Doug Williams embraces history

RUSTON, La. -- In a comfortable ranch home not far from Route 20, the Williams family gathered around the television.

Doug, his wife, Raunda, and son D.J. watched the pomp and circumstance unfold in Washington, D.C. It was Martin Luther King Day and Barack Obama was solemnly swearing on two bibles -- one, formerly owned by King himself, the other by Abraham Lincoln -- that he would faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States for another four years.

Two of the Williams girls, Laura, 7, and Lee, 4, covertly jousted with sharp elbows, their brown eyes gleaming with glee, if not understanding. Some day, they will grasp the significance of the moment. They will also learn that their father has a special place on this continuum.

"Absolutely," said Dr. Harry Edwards, a University of California-Berkley sociologist. "I think we have to understand the history of sports' contribution to the broader culture."

There is a direct line of ascent, Edwards said, from Jackie Robinson to Bill Russell, to Jim Brown to Curt Flood to Doug Williams to Barack Obama.

It has been 25 years since Williams led the Washington Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XXII, becoming the first African-American quarterback to win the ultimate football game. And surprisingly, he remains the only one.

Williams, although moved by Obama's inauguration, downplayed even a minor role in making it possible.

"That's Dr. Edwards' profession, and I appreciate that, for putting me up there," Williams said, shaking his head. "But for me, it's a tough stretch to actually put it in that context."

But during a break in a TV interview, Williams acknowledged, "It's a great day to be doing this. A great day."

A long line

Williams, now 57, wasn't the NFL's first black quarterback -- far from it.

In 1923, halfback Fritz Pollard took direct snaps from center for the Hammond Pros. The aptly named Willie Thrower was the first African-American to play the position exclusively, as a backup for the Chicago Bears in 1953. Fifteen years later, Marlin Briscoe became the first to start a game, for the Denver Broncos. Williams supplied the timeline from there, eagerly mentioning James Harris and Joe Gilliam.

Before the 1978 NFL draft, Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs was dispatched to see Grambling State University's 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback. Gibbs spent two days sitting in on Williams' substitute teaching stints and eating hamburgers with him.

In his scouting report, Gibbs wrote that Williams was "football smart" and worthy of the Buccaneers' first-round draft choice at No. 17. Williams took Tampa Bay to the playoffs three times in five seasons, including the 1979 NFC Championship Game. But when his salary became an issue -- he was making $120,000 a year, the lowest among the league's starting quarterbacks -- Williams left for the nascent USFL. After the league folded in 1986, Gibbs was the head coach of the Washington Redskins and signed Williams as a backup to Jay Schroeder.

Before the 1987 season, frustrated over his playing time, Williams asked Gibbs for a trade. Gibbs told Williams he was close to working out a deal with the Raiders. That night, Gibbs changed his mind.

Today, Gibbs, 72, presides over a successful NASCAR team. A few weeks ago, he sat in the break room at Joe Gibbs Racing in suburban Charlotte, N.C., and laughed when he recalled Williams' response.

"He was kind of upset, stormed out," Gibbs said. "I said, 'Doug, for some reason I don't think we ought to do this. For some reason, I think you could be a big part of us here with the Redskins in the future.'

"Of course, we wind up starting Doug toward the end of that year. And the rest of it's history."

Feeling the fear

Nobody said it out loud -- those thoughts were confined to discussions in the privacy of team facilities -- but there was once a widespread belief that African-Americans couldn't deal with the complexities of playing quarterback in the NFL. For years, black college quarterbacks were steered to other positions, like running back or wide receiver or safety.

Forty years after Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, the perception still existed.

"Nobody of the other race ever said, 'Hey, I think that this player is not as smart,' but that was in the air," said former Redskins cornerback and Hall of Famer Darrell Green.

Growing up in Zachary, La., right off Highway 67, which ran from Baton Rouge clear to Mississippi, Williams sometimes felt the fear.

"I was born in 1955, and civil rights didn't come into play until 1965," he said. "I've had milkshakes in my face, eggs thrown at me, rocks thrown at me, you name it. Every Friday, basically, at each end of the intersection of Plank Road there was a cross burning."

Early in his career at Tampa Bay, he received a package. There was no return address. Inside was a rotten watermelon with the inscription, "Throw this to the n-----s, see if they can catch this."

He learned that mail without a return address, "nine times out of 10, it's not a good letter," and he would toss it.

The question

About 3,000 credentialed media were in San Diego for Super Bowl XXII between the Redskins and Denver Broncos, and Williams' race was among the leading topics.

The exchange that defined that difficult dance in Williams' mandatory media appearances has metastasized into an urban legend. Virtually everyone interviewed for this story referenced it.

The question came from Butch John of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. Bob Kravitz, then of the Rocky Mountain News, now a columnist at the Indianapolis Star, reported it this way: "Doug, obviously, you've been a black quarterback your whole life. When did race begin to matter to people?"

Williams responded, "How long have I been a black quarterback?"

Michael Wilbon, then a Washington Post columnist and now with ESPN, confirmed Kravitz's version of the question.

Sitting in his recreation room years later, Williams patiently suffered a series of questions surrounding the (in)famous Q&A.

"I just remember, 'How long have you been a black quarterback?'" Williams insisted. "And that's the only question I heard 25 years ago.

"Lo and behold, I really understood where he was coming from, and I think he just got caught up in the moment and the question did not come out the way he would have loved for it to come out. But that's the way it came out. It's obvious that I could have not changed from being black that quick, so I had to be black all my life."

Williams laughed, his eyes disappearing into his angular face.

"The way I answered it was the fact that I had been a black quarterback only when I left Grambling," he said. "Because when I left Grambling, I was just Grambling's quarterback."

