Commentary

Redskins' Williams was first to reach the NFL's Promised Land

Updated: February 15, 2008, 7:53 PM ET
By William C. Rhoden | Special to ESPN.com

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.

[+] EnlargeDoug Williams
Manny Rubio/NFL/Getty ImagesAfter the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII, any concerns about Williams' ability to handle the pressure were put to rest.
Roy S. Johnson: There probably isn't an African-American sports fan in America who doesn't remember where he was on that day, just as we remember where we were when Martin Luther King was killed, where we were when the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Joe Greene: I was there as a guest of the Steelers. Obviously I'm an AFC guy, but I pulled so blatantly for Doug, I embarrassed myself -- blatantly embarrassed myself.

Randall Cunningham: Oh, I went to that Super Bowl. We had beaten Washington during the regular season. They were our rivals. But as much as I hated that team, I wanted to support Doug. So I called him up and said, "Look, man, I'm coming to check you out!"

Kevin Carroll: I was a Redskins fan that night because of Doug Williams. I'm from Philly. I knew that was blasphemous for an Eagles fan, but other Eagles fans of color were doing it too. We thought maybe that game would be the myth buster. Maybe the time had come when a black quarterback didn't have to be a backup -- the last resort.

Doug Williams: John Elway was Denver's quarterback. I was Washington's quarterback. Nobody gave us a chance.

Kevin Carroll: It was all about Elway, the all-American quarterback, Stanford guy. It was like, "Doug Williams? Who's he? Where did he go to school?" The media seemed to feel the story was already written.

Doug Williams: You know what? I probably wasn't given proper due by the media. But that's good in a way, because nobody expected what happened to happen.

George Michael, host, "The Sports Machine:" People didn't give enough credence to how much the players loved Doug. During the strike that year, some teams fell apart. The Redskins had a couple of meetings where Doug brought everybody together. He shut up the bickering. He'd say, "We're not here to argue about the union being right or wrong. We're here to keep the Redskins together. We're gonna come back and win." Everybody rallied around him.

Tom Friend: Washington is a city of power, and the quarterback has the power on a football team. So in Washington, the quarterback carries a lot of weight. People like to say he's a close second to the president. A lot of players have crumbled under that weight. Heath Shuler. Jay Schroeder. There's always a quarterback controversy.

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

Doug Williams: I signed with Washington because Joe Gibbs asked me if I'd be his backup. I told him, "Yeah, I could be the backup." At the time, I didn't have a job. The USFL had folded, and Joe was the only guy who called. I'd known him pretty well. He was the offensive coordinator in Tampa when I got drafted in 1978. I used to spend hours at Joe's house going over stuff when I was a rookie. I used to eat dinner at Joe Gibbs' house. I knew his boys, J.D. and Coy. He's one of the two people most responsible for drafting me. General manager Ken Herock actually lived at Grambling my senior year. During the off-season, Gibbs came down to Louisiana and spent the day while I was student-teaching. He took me and my future wife, Janet, to McDonald's. That was the Tampa Bay budget at the time. From my understanding, when he got back, Joe told them, "If y'all are looking for a quarterback, y'all need to draft Doug Williams."

Jimmie Giles: Joe Gibbs took Doug under his wing just like he was his son. As far as Tampa head coach John McKay and Joe Gibbs were concerned, color didn't matter. Back in 1970, when McKay was coaching USC, he had a black quarterback named Jimmy Jones and a black running back named Sam "Bam" Cunningham. He went to Alabama and just killed Bear Bryant, changed Bear Bryant's mind about African-American athletes. What did Bear do? He went out and started recruiting black athletes.

Doug Williams: When we went to training camp in Tampa Bay in 1979, we had a boom box in the dressing room. Our theme song was "Ain't No Stopping Us Now." We were 5-0 before we lost our first game. The season before we were 5-11. A lot of people don't realize it, but we were nine points away from the Super Bowl in '79. We played a veteran Rams team in the NFC championship game -- Jack Youngblood, Jim Youngblood, Fred Dryer. We probably didn't take them as seriously as we should have. We had beaten them earlier in the season, so we were a little cocky. I tore a biceps muscle early in the game and missed most of the third quarter and all of the fourth quarter. We lost 9-0. I always think about that. If I had played, we could have won.

