Why Doug Williams Matters

Illustration for article titled Why Doug Williams Matters

Excerpted from Deadspin's Big Book of Black Quarterbacks. This entry is by Greg Howard.


My dad's from Lynchburg. So is his dad, and his dad, and for all I know, his dad. Lynchburg's a smallish city in the middle of Virginia. It's Redskins country, always has been. When he was young, his parents moved him, his brother, and two sisters a few hours north to the segregated city of Washington D.C. That's where he was raised, and where he discovered football.

My dad was born in 1950, four years after NFL owners had begun to lift their 13-year ban on African-American players. Even after integration, there were still few blacks in the league. None played for the Redskins, because a loud and proud racist, George Preston Marshall, was writing the checks. So on Sundays, my dad would play football out in the street with his brother and the rest of the kids in the neighborhood, then walk up the steps to his cramped row house, plop down on the couch with his dad, and watch the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns were the first NFL team to integrate after the war with Bill Willis and Marion Motley, two players who became perennial All-Pros and, later, Pro Football Hall of Famers. In the late '50s, though, the Browns boasted a backfield of Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell. They ran over everyone. Everyone still talks about Jim Brown, but Mitchell was my dad's favorite player. In 1959, Mitchell's second year in the league, he blasted the Redskins for 232 yards on the ground. In 1962, JFK threatened to kick the Redskins out of Washington if they didn't integrate their team. After 30 years of owning the Redskins and refusing to sign black players, Marshall relented, and the Redskins became the last NFL team to integrate.

They decided on Ernie Davis, an All-American halfback from Syracuse University who in 1961 had become the first black player to win the Heisman. That December, the Redskins made Davis the first black player to be chosen first overall in an NFL draft. He refused to play for Marshall, and Washington was forced to trade Davis to the Browns for Bobby Mitchell. Davis was diagnosed with leukemia in the summer. He never played a down for the Browns, and on May 18, 1963, Ernie Davis passed. He was 23.

With my dad's favorite player in burgundy and gold, geography finally won out, and he slowly started to warm to the Redskins. Then he grew up, got a job, started a family, the works. But his formative years as a teenager and a young man took place in the Civil Rights era. He grew up on the Maryland border, and he tells stories about white kids crossing the line into D.C., spitting on black kids, then sprinting to safety back over the state line. My dad, who played cornerback, would chase them, and fight them if he could catch up. He was fast and angry. When he made enough money to live on his own, he moved to Maryland.


As my dad grew up, he was forced to look on, helpless, as African-Americans fighting for equality in the country were threatened, imprisoned, and murdered. There was something hypocritical, something vile about blacks being told they were incapable of leadership even as their leaders were being blown away. He called it a sickness, but it was one that spilled into NFL locker rooms.

It was always thought that blacks couldn't be quarterbacks, that they lacked the intelligence and charisma to lead a team. So most black quarterbacks, even the ones who excelled in high school and college, had to switch positions in the NFL, or else escape north to play in Canada. When Doug Williams was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1978 from Grambling State, he was one of a handful of blacks ever to get a shot at playing quarterback, at leading a team.


Williams wasn't a great quarterback. He was inconsistent, and threw more interceptions than touchdowns in three of his first five seasons. But he was decent, and considered the heart and soul of the team. With Williams leading, Tampa Bay made the playoffs three times in the same span. By the time his contract expired after the 1982 season, his career record as a starter was 33-33-1.

He made only $120,000 a year; 41 other quarterbacks in the league had a bigger salary, including a dozen backups. He wanted $600,000 a year, but owner Hugh Culverhouse wouldn't go above $400,000. Williams walked.


The quarterback moved to the United States Football league, a competitor to the NFL that launched in 1983. Competition in the USFL was strong, and Williams once again seesawed. In 1984, his first year with the Oklahoma Outlaws, he went 6-12. In his second, he played better, but the Outlaws finished 8-10.

After the 1985 season, the league folded, and Williams was out of work. But Joe Gibbs, who was the offensive coordinator at Tampa Bay when Williams was there, was the head coach in Washington. He coaxed his former QB to join the Redskins as a backup.


Williams's first season in Washington was in 1986. As Jay Schroeder's backup, he threw a single pass all year: incomplete. It was great the 'Skins had signed a black QB, but Williams was one who didn't and probably couldn't really play.

Washington had the Eagles in the first game of the 1987 season. Jay Schroeder went down hurt, and Williams led a comeback win over their conference rivals. That year was a weird year for both quarterbacks. Schroeder would be knocked out of two more games, and both times, Williams pulled out comeback wins over his opponents. Williams also started two games; he lost both. But, you know, that was Doug Williams.


