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The Grave of Willie Thrower

by Randy Snow

Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Wednesday, August 3, 2022

QUESTION: Who in their right mind would make a 14-hour round-trip drive just to visit the grave of a football legend?

ANSWER: This guy! Along for the ride was my son and official cemetery photographer, Abram! But this was so much more than just your normal grave visitation trip.

The entire community where he grew up has embraced the legacy of their native son, Willie Thrower, the first black quarterback of the modern era in the NFL. Not only is he buried in his home town, but they also honor him with a statue and a historical marker at the high school.

Thrower grew up in New Kensington, PA near Pittsburgh and played running back in high school. When he arrived at Michigan State University to play college football, he was switched to quarterback by the coaching staff, led by head coach Biggie Munn, after his sophomore year. Thrower was mainly a backup quarterback at MSU but he played very well when he was called upon. In 1952, his senior season, he was part of the 9-0 MSU team that won the college football national championship.

Thrower was not drafted by an NFL team, but he did sign a one-year contract as a free agent with the Chicago Bears in 1953. On October 18, 1953, Thrower entered a game against the San Francisco 49ers in relief of the starting quarterback, George Blanda. Blanda was struggling against the 49ers when Bears head coach George Halas sent Thrower into the game. Thrower completed three of eight passes for 27 yards and led the team down the field, from their own 40-yard line to the 49ers’ 15.

At that point, Halas sent Blanda back into the game. The angry crowd began chanting, “Leave Willie in. Leave Willie in,” but Thrower’s day was done. The Bears lost the game, 35-28. Thrower appeared in just one other game for the Bears that year and was released at the end of the season.

He then went up to Canada and had a tryout with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1954, but was cut before the season started. He then signed with another CFL team called Toronto Balmy Beach. He played briefly for the team in 1954 but a shoulder injury ended his playing career at the age of 27.

Willie Thrower may not have had the greatest NFL or CFL career, but he was the first black quarterback to play in the NFL in the modern era. This fact is recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.  

Thrower died of a heart attack on February 20, 2002 in his hometown of New Kensington, PA at the age of 71.

When quarterback Warren Moon was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006, he mentioned Thrower in his acceptance speech as one of the people who inspired him to play quarterback.

In 2003, a historical marker honoring Thrower was placed at Valley High School in New Kensington, where he went to high school. Three years later, in 2006, a bronze statue of Thrower was also unveiled at the high school. 

Over the years, many players have had very short careers in the NFL and then they simply faded into obscurity. But the brief NFL career of Willie Thrower should not be lost to the history of the league. He broke the color barrier in the NFL just six years after Jackie Robinson did the same in Major League Baseball. Thrower’s ground breaking achievement of being the first modern-day African-American quarterback in the NFL should be more widely known and celebrated, no matter how brief his football career was.

It was a great honor to visit the final resting place of this icon of NFL history. Yes, it was a long day, but it was also a good day. This was grave visit #35 on my never-ending quest to honor the people who hold a special place in football history.

Finding his Grave, Statue and Historical Marker

Thrower is buried in Greenwood Memorial Park in New Kensington, PA. The address is 104 Melwood Road. His marker is located in Section R. There is a series of bushes that form a huge cross in the middle of the section. Stand in the middle of the cross outline, where the vertical and horizontal sides meet, and face the top of the cross. Willie’s grave will be to your left, just inside the outline of the cross. It is at an angle compared to the other graves in that area. 

About five miles from the cemetery is Valley High School. The address is 703 Stevenson Blvd in New Kensington. The bronze statue is located at the football stadium, which is right next to the school. The statue is just inside the fence past the ticket booth.

At the opposite end of the high school’s parking lot, next to Stevenson Blvd, you will find the historical marker dedicated to Willie Thrower.


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