Jimmie Giles: I remember our center, Steve Wilson, saying once, "It didn't matter if we were down two touchdowns. If Doug Williams was behind me, I knew we had a chance to win." When Doug got hurt against the Rams, it was chaos, because we didn't have a chance. We went to the playoffs three out of five years with him at quarterback, but management didn't want to pay the guy. After his contract was up, the owner, Hugh Culverhouse, wanted to offer him a piece of real estate. He said, it's worth this amount of money now, but it could be worth this amount in years to come. If I recall, that piece of property is still sitting there. There's nothing on it but a Wal-Mart. The Buccaneers clearly didn't want him to be the face of the franchise, because he had done everything he was supposed to do. He was a winner. He'd taken our team to the playoffs. If they'd paid Doug $3 million, we would have gone to two Super Bowls.

George Michael: The Thursday before the 1988 game, Doug was beginning to get a little tired because there were so many interviews and so many of them were inane. As he was sitting there in the bleachers, one guy asks him, "How long have you been a black quarterback?" Well, no one really knew what to say. Doug said, "Well, I've been black all my life." I said, "No, Doug, he wants to know how long have you had the brains to be a quarterback?" And everybody laughed. Don't let anyone tell you that that quote was taken out of context, because I was there. We had a camera. The question to him was, quote, "How long have you been a black quarterback?" And the insinuation was, "Well, you're black. How long you been a quarterback, man? That doesn't happen."

Doug Williams: I went for a four-hour root canal the Saturday before the game. I woke up with a toothache -- one of those toothaches that gives you a headache. I went to the dentist, and he said, "I'll be honest with you. You're going to have this pain unless we do this root canal." I told him, "Whatever you've got to do." I wasn't thinking about tomorrow -- only the pain. That night before the game, I ate a bag full of Hershey's Kisses. That was my routine: Hershey's Kisses before every game. People don't know that. The next morning, I felt no pain. Super Bowl Sunday. Ain't no tomorrow.

[+] EnlargeDoug Williams
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaTime in the pocket like this helped Williams to a then-record 340 passing yards in the Super Bowl.
Jimmy Raye: When the game started, I had this morbid fear. I did not want him to fail. It's not that I didn't have confidence in his ability; I just thought it was important for him to play well -- for the future. So all the kids who were watching and wanted to be quarterbacks would have something to point to, someone who proved it could be done.

Charles Ross: I was worried about the consequences if, say, he threw three interceptions and the Redskins got destroyed. Would all the great stuff he'd done during the regular season be forgotten? Would it have been back to square one for black quarterbacks? Even though he said over and over again that he simply wanted to be judged as a quarterback, I think he understood what was on the line.

Kevin Carroll: I thought if he didn't have any crazy turnovers, everybody would say, "Yeah, he was respectable. We have to honor that. He led the team, and he was respectable." Now winning the game was the big hope, but I just wanted him to have a good showing -- to not be embarrassed in any way.

Doug Williams: Running out onto the field Super Bowl Sunday was one of the greatest feelings ever. I knew all the things that had been said and written about black quarterbacks over the years. When they called my name, I thought about the guys that came before me, the James Harrises and the Joe Gilliams.

Dale Hamer, head linesman: Well, the first quarter pretty much belonged to the Broncos, 10-0. I don't know whether the Redskins were trying to establish the run or Doug wasn't throwing well or what, but they didn't do anything the first couple of series.

Tom Friend: The Broncos get a touchdown on their first play on offense. Elway throws a fifty-six-yard bomb to Ricky Nattiel. On their second drive, Elway catches a pass. He hands the ball off to Steve Sewell, and Sewell throws it back to Elway for a twenty-three-yard gain. Rich Karlis kicks a field goal, and the Broncos are up 10-0.

Kevin Carroll: All the ill-fated thoughts I tried to push to the back of my mind were unfolding. It was like, No! No! No! No! No! We're never going to have a black quarterback again. There will never be another one. This will allow them to say, "See? We told you." I felt if he didn't do well, it was going to close the door even more.

Dale Hamer: When the Broncos went up 10-0, referee Bob McElwee's standing there at the goal line, waiting for the next kickoff. I knew he was probably thinking, Oh, here's my big game, my Super Bowl, and it's going to be a rout. So during the time-out, I said, "Don't worry, Bob. The Redskins are better than this. We're going to have a game."