The Redskins finished the season 11-4 and qualified for playoffs. Even though Williams had played in only five games, he'd outperformed Schroeder, throwing 11 touchdown passes and only five interceptions in that span. He was also likable, and his teammates preferred him over Schroeder. Gibbs gave Williams the starting position for the duration of the playoffs.

My dad was happy to see Williams lead his favorite team of the last 25 years. But my dad was a grown-ass man. He was 37 years old. He had a daughter, had met the love of his life, and had a brilliant, handsome, charming firstborn son on the way. Williams was a great story, but my dad had more or less made it. He was old enough now that pro athletes like Williams were younger than he was, which is to say that he was old enough to realize that athletes were flawed humans, too. He didn't need a hero.


But he was lucky. Few people actually need a quarterback to look up to during their formative years, but it's a profound privilege for a football fan. Quarterbacks run the show. They're the leaders. My dad's favorite player, Bobby Mitchell, was a leader on the Browns and Redskins because he was the truth. But someone had to hand him the ball. He may have been the main attraction, but he wasn't running the show.

These are the small things that define your horizons. Only a few black quarterbacks had ever even seen NFL action to that point. None had ever led his team to a Super Bowl. The usual term here is "role model," but there's something a little patronizing about that, as if Williams's principal contribution was to make a bunch of black kids want to be quarterbacks. What he did was make the fantasy lives of a lot of people just a little bit richer, a little less impoverished. What Doug Williams offered, there in the heart of rugged, smash mouth, corporate-approved Americana, was possibility. "You had to play within certain perimeters," the son of the NFL's first black quarterback, Fritz Pollard, once said of his father's experience. Williams in the Super Bowl was the measure of the distance between the old perimeters and the new ones.


Williams and Washington were up against the Denver Broncos, in their second straight NFL championship game on the shoulders of Pro Bowl quarterback John Elway. The Broncos were favored. The Redskins received the opening kick and went three and out. On the Broncos' first play from scrimmage, Elway threw a 64-yard touchdown pass. Washington got the ball back and punted. Elway marched his team back down the field, and after a Rich Karlis field goal, the Broncos led 10-0. That's how the quarter ended. Then Doug Williams went apeshit.

Less than a minute into the second quarter, Williams threw an 80-yard touchdown strike to Ricky Sanders. The Broncos took the kickoff, then punted. The Redskins got the ball back, ran it down the field, then Williams found Gary Clark for a 27-yard touchdown. Washington's next possession: Running back Timmy Smith scampered into the end zone from 58 yards out. Next possession: Williams passed to Ricky Sanders for a 50-yard score. Next possession: Williams threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Clint Didier. At half, it was 35-10. Williams had just thrown four touchdown passes in 13 minutes.


It was one of the finest quarters of football in the history of the sport. The Redskins went on to win, 42-10, and at the final whistle, Williams became the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl. At the awards ceremony, Williams became the first black quarterback to win Super Bowl MVP.

I asked my dad recently how he felt after the game. "I was proud," he said. "It was probably the same feeling people had when Joe Louis was heavyweight champion, and when Obama became president. Arthur Ashe. The Williams sisters. Any first, really. It's a validation that when given the same opportunity, we can do as well or better."


Doug Williams was still Doug Williams, of course, and in 1988, he was benched for third-year quarterback Mark Rypien. Williams rode pine for one more season, then retired. He finished 8-9 as Washington's quarterback.

He was pretty average, a hot-and-cold quarterback who might've been lost to history but for 15 minutes in Super Bowl XXII, when he wore the same burgundy and gold my dad grew up rooting against, and became more. He became important, in the way that Muhammad Ali was important.


And he remains important. Williams coached his alma mater, Grambling State, from 1998 until 2003, then had a second stint that started in 2011 and ended last September. Now it appears he's coming back to the Redskins, a team that could use some symbols of racial advancement right about now. Williams is in late negotiations with the organization about a front-office position. I know this because my dad told me. My dad's a gruff guy who doesn't get too caught up in too much feel-good symbolism. But even now, all these years later, he loves what Doug Williams stands for.

Doug Williams | 1978-1982, 1986-1989 | Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins

Drafted, 1st round (17 overall) | 88 games (81 starts) | 16,998 yards passing | 100 passing TDs | 93 INTs | 49.5 comp. % | 69.4 QB rating | 884 yards rushing | 15 rushing TDs | 41 fumbles

"He throws the ball like [1976 MVP] Bert Jones."—Morris Owens, Bucs wide receiver