Redskins' Williams was first to reach the NFL's Promised Land
EDITOR'S NOTE: William C. Rhoden's book, "Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback," an oral history, is available here. This excerpt, Chapter 7, examines the breakthrough appearance 20 years ago of Doug Williams as the Redskins' starter in Super Bowl XXII.
When the Washington Redskins beat the Minnesota Vikings 17-10 in the 1987 NFC championship game, Doug Williams -- who hadn't wrested the starting quarterback job from Jay Schroeder until the second half of Washington's regular-season finale -- was placed in the position of becoming the first African-American to start under center in a Super Bowl.
Though the historic story line received plenty of attention in the days leading up to the game, Williams' inspiring playoff run was overshadowed by that of his counterpart, Denver's glamour quarterback, John Elway, who, after leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl loss against the Giants a year earlier, seemed ready for his coronation as an all-time great. The media may have made Elway the headliner, but for those who'd followed or experienced the hard road to glory for black quarterbacks, the game took on an outsize significance, and there could be only one story line: How would Williams react under the pressure? Everyone who sympathized with the plight of the African-American quarterback became a Redskins fan that day.
Joe Gibbs liked to have a veteran backup for a young quarterback. Early on, Jay Schroeder was the indisputable starter, the superstar-in-waiting, and Doug was there for insurance. In 1986, Doug threw only one pass. Schroeder played the entire year, took the team to the NFC championship game where they got killed by the Giants 17-0.
In the '87 opener against the Eagles, Jay got hurt. Doug comes out and wins the game. He's the starter going into the strike, but the strike gives Jay a chance to heal. Now, you have to remember that Washington is a very diverse city, a very ethnic city, and you've got a large African-American population. So Doug was very popular. In the locker room, they loved him. Jay was surly back then -- young and defensive.
Well, Doug hurt his back. It was Thanksgiving Day 1987. The Redskins had a walk-through practice before this huge game against the Giants, and Doug tweaks his back and starts having spasms. He can't start the game. Schroeder leads them to a victory, 23-19, and the next week, Jay's the starter. I remember Doug in tears -- literally in tears doing an interview -- just crying because he lost his starting spot. And I'll never forget this, it changed the course of Doug Williams' life: The Redskins make the playoffs, but they have to beat Minnesota on the last day of the season to clinch a better seed and potential homefield advantage. Jay has a bad first half, and in the third quarter, Gibbs pulls him. If he doesn't pull Jay, Jay's the starter in the playoffs and Doug Williams never becomes Doug Williams. But Gibbs pulls Jay, Doug leads the team to victory, and Doug becomes the starter in the playoffs.
The James Harris story
Elsewhere in "Third and a Mile," William Rhoden provides an oral history of the fitful start to the 12-year NFL career of James Harris, who was drafted in the eighth round by the Buffalo Bills after an outstanding career at Grambling from 1966-68. ESPN.com published an excerpt of that account during Black History Month in 2007. Story
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
The two-part ESPN Original Production of a Dan Klores film will air Sunday, March 16, and Monday, March 17, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. For more information, visit espn.com/blackmagic.
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