Bob McElwee, referee: Denver scores a touchdown: 7-0. Denver drives, kicks a field goal: 10-0. Denver kicks off, Ricky Sanders catches the ball, and I'm following him right up the center of the field. He gets to the twenty and they hit him, and out comes the football. Bam! There's a big pile. So umpire Al Conway and I go in there, and we dig the football out. When we get to the bottom -- who knows what happened before that -- Washington has the ball. I often wonder, with the way the game started, if the Broncos had gotten that football and Elway, great as he was, had put it in the end zone, would things have been different? Nobody will ever know. Because from that play on, Washington just beat their tails off.

Tom Friend: There was so much pressure on him. If he lays an egg, it's a huge step back. And he started off poorly. The team was struggling. When he hurt his knee, it was like the perfect out; here comes Jay Schroeder. But Doug was not going to let Schroeder back on that field.

Doug Williams: Part of the field had just been resodded -- a part that didn't get a lot of sun. When I went back and planted, the grass slid out from under my foot. I hyper-extended my knee. Unbearable pain. But mentally, Shoot, I just went through a root canal. I got up. I wanted to tell the trainer, "Don't touch me."

George Michael: I was sick to my stomach when I saw that. I thought, Man, this guy has worked so hard to get here, and now this? There was this genuine fear that things were not going to work out. He's lying on the field in great pain. They have to help him off, and you figure it's torn ligaments.

Tom Friend: You have to understand, Jay was very unpopular on that team. And in the 1986 NFC championship game against the Giants, Jay was knocked silly by the Giants -- L.T. and those guys -- and he looked like he was losing it. And Gibbs sent Doug onto the field, and Jay waved him off. As far as Doug was concerned, that was a sign of disrespect. He was disrespected in front of the whole world. Doug never forgot that.

Doug Williams: We were playing against the Giants in a championship game, and Jay took a hard blow. Joe Gibbs sent me into the game. On my way out to the huddle, Jay waved me off the field. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. Like they always say, payback is a mother. That was my payback. He wasn't going to play no more -- not if I could help it.

Jimmie Giles: That gave Doug all the willpower in the world to come back. He could not walk the next day. We had to help him down the stairs, help him out of bed. But he was not going to be denied his glory in that game.

Roy S. Johnson: There's a story about Eddie Robinson, sitting in the stands. He had never really challenged his God before, but he looked up at the sky and said, "I know, God, you didn't bring me this far for this to happen." And sure enough, Doug Williams came back into the game after missing just two plays.

Gene Upshaw: I'm sitting in the end zone behind him, and I see him come limping back out, basically dragging his leg.

Kevin Carroll: I was shouting, "Willis Reed! Willis Reed!" My kids were like, "What are you talking about?" I said, "One of the great moments in sports history! Everybody knows Willis Reed. This could be our Willis Reed moment!"

George Michael: I later asked him, "How in the world did you get the strength to go back in there with that knee?" And he said, "You don't think I was going to let Jay Schroeder steal our spotlight."

Doug Williams: When I went back in the game, the guys said, "Let's give him time," because I couldn't move out of my own shadow. They gave me all the time I needed. Players are funny. Players know players. I think that team believed in me more than they believed in Schroeder. He was a little distant. A little arrogant. A little selfish. All the players knew it. Black, white -- it didn't matter.

Al Jury, field judge: Doug was always a leader. He once got on one of his Tampa Bay linemen for not dropping a guy: "You've got to cut that man! Cut them damn legs!" I could hear him from way out where I was, chewing him out as he went back to the huddle. That's just the way Doug was. He just didn't believe you could beat him.

Tom Friend: And then the quarter of all quarters begins. It was like a whirlwind, the most amazing thing you ever saw.

Doug Williams: As a player, you don't think of being in the zone. That's more or less for announcers and the media. As a player, you're just trying to carry out the game plan. It was almost like, "Let's get the ball and score again." After the game was over, you think about it and say, Damn, how in the world did we do that?

On his first play after the injury, Williams abandoned the called short pass and instead hit Ricky Sanders with a gorgeous eighty-yard touchdown strike to make the score 10-7. After Denver was forced to punt, William -- enjoying excellent protection from his offensive line -- led the team on a drive that concluded with a twenty-seven-yard touchdown pass to Gary Clark. On Washington's next possession, rookie running back Tim Smith tore off a fifty-eight-yard touchdown run. Before the half, Williams connected with Sanders on a fifty-yard touchdown pass, then hit Clint Didier to make it 35-10 at intermission.

Dale Hamer: When it was 21-10, I made a return trip to the middle of the field and said the same thing: "Don't worry, the Broncos are better than this. We're going to have a football game." But it didn't happen. Doug just kept throwing it up, and they kept scoring.

