck out on his own when the company – and the rest of Steinberg’s empire – unravelled.
Steinberg, who has claimed to be the inspiration for the larger-than-life agent in the Oscar-winning film Jerry Maguire, began a spectacular fall from grace in the late 2000s, punctuated by dodgy business decisions, bankruptcy, a messy divorce and descent into severe alcoholism.
In 2009, Moon set up a new outfit called Sports 1 Marketing – Moon’s uniform number was 1 – he’s the founding president, a former colleague with Steinberg serves as CEO.
“We do a lot of sports production for television, some product development, we work with a few charities as well, it’s pretty busy,” he said. “It turns out I’ve made a lot of contacts over the years.”
Moon has also been through personal struggles, from suffering through racist taunts as a youth and death threats as an adult, to the pain of divorce and the public fall-out from arrests on suspicion of domestic violence and impaired driving.
He holds up the latter missteps as cautionary tales in his candid 2009 memoir, Never Give Up on Your Dream, and has since become involved in mentoring young NFL stars such as Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton.
He’s also served as an inspiration to countless other African-American pivots, like Adrian McPherson, the understudy to Montreal Alouettes legend Anthony Calvillo.
McPherson was a hot-shot college star at Florida State and a Steinberg client when he first crossed paths with Moon.
“I saw Warren every single day, we talked a lot, he’s a great man. When I came to Canada I didn’t really realize all he had done here. I gave him a call, I was like ‘Warren, I didn’t know who you were,’” laughed McPherson, who keeps in touch with Moon. “It’s always inspiring to see African-American quarterbacks that come up like that, you just don’t see that much – except in Canada. To see the success he had here and then in the NFL is just motivation for myself that it can be done. It keeps me going.”
Moon has also kept up his friendship with Steinberg, who has been sober since 2010 and is trying to rebuild his shattered finances and recertify as a football agent.
“I talk to him often, actually. They do a thing at my old high school [Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles] called Hometown Heroes to honour people who went there, and Leigh’s going to be introducing me at mine [this month],” he said. “We’re still close, he still means a lot to me.”
So too, evidently, do the Eskimos.
Moon keeps in regular touch with several former Esks teammates and made the trip to Alberta capital a couple of weeks ago for the annual alumni dinner.
“There’s been 100 Grey Cup games and we’ve won 13 of them, they had someone there from pretty much every generation, it was impressive to see,” he said.
There’s also a special fraternity among veterans of both the NFL and CFL, so whenever Moon runs across former teammates or especially quarterbacks such as Doug Flutie or Joe Theismann, “we always end up talking about our days in Canada.”
It’s not quite a secret handshake, but it’s not far off.
Moon’s attachment is such that he plans to be in Toronto this week for the lead-up to the 100th edition of the game.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” he said. “The CFL always puts on a great party.”