Updated: January 30, 2016


By Art George- Special to BASN

Williams Wheaties

OAKLAND, CA.- History repeats itself, for those who would learn from it. The Denver Broncos are back in the Super Bowl, facing another Black quarterback in Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers. Three years ago the Broncos faced their second Black quarterback in Field General Russell Wilson and lost 43-8.  History also shows that in 1988 the Broncos of John Elway were beaten 42-10 by Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to play in and win a Super Bowl, in Super Bowl XXII, upon a record which still stands of most points scored (35) in a Super Bowl quarter or half.  Ironically, Williams’ win came for the Washington Football Club, which now refuses to change its “R-word” nickname which is perceived as a slur against Native Americans.


On that one golden afternoon twenty-eight years ago, Doug Williams was magical.  Four touchdown passes and a scoring run in the second quarter.  An 80-yard pass 53 seconds into the quarter, Washington’s first play. A 27-yarder just under four minutes later. Another four minutes, a 58-yard running touchdown by Timmy Smith.  Less than three minutes later, a 50-yard scoring pass. Two and a half minutes later, a short yardage pass for points. All were unanswered by Denver, which remained locked up for the rest of the game; Washington added another seven on a run by Smith in the fourth quarter.  Smith’s 204 yards also remain an individual Super Bowl record for yards gained.




Williams willed himself to victory, carrying with him the hopes of Black America, and an entire nation took notice. In the first quarter he slipped on the turf and fell to the ground in a complete split, hyper-extending his knee. Every Black football fan yelled at the same time “Man Get Up, Get Up” The mental energy must have been transmitted and received because Mr. Williams had the game of his life. He told team trainers not to touch him, and got himself up from the ground.

Jay Schroeder was put in for Williams for two plays, but Williams remembered from the previous season when Schroeder had waved him off the field after Schroeder took a hard hit and Williams was sent in to replace him.  Williams felt that he had been disrespected. The relationship had been strained all year.

In 1988, it was payback time.  This time, it was Williams who was not going to let Schroeder continue.  Williams limped back onto the field.  Coach Joe Gibbs recalled that Williams told Schroeder, “This is my team — out.”  Williams’ Washington teammates gave him time to re-assemble himself. And then the magic began.

Walking to the sideline after the first score, tackle Joe Jacoby, who is white, assured Williams. “Joe said, ‘White, Black, green, yellow. You’re our quarterback,’ ” Williams remembered to Sports Illustrated. “Then he patted me on the back and said, ‘We’re going to win with you.’ I knew then, it wasn’t an individual thing, and it wasn’t a Black thing. It was a team thing.”

Williams has said that the scoring could have been higher, that Washington played conservatively in the second half, threw only eight passes, and did not run up the score because the teams’ coaches had been friends and did not seek humiliation. “The second quarter reminded me of one of those nights you have in a high school basketball game when everything you throw up goes in. Every play we called was perfect.”



RESIZEDDoug Williams SI

Williams told Sports Illustrated that in the media interviews prior to the game he wanted to scream “I’m glad I’m doing this for Black America.” But he was fearful: “What if I had been a failure?”

“I would have been a bigger story as a loser than a winner,” Williams recalled to the Los Angeles Times on the  25th Anniversary of his victory.  “People would have said, ‘Yeah, we knew there was never a chance in hell Doug Williams could win this game.’ It would have reinforced all those years of doubts.”  The Rev. Al Sharpton recalled to ESPN that Williams had “more than a game on his back, he’s got history on his back, he’s got the whole dreams of the whole race . . . It wasn’t just another game, and he wasn’t just another player, not that day.”

But Williams’ day did not continue to beam as brightly as for other (white) athletes at the pinnacle of sports achievement. Few commercial endorsements came his way.  Walking off the field, he did the “I’m going to Disney World” commercial.  He and his team got on the Wheaties box.  But, otherwise, “A lot of people in corporate America probably feel like a lot of Black athletes are not saleable,” Williams told United Press International at the time. He also explained that he would not step outside of himself, or become outrageous, to build a higher profile. “If that’s what it takes to sell, I guess Doug Williams won’t sell because I’m going to be me. They have to take me for what I am. If they want that, they won’t have me at all.”

Despite his firsts for the Super Bowl and his place in history, Williams did not retain mythic status.  He had that one day when he was larger than life, but life moved on. Although the Washington club rewarded him with a new three-year contract worth a reported $3.5 million that made him at the time the highest paid player in team history,  within three years he was out of the game, injured, then cast aside as a player.

Six weeks after the Super Bowl, Williams would have surgery on his left knee for the fifth time. Then he had an appendectomy in the fourth week of the 1988 season, which caused him to miss four games. In August 1989 he had back surgery and lost his starting job to Mark Rypien who had an All-Pro season.  He did start two games that year when Rypien was benched, and relieved Rypien in two other games. The third year, he was placed on waivers and was unsigned.