At Grambling, a predominantly black school, Williams' race was rarely referenced.

In the NFL, "every article that was written, every adjective was 'Tampa's black quarterback' or 'black quarterback Doug Williams,'" he said. "It was never just the way it is today."

Contemplating history

The night before a Super Bowl, the immense pressure of playing the biggest game of their lives weighs on players. Atlanta's Eugene Robinson, Cincinnati's Stanley Wilson, Green Bay's Max McGee and Oakland's Barret Robbins all felt the strain.

Doug Williams was visited by a different demon: a toothache. While his Redskins teammates were relaxing that Saturday, Williams endured a root canal. He returned as the team was packing up to go to the last-night, secret hotel, the Lawrence Welk Resort in Escondido, Calif.

"They pipe that Lawrence Welk music in there," Williams recalled. "With being in pain and that music in your ear, it didn't work."

Williams did his best to smother the pain. He reviewed the game plan and watched television, getting only a few hours of sleep. Happily, he awoke with no pain in his jaw.

On the bus ride to Jack Murphy Stadium, Williams said, his entire career played in his mind: playing with his brother as a youth, playing at Chaneyville High School in Zachary, La., playing for coach Eddie Robinson and Grambling, the ups and downs in Tampa, the USFL and the unlikely opportunity to win a Super Bowl. He had played in only five regular-season games before Gibbs named him the starter for the playoffs.

"He's got more than a game on his back," the Reverend Al Sharpton, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, said recently. "He's got history on his back, the hopes and dreams of a whole race. 'How did I get all this? I'm just a football player.'

"But it wasn't just another game, and he wasn't just another player -- not that day."

The Broncos scored on their first play from scrimmage and led 10-0 in the first quarter when Williams fell awkwardly while being sacked.

"He does the split and he's hurt," said Green. "And you're thinking, 'Oh, my goodness.'"

Williams barked at the trainers when they ran onto the field.

"I said, 'Don't touch me,'" Williams said. "'Don't touch me, because if the good Lord let me get up, I'm going to finish the game.'"

Twice as good

The poet Langston Hughes lived in post-World War II New York, which inspired his poem "Harlem," published in 1951. "What happens to a dream deferred?" it began. "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"

Hughes concludes, "Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"

The italics were Hughes'. Scholars say that the poem predicted the social conflict that would later unfold in major U.S. cities. The second quarter of Super Bowl XXII featured upheaval of a different kind.

"It was kind of scary in that first quarter when you're down 10-nothing," said former Redskins guard Russ Grimm, most recently an assistant head coach for the Arizona Cardinals. "But then, it explodes in the second quarter."

Schroeder had relieved Williams for two plays, the first a sack. And then Williams, limping, came back onto the field.

"I'll always remember this as one of the things that happened to me in football," Gibbs said, laughing. "Doug told Schroeder, 'This is my team -- out.'"

No team had ever overcome a 10-point deficit in the Super Bowl, but when the play call "Charlie-10-Hitch" came in, Williams thought it might work. The play was designed as a 7-yard hitch route, and Williams knew receiver Ricky Sanders would try to get past Denver cornerback Mark Haynes and sprint downfield. Haynes missed the jam, and Williams lofted a majestic spiral that went for an 80-yard touchdown. One play into the second quarter, and it was 10-7.

The Redskins would run 18 plays in the 15-minute period and score 35 points -- a Super Bowl record for a half, not to mention a quarter. Williams threw for four touchdowns.

Washington won 42-10, and Williams was named the Most Valuable Player.

Walking through the tunnel after the game, Williams was reunited with Robinson, his coach at Grambling.

"We both were hugging, crying," said Williams, standing 25 years later on the very spot in what is now known as Qualcomm Stadium. "The one thing that Coach Robinson told me that day [was] I would never understand the impact and the significance of that game until I got older. And he was so right."

A shot of adrenaline

When Doug Williams Jr. was 6 years old, his father asked him a question.

"D.J., do you understand what your dad did?" Doug queried.

"I'm just a little kid," D.J. remembered. "I'd see people coming up to my father all the time, and I never really understood what he had done in the NFL, for black history and all that."

Doug popped in a tape that day and, for the first time, the son saw his father in the Super Bowl.

"This guy was throwing the ball all over the field against the great John Elway," D.J. explained. "I was like, 'Dad, is that you?'"

Today, D.J. is a sophomore at Grambling, where his father is the head coach. D.J. is the starting quarterback.

A year after Williams' breakthrough victory, for the first time, two African-American quarterbacks started in the Pro Bowl.

One of them was Warren Moon. "The social impact that Doug had in winning the Super Bowl was tremendous in the African-American community," Moon said.

"An African-American could win the biggest game, in the most popular sport, [most] popular position [requiring] the most leadership. Doug was able to do that and answer so many questions and so many stereotypes."

Randall Cunningham, the MVP of that Pro Bowl, was the other starting quarterback. "People were shallow-minded back in the past," said Cunningham. "It's not about a man's color; doesn't matter anymore."

Six years ago, for the first time, two African-American head coaches opposed each other in the Super Bowl. Tony Dungy's Colts beat Lovie Smith's Bears 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI.

This year, three young African-American quarterbacks generated ecstatic headlines in the NFL. Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick all led their teams into the playoffs, but their talent -- not their color -- was the story. Kaepernick has a chance to become the second African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl.

Back in the day, Williams said, there wasn't an article written that didn't include the word "black." Today, he says, "you don't read about Seattle's quarterback, you don't read about the Washington Redskins' quarterback, the Tampa quarterback being black. They just happen to be their quarterback, and I think that's the way it should be. Hopefully, that's the way it will be from here through eternity."