Doug Williams isn’t Jackie Robinson. He didn’t suffer a torrent of racial abuse on a daily basis. But 24 years ago this Sunday, Williams did leave an indelible mark on sports, in Washington and on America by becoming the first black quarterback to start, and win, a Super Bowl.
One American whom Williams affected was a six-year-old in Taylorsville, Ms., whose father was a huge football fan and was cheering for Williams, a native of Zachary, La., three hours southeast.
“By winning a Super Bowl, Doug opened doors for everyone else, especially guys like myself,” said Jason Campbell, Williams’ successor as the Redskins’ quarterback many times removed and now about to become a free agent after two years with the Oakland Raiders. “African-American quarterbacks are pretty much just quarterbacks today. There were guys who came before Doug who helped him like Shack Harris, but lot of what’s changed in football now for African-American quarterbacks is because of Doug.”
Williams, always known for his cannon of an arm not his athleticism, was certainly a pocket passer that Super Bowl Sunday for the Redskins against the Denver Broncos in San Diego. He was 32 and had hyper-extended his left knee during the first quarter with Washington trailing 10-0. He missed two plays and then returned with a record-setting vengeance.
During the second quarter that made him famous, Williams completed nine of 11 passes for an astounding 228 yards and four touchdowns to launch the Redskins to their 42-10 runaway triumph.
“I owe so much to the guys up front,” said Williams, who, of course, was voted the game’s MVP despite record-breaking performances by receiver Ricky Sanders and running back Timmy Smith. “After I got hurt, Joe Bugel told those guys that I couldn’t move so they had to keep the Broncos away from me which is what they did.”
Before Williams’ monster day in the NFL’s biggest game, black quarterbacks such as Harris, Marlin Briscoe and Joe Gilliam hadn’t made much of an impact. Warren Moon was starting – but not starring — in Houston. Randall Cunningham was just getting going in Philadelphia.
“I get so much of the credit for changing the game for black quarterbacks, but guys like Shack, Joe Gilliam and Marlin Briscoe laid the groundwork for me and the guys in my generation,” Williams said. “But (Redskins general manager) Bruce Allen, who’s the ultimate football history guy, told me that the history of the NFL can’t be written without me. People have even compared me to Barack Obama which is silly. Winning a Super Bowl isn’t the same as being elected President.”
Not that Williams isn’t more popular with many Americans, especially those in the Washington area, than the man in the White House.
“Every day, I’m hearing about the Super Bowl or reading about it somewhere,” said Williams, who’s back coaching at his alma mater, Grambling. “I get emails about it nearly every day. I can’t tell you how many dads of players I’m recruiting want to talk about it. That day was the greatest time in my life. I still get chillbumps when I see the highlights. We had a (Redskins) reunion last summer in North Carolina and guys like Mark May, Gary Clark and Brian Davis said, ‘You got that ring for me.’ That’s not really true. We won as a team, but it sure made me feel good to hear them say that. Whenever I’m in Washington, I get treated so well. Washington will always be a very special place for me.”
The funny thing is that Williams came oh so close to not even being a Redskin during that 1987 season. Just before the season began, coach Joe Gibbs, who had been his offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay and had brought him to Washington in 1986, told Williams that he was going to be traded to the Raiders.
“I called everybody back home in Zachary to tell ‘em I had been traded to somewhere I had a chance to start,” Williams recalled. “Jay (Schroeder) was going to start in Washington. But when I went to see Coach Gibbs the next day, he said, ‘Doug-las, I changed my mind. I think you’re going to help us win a championship this year.’ I couldn’t argue with him. He just had one of his gut feelings and my whole future changed that day.”
So did those of black quarterbacks who followed, including Campbell. When Campbell, who had worn No. 17 at Auburn, partially in tribute to Williams, was drafted in the first round by the Redskins in 2005, Washington owner Dan Snyder had him call Williams and ask for permission to wear the number for the burgundy and gold.
“I wanted to keep wearing 17 because of what Doug had meant on the field and in the community,” Campbell said. “He had that demeanor, so calm and smooth. He kept fighting, but he didn’t let anything get to him. I’ve tried to be that way. Through all my ups and downs, I’ve kept fighting and I’ve always been involved in the community. I still hear from kids in the Washington area and that’s what I tell them to do.”
Fortunately, football has changed enough since his Super Bowl stardom, that as Williams noted, the last two Heisman Trophy winners were black quarterbacks from Auburn and Baylor, two schools that wouldn’t have considered him as a high school senior 14 years before he struck his own blow for equality.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.