Call it the most famous football question which may or may not have been asked: According to legend, in the days leading up to Super Bowl XXII a reporter quizzed the Redskins' Doug Williams on how long he had been a black quarterback. Unfazed, the seven-year veteran replied that he had been black all his life. People laughed, but the significance of the moment travelled far beyond the confines of San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. It didn't matter that he was the face of the NFC's best squad; it was clear Doug Williams was still a black face before he was anything else.
Whether that is how it was phrased or if it was taken out of context, the mere idea of such a question seems absurd to fans today. A black quarterback … big deal. What's all the fuss? But back in January 1988, it was all some fans had on their minds. Collectively, a country was murmuring: a black man, under center, in the Super Bowl? Never thought we'd see the day …
Now, more than two decades removed from Williams' dismantling of Denver, I wonder if we really appreciate the full weight of his accomplishment. I suggest it was as important to the shift in societal attitudes toward men of color as Hank Aaron's leaving Babe Ruth in the dust, and yet we've let Doug Williams' triumph fade from our consciousness. It's a footnote on the 1987 season now, and outside of the occasional article written about it in celebration of Black History Month, it's mostly left alone.
Is it possible we've forgotten all that Williams overcame that season, or have we simply failed to observe all the change his shining moment has helped to make in the years since?
When the 1987 season began, Jay Schroeder was Washington's starting quarterback. But throughout the campaign Williams was asked to step in for the oft-injured passer. Williams was brilliant in relief duty in Week One against Philadelphia, and threw 11 touchdown passes as compared to five interceptions in five appearances. By the postseason, Williams was Washington's chosen leader despite having started just two games (both losses, oddly enough).
In the playoffs, he played just well enough against the Bears and Vikings to help the Redskins to the Super Bowl where he was pitted against a passer from the opposite end of the football spectrum — a player that The Nation's Dave Zirin refers to as "everybody's golden boy."
"I mean, how many quarterbacks are allowed to write their own ticket and say, 'I'm not going to play for Baltimore, I'm going to play for Denver?' And on top of it, to get to choose between being a quarterback or playing for the New York Yankees. That was John Elway," Zirin says.
Williams had fewer options. If anything, he had been forced to fight against the tide his whole career in a sea in which many didn't believe he belonged. In the eyes of some, black men couldn't throw as well as white quarterbacks, and weren't capable of making quick decisions in the heat of the battle. Some questioned a black man's ability to lead in the huddle, while others pointed to football IQ. Quarterback is an intelligent man's position, after all, and, well, whites are just better suited to play it.
There were quarterbacks of color before Doug Williams entered the NFL in 1978 — guys like Joe Gilliam, James Harris and Marlin Briscoe — but progress had been slow. By 1987, Houston's Warren Moon and Philadelphia's Randall Cunningham were among the best in the league at the position, but the stereotypes had yet to be swept out of the front office suites. After all, no black quarterback had won anything of significance.
Williams — not far removed from a detour in the USFL — wasn't Moon or Cunningham, and probably wasn't the popular pick to be Super Bowl MVP. Fresh off a root canal for an abscessed tooth, Williams ate an entire bag of Hershey Kisses the night before the game. Prior to kickoff, the historical relevance of the situation washed over him.
"Running out onto the field Super Bowl Sunday was one of the greatest feelings ever," he told William Rhoden a few years ago. "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."
History would have to wait one more quarter of football. In a blink, Denver was up 10-0, thanks to Elway's 56-yard bomb to Ricky Nattiel and a short Rich Karlis field goal. No team had ever come back from a double-digit deficit in a Super Bowl, meaning Washington's "black quarterback" had his work cut out for him. Then, boom, the Redskins scored 35 second-quarter points, 28 of which were created by Williams' beautifully placed passes.
Suddenly, Doug Williams was splendid more than he was black, and the "black quarterback" label that had so long defined him would be replaced with "Super Bowl MVP." He had overshadowed Elway and made Denver's defense look foolish. The performance is as understated today as his cultural contribution, says Zirin. Williams did, after all, become the first Super Bowl quarterback to guide his team back from a 10-point deficit, and he set a Super Bowl record that January evening with 340 passing yards — a performance Zirin thinks "ranks with any performance in the history of the Super Bowl."
Could a black man play professional quarterback? If there was any doubt before that game it was gone after fans had witnessed Williams play the position to near perfection on the sport's biggest stage. His efforts changed how teams conducted business, as well. Before Super Bowl XXII Williams had been the only black quarterback picked in the first round of the modern draft; in the years since, a dozen NFL teams have used their coveted first-round selections on black signalcallers. "I think it made everybody in NFL executive suites a little more comfortable with saying we're going to figure out who our quarterback is going to be based on merit and not based on skin color," Zirin says.
This past April, as Carolina considered Cam Newton with its No. 1 overall selection, critics questioned Newton's checkered past the same way they did Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett. The skin color of the two men was a nonissue.
Still, for slaughtering both the Broncos and pro football stereotypes Williams' payback has been minimal. The topic is rarely included in all-time NFL moments lists, and the boundaries he helped to knock down are no longer visible to a new generation of football fans. Because of Doug Williams, those fans identify the league's 32 starting quarterbacks by division or conference, not by color.
As former U.S. congressman J.C. Watts said in Rhoden's piece, "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."
We all owe a great deal to Doug Williams. He opened doors for black quarterbacks, and he opened the minds of millions.
Follow Beacom on Twitter @mbeac
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).