- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

“Doug, how long have you been a black quarterback?”

Question supposedly asked Doug Williams before Super Bowl XXII.

According to sporting legend, a hapless media hack thusly and idiotically queried the Washington Redskins quarterback. Problem is, it never happened.

Seventeen years ago, the notion of a black man playing quarterback in the Super Bowl was novel enough to elicit great interest. Today — with the likes of Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick and Steve McNair cavorting in NFL venues — nobody cares. But Williams was the first to perform in the Roman Numeral spotlight, and he was nearly buried under questions with racial overtones the week before the game.

Williams himself was responsible for the legend. The question actually was, “Doug, obviously you’ve been a black quarterback all your life. When did race begin to matter to people?”

Unfortunately, Williams didn’t hear or misunderstood it, because he began his answer by saying, “How long have I been a black quarterback …?” So it was that a logical question, at least in the tenor of the times, would forever be held up to ridicule.

If Williams made a mistake in answering, he more than atoned a few days later when the Redskins and Denver Broncos met in that season’s ultimate game. In one of the greatest offensive eruptions by an NFL team, he led the Redskins to an incredible 35-point second quarter in what evolved into a 42-10 destruction of John Elway and the Broncos on Jan.31, 1988

Williams was a journeyman quarterback who would be out of the NFL two years later. But on that oh-so-sunny day before 73,302 spectators at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, he resembled all the great quarterbacks in NFL history rolled into one as the Redskins collected the second of Joe Gibbs’ three Super Bowl trophies.

And Williams’ achievements might have been more important on social rather than athletic fronts. In one quarter, he effectively destroyed any lingering racist idea that black quarterbacks weren’t good enough to lead NFL teams.

“I look at myself and say I’m blessed,” Williams said after the game. “I had the opportunity to talk with Dan Fouts and Jim Hart last week, and those guys never got to play in a Super Bowl. I’m lucky — that’s how I look at it. This is a team game, and we won it as a team.”

Oddly, the first quarter hinted at a potential rout the other way. The Redskins were trailing 10-0 when it ended, and it looked liked a repeat of their 38-9 drubbing by the Los Angeles Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII was unfolding. That suspicion grew stronger when Williams suffered a hyperextended left knee late in the quarter and yielded to backup Jay Schroeder for two plays.

Eddie Robinson, the coaching genius who had developed Williams at Grambling State, sought help from a higher power when he saw his former pupil lying on the ground. Said Robinson: “When Doug went down, I pointed up and said, ‘I know you didn’t bring me all the way out here from Louisiana for this.’”

The injury seemed just the latest mishap in a bad weekend for Williams. The day before the game, he underwent four hours of root canal surgery on his lower right molar. He insisted he felt no ill effects, but there was some doubt after the Redskins failed to move the ball in the first quarter, with several passes being dropped by nervous receivers.

But then came the deluge. Here’s what the Redskins did in the second quarter:

• Scored on an 80-yard pass-and-run play from Williams to Ricky Sanders.

• Scored on a 27-yard pass from Williams to Gary Clark.

• Scored on a 58-yard run by Timmy Smith, who set a Super Bowl record with 204 yards rushing.

• Scored on a 50-yard pass from Williams to Sanders.

• Scored on an 8-yard pass from Williams to Clint Didier.

Not even the Chicago Bears, in their 73-0 devastation of the Redskins in the 1940 NFL title game, had mounted such a blitz in one quarter. And of course, Super Bowl records fell like so much burgundy and gold confetti.

Williams completed nine of 11 passes for 228 yards and four touchdowns in the quarter. Sanders caught five passes for 161 yards and two TDs. Rookie Smith had 122 yards on five carries. As a team, the Redskins gained 356 yards on 18 plays in the period, a 20.3-yard average. And all this was done in just 5:47 of possession time.

Meanwhile, Elway completed just two of 12 passes in the quarter and was intercepted twice. In fairness, he probably was in shock long before the teams reached a halftime that must have seemed interminable to the Broncos.

Asked after the game to describe the second quarter, Elway replied tersely, “They made some big plays, and we never answered the bell.”

It was this game — this quarter, really — that paved Gibbs’ path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Earlier, he had split two Super Bowls with the Redskins, defeating Miami in XVII but being blown out by the Raiders in XVIII. During the 1987 season, however, his leadership skills were obvious to everyone in football.

Coaching scabs during the players’ strike early in the season, Gibbs won three games and kept the team’s momentum flowing, even beating a Dallas team with many of its regulars. The Redskins finished with an 11-4 record, then defeated Chicago 21-17 and Minnesota 17-10 in the NFC playoffs.

But the biggest triumph of all belonged to Doug Williams more than anyone else. After the game, officials escorted Robinson to the field, where Williams’ old coach told him, “You won’t understand the importance of what you did until later. This is like Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling [in 1938].”

Throughout all the postgame hullabaloo, as an estimated 100,000 Redskins fans celebrated on M Street in Georgetown, Williams was the calmest person around. That might have been because he knew how ephemeral football fame could be — and actually would prove in his case. During his career, he experienced five knee operations, a back operation, a separated shoulder, a broken jaw, an appendectomy and the loss of his wife, Janice, to a brain tumor in 1983. When Gibbs signed him as a backup in 1986, the coach was taking a distinct chance.

In five seasons as a starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and two in the USFL, Williams had been so erratic that wags called him the only man who could overthrow the Ayatollah in Iran. Yet his football smarts were never in question. After being a head coach at Morehouse College and Grambling State, he rejoined the Bucs this season as a personnel executive.

And 17 years ago for one glorious quarter — literally his 15 minutes of fame — Doug Williams was on top of the football world.

“The Redskins didn’t bring me here to become the first black quarterback in the Super Bowl,” he told the panting media before Super Bowl XXII. “They brought me here to be the quarterback of a Super Bowl team.”

That’s as it should have been — and so brilliantly was.

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