"How long have you been a black quarterback?"
It's part of immutable NFL lore that Doug Williams was asked that in 1988, on the eve of becoming the first African-American starting QB to win a Super Bowl. And the stigma of the question forever stuck to the asker, Butch John, then a reporter with the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.
But John, who died earlier today, never said what everyone thinks he said. John actually asked a really good, really penetrating question. In case you're like me and hadn't heard the full story before, there's no better time than now to clear this up.
Mike Bianchi, who passed along news of John's death, dug up a 2007 Orlando Sentinel column that revealed the truth about John's infamous question to Williams.
For about 20 minutes, reporters pelted Williams with questions about the historical significance of being the first black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl.
It was clear Williams was getting a bit tired of the questions, so John thought he would approach the topic another way. He recalled something Williams had said earlier in the season about how being a black quarterback hadn't even been an issue until he got to the NFL. That's when John asked his real question:
"The question I asked was this," John says now. "I said, 'Doug, it's obvious you've been a black quarterback all your life. When did it start to matter?'"
Not a dumb question at all. In fact, quite a profound one. Except Williams didn't hear it correctly, did a double-take and repeated what he thought he heard: "What? How long have I been a black quarterback?"
And that was that. The misheard question was too good to not be true, at least in the memories of those who were there and those who sustained the urban legend.
John, who was in his late 50s and suffered from a degenerative spine condition, had retired from newspapers long before his death, and he'd gotten out of sports long before that. So today's a really good chance to re-remember him as a guy who asked something that belongs in the 99th percentile of press scrum questions.