Washington did not offer Williams a position in the organization befitting his status as a Super Bowl hero. He had to find personal meaning in his Super Bowl success. “I understood what my Super Bowl ring meant when I was released. It symbolized what it took to get there, what was inside my heart,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I was the MVP. I worked in the community. And they still cut me. I’m just a number. When you go in you’re a number, when you leave you’re a number.”



RESIZIED Doug Williams CloseUp

Williams had not been the starter for Washington for most of the 1987 season. He had begun the season as a backup to Jay Schroeder, and was in and out of games as Schroeder was injured or recovered. The season itself had been disrupted and shortened by a 24-day players’ strike.  Schroeder’s erratic play caused him to be benched for the last game of the season, and the playoffs, opening the opportunity for Williams.

Williams had come to Washington eight years after starring at Grambling State University. He was a four-year starter at Grambling, led the Tigers to three Southwestern Atlantic Conference Championships, and was Black College Player of the Year twice. In 1977, Williams led the NCAA in several categories, including total yards from scrimmage (3,249), passing yards (3,286), touchdown passes (38), and yards per play (8.6).  Williams finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

He was drafted seventeenth overall to play quarterback by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team which had lost 26 games in a row over the prior two seasons. Despite the success that Williams had in college, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs was the only NFL coach to visit Grambling to see Williams workout and scout him. Gibbs spent two days with the 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback, reviewing play books, film, and going through passing drills.

Impressed by his poise, work ethic, and studious nature, Gibbs wrote in his scouting report that Williams had “a big-time arm with perfect passing mechanics” and was “a natural leader… very academic and extremely prepared… football smart,” and recommended that the Buccaneers select Williams with their first round draft choice.

The Buccaneers decision to do so was controversial, and gutsy. At the time, sports sociologist Harry Edwards has recounted, there was a question in football minds as to whether Black players had the intelligence and decision-making capabilities to play quarterback.  In 1987, Williams told The Washington Post that criticism that “Doug Williams throws the ball too hard” was code for “we weren’t smart enough. We didn’t have touch. The same criticism followed another Grambling State University Alum, James “Shack” Harris despite taking the Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers to the playoffs. Williams proved he had the intelligence and the touch to win. A different form of that controversy remains today over the “mobility” of Black quarterbacks versus the stability of the pocket passer.




Williams played five years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, taking what had been a last place team to the playoffs and a conference title game. Williams is said to have done well considering the overall weakness of Tampa’s teams, and the pounding he took behind defective offensive lines. In his rookie season, he was 4-6 before suffering a broken jaw; he actually played the last game of that season with a jaw wired shut, unable to audible. The next year, he took a 10-6 Tampa team to the conference championship. The next year the team dropped to 5-10-1. Williams guided the team the next two years, losing to the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional championship and in a wild card match.

Williams was being paid $120,000 a year, less than any other quarterback in the league, and less than 12 backups. After the 1982 season, he sought a raise to $600,000, on a par with other starting quarterbacks; owner Hugh Culverhouse refused to budge from his offer of $400,000.  In the midst of these contract negotiations, Williams’ wife Janice died in April 1983 after surgery for a brain tumor.

Feeling insulted by Culverhouse and distraught at the death of his wife, Williams sat out of football for a year, and then spent two years in the United States Football League. In 2002, Culverhouse’s son, Hugh Culverhouse Jr. made amends of sorts, by making a $1 million donation to Grambling to assist students complete their educations after their playing eligibility had ended.  “Letting Doug Williams walk away from Tampa Bay was the epitome of my father’s overwhelming cheapness,” said Culverhouse Jr.

It was Coach Joe Gibbs, who had first scouted Williams for Tampa Bay out of Grambling, who reclaimed Williams for Washington. Williams was 32, eight years out of college, three years removed from the NFL. Not until the last game of the 1987 season was he given the starting job to keep through the playoffs.

Elway of the Broncos, on the other hand, was a known star: an All-American from Stanford, who had taken Denver to the Super Bowl the previous year, was named Most Valuable Player for the National Football League, and was back, in charge of the Broncos’ drive to Super Bowl XXII.  But on that day the Broncos crossed paths with Doug Williams’ long road to Super Bowl history.

Afterward, Williams would coach and scout, and then become head coach at Morehouse College in 1997 and then at Grambling for two stints 1998-2003 and 2011-2013. In between the Grambling assignments he worked in personnel and scouting positions for Tampa Bay. John Elway is now general manager of the Denver Broncos. In 2014, Doug Williams’ long journey returned him to the Washington football club as a personnel executive; history repeating itself, lessons learned.


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