Doug Williams: At halftime we're up 35-10, and Joe Bugel, the offensive line coach, comes to me. He used to call me Stud. He says, "Hey, Stud, if you don't want to, you ain't got to go back the second half." And I said, "Coach, I started this one, I'm going to finish it."

Tom Friend: The Broncos couldn't handle the Redskins offensive line. Doug had an immense amount of time to throw the football. No one was getting near him. And you know, Doug had one of the game's great arms. I don't think people realize how great his arm was. He had receivers running everywhere.

Kevin Carroll: It was done -- done! The Broncos were crushed, and I was screaming and yelling. My boys were screaming and yelling! It was unbelievable -- everything that happened. There were so many wonderful turns. The Redskins got some good bounces, and things just worked out for them. It was beautiful. It truly was. You couldn't have scripted a better performance. Doug Williams limped off the field, came back, and orchestrated that amazing game.

George Michael: It was the ultimate warrior game. I think every guy on the team simply said, "We will not let you down." That to me is the ultimate compliment, when the whole team says, "Hey, QB, we'll carry you."

J.C. Watts: For sixty minutes, he did everything a quarterback is supposed to do. If you don't look at his skin color, you'd just say, "Man, the quarterback played well, and the Redskins won." But fact is, he went out and denounced all the myths that corporate America holds about the black man.

[+] EnlargeDoug Williams
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesWhen all was said and done, Williams was the Super Bowl MVP.
Al Conway, umpire: In my twenty-eight years in the league, I never saw a better performance by a quarterback. Montana had some good days. Elway had many good days. Fran Tarkenton and Johnny Unitas, too. But the way Williams used Ricky Sanders was great. He and Williams had career days. When you're down like that and you score five times in succession and completely blow the other team out? That takes great leadership.

Dale Hamer: Doug Williams was the best in the world on that day. I don't think any of his fellow quarterbacks would question that. Those touchdowns weren't just dump-offs in the backfield; they were vertical passes. In fact, Johnny Grier, the back judge, was running so hard on a couple of them, he fell down. The grass was a little damp, and he made the Super Bowl XXII highlight film because on two or three of those passes, as he put on the brakes in the end zone, his feet went out from under him. He gave the touchdown signal from a seated position.

George Michael: Each pass was letter-perfect. The line gave him protection. They just said, "We're not gonna let anyone touch you." And after he twisted his knee, they never touched him again. When you look back at the great Super Bowl victories -- I was there when Bradshaw threw those touchdowns to Stallworth and Swann -- there are certain games where you don't forget the plays. And Doug's throws were one after the other right on the money. He didn't miss. For a while there, he was in a groove that was hard to believe.

The Redskins went on to win Super Bowl XXII 42-10. Williams completed 18 of 29 passes for 340 yards and was named the game's MVP. He set four Super Bowl records that magical night: passing yards in a game (340), passing yards in a quarter (228), touchdown passes (four), and longest completion (80 yards). More important, on the sports world's greatest stage, Doug Williams laid to rest the myth that a black man could not be a championship quarterback.

Tom Friend: After that Super Bowl, Doug was the toast of the town. He was the man. I remember the T-shirts, DOUG WILLIAMS: TOUCH OF CLASS. After he won, that's what everybody wore. They threw him a Doug Williams Day in Washington, and he couldn't make it because he had already promised to be home in Zachary, Louisiana. I think his daughter made him promise to go to Zachary that day. Some guy's quote to him was, "That's okay, because you don't see Lincoln or Washington showing up for Presidents' Day."

Joe Greene: It was as if I had won the championship, as if I was down there on the field. I was as happy for Doug as I'd be for myself. It was a special moment -- a historic moment.

Danny Barrett: For Doug to get off the ground with what appeared to be a career-ending knee injury, then come back and play the way he did, it inspired many young men, especially black quarterbacks, to stick with the position.

Michael Vick, quarterback, Atlanta Falcons: I was seven years old. I'd just started watching football. I was a big Elway fan. I'd never seen a black quarterback before. When I saw Doug Williams beat Denver, I was like, Damn, he's throwing the ball -- touchdown passes! -- just running the offense. I said to myself, Dude, he's doing his thing. He's really handling his business.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson: When the Redskins returned to Washington, he went straight to the campus of Howard University for a rally. He was making a statement about the connection between Grambling State and Howard. He was sensitive to the social dynamics of that victory.

Randall Cunningham: He'll never know how much it meant to me when he called me up after the Super Bowl. I said, "Hey, man, I'm out here, and I just want to congratulate you and give you a hug." He took the time to say, "Hey, brother, I share this with you."

Mike Adamle, TV commentator, former Kansas City Chiefs running back: I was working the sideline for ABC, and I had a chance to interview him after the game. He was sequestered off in a private training room. Eddie Robinson was there by his side. He was just so overcome with emotion, not just from winning the Super Bowl, but from knowing what it meant in the long term. He was totally spent, totally exhausted. It was like the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.

Doug Williams: Keith Jackson interviewed me on TV, and at the end of the interview, he said, "Thank you, sir." It was like a sign of respect, you know? I think he realized what I'd gone through. He was trying to say, "This man deserves some accolades."

J.C. Watts: Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, and all the black quarterbacks of today owe a great deal to James Harris and Jefferson Street Joe. They owe a lot to Warren Moon. But I think the person that actually got the black quarterback over the hump was Doug Williams.

Charles Ross: When you look at his performance, you have to say it was the greatest performance by a quarterback in the history of the Super Bowl, because no other quarterback ever had to take on that kind of responsibility and anxiety and perform at that level.

George Michael: From the get-go, the whole city was behind him. There's a guy named Fred Fila who ran a company called Shirt Explosion, and Shirt Explosion would make shirts with various depictions of the Redskins. Well, they came out with a shirt that said JUST CALL ME POCKET. Pocket was Doug's nickname, because he'd always say to the offensive line, "Boys, I ain't going nowhere but right here." That shirt? They couldn't print it fast enough. It just struck a nerve. Didn't matter if you were black, white, yellow -- everybody loved Doug Williams. For that year, he hit a high note that not many Redskins had ever seen before.

Eddie Sapir, Doug Williams' former agent: With endorsements, the measuring stick was what Phil Simms got the year before. Doug certainly didn't do better than Simms. Was it because Doug was African-American? I had the guy from L.A. Gear wanting him real bad. In those days, every beautiful lady running around Hollywood, they were all into those little pink-and-white shoes, and L.A. Gear was getting big. They wanted the MVP of the Super Bowl. But they were lowballing him, saying Doug's not exactly a fashion plate. Look at the size of his foot, they said. That's the way a lot of that stuff was. Doug made some money, but it wasn't anything astronomical. He took care of his family, his mom, his dad, who was real sick at the time, his brothers, his sisters. They almost all lived on one street in Zachary, Lemon Road. He took care of everybody.

Tom Friend: The first game of the following season, he had a shoe deal with this company, and the shoe just literally fell apart. I said, "How's the shoe?" after the game. And he said, "It sucked!" He never wore it again.

Eddie Sapir: We made the Disney World deal around two in the morning. I told them, "Why don't we just cut to the chase? What's the deal with Elway?" They said $25,000. And I said, 'Look, I'm tired. I'm sure you all are tired. Everybody knows Elway's going to win it. Why don't you just offer Doug $75,000?'" I was just kinda outshooting them, and we got $75,000.

After two more seasons with the Redskins, Williams retired. He began his coaching career at Louisiana's Northeast High School before moving on to the U.S. Naval Academy, the Scottish Claymores of the World Football League, Morehouse College, and finally, in 1998, Grambling State University, where he succeeded the great Eddie Robinson. From 2000 to 2002, Williams led his alma mater to three consecutive SWAC titles. He currently serves as a personnel executive for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Doug Williams: After the game, I went and hugged Coach Robinson. He was ecstatic, emotional. Told me that was the proudest football moment in his life. He said, "Doug, you might not understand this, but what happened today had the same impact as Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling. Twenty to thirty years from now, you'll understand."

Charles Ross: Doug Williams' Super Bowl wasn't as big as Joe Louis winning the heavyweight championship or Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, but it was big. African-Americans across the country felt a rush of pride mixed with relief, and also a bit of guarded optimism that this was going to open the floodgates, that other teams were going to jump on the bandwagon. But that didn't happen. You didn't see much of Doug Williams after the Super Bowl. You didn't see him doing TV commercials. You didn't see him signing big endorsement deals, running around on the speaking circuit, or appearing on talk shows. Nothing like what happened -- before or since -- to winning Super Bowl quarterbacks who happened to be white.

Doug Williams: I run across a lot of people today, and they always say the same thing: "I got that tape. When I'm feeling down, I pop that tape in." Or: "Son, I just want to tell you, I don't know nothing about football, but I want to let you know, I pray for you."