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Black Quarterbacks

Doug Williams’ journey from Grambling to Super Bowl history

He’s much more than the first black quarterback to win the big game


Long before Doug Williams became a hero to Washington Redskins fans and an inspiration to African-Americans in a groundbreaking Super Bowl win, he was already a star quarterback at Grambling State University. After his historic playing career ended, Williams then coached his alma mater to championships. Later, he was a scout and a player-personnel executive. And today, Williams is a high-ranking NFL team official.

At every stop along his football journey, Williams has displayed the same dignity he showed in the week leading up to the 1988 Super Bowl. He’ll forever be revered by black folks for shattering the racist myth that African-American passers lacked the intellect, skills and heart to win at the sport’s highest level. But Williams is much more than merely the first African-American quarterback to start in a Super Bowl and be selected the game’s MVP. He’s a leader who is acutely aware of his place in black history and strives each day to honor the people who paved the roads he walked.

“I never forget that a whole lot of people went through a lot more than Doug Williams ever had to,” Williams said recently. “So when you think about the things you’ve done in your life, things that have helped people who came up behind you, it makes you feel good that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.”

Thirty years ago, Williams uplifted an entire race.

He threw four touchdown passes as part of a 35-point, 356-yard second quarter – the highest-scoring quarter in NFL postseason history – in the Washington Redskins’ 42-10 Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos. Under an intense spotlight before the game because of his race, Williams handled the pressure deftly and produced spectacularly.

Joe Gibbs remembers. The Hall of Fame head coach orchestrated the Redskins’ offense that day in San Diego, calling the plays that Williams directed so well during the Redskins’ stunning second-quarter run.

“As soon as we get there, everybody [in the media] is talking about the fact that Doug is the first black quarterback who’s going to play in the Super Bowl,” said Gibbs, who led the Redskins to three Super Bowl championships. “To be quite truthful, I didn’t realize it. I didn’t even really look at it that way. I was just looking at it like Doug Williams is our quarterback. And Doug … gosh, he played great.”

Williams, however, was keenly aware of the situation.

He knew many would view his performance as a litmus test for the competence of all black quarterbacks. Of course, it would be grossly unfair to judge everyone of a particular race on how one individual fared in one task on one given day. But to that point in the NFL, black passers generally hadn’t been treated fairly.

“The politics of it, you knew that would be there,” said Williams, now Washington’s senior vice president of player personnel. “I knew people would be watching what I did. And depending on what I did, there was going to be a lot of talk. But I couldn’t get caught up in all of that because it wasn’t just about Doug Williams. The Washington Redskins went there to win.”

Williams’ signature accomplishment as a quarterback was especially important for other black men who played football’s most important position.

For 10 years, Jason Campbell was an NFL signal-caller. A former first-round draft pick of the Redskins, Campbell relied on Williams’ counsel throughout his career.

“The thing about Doug is, he went through so many tough times and he still got to the top in this game,” Campbell said. “Doug made it to where I was hoping to go in my career, so why wouldn’t I talk to Doug about how to try to get there?

“And some guys say they want to help young guys, but Doug really did. He was true with it. So I’ll always appreciate what Doug did for me when I played.”

At the lowest point of his life, Marlin Briscoe, the first African-American quarterback to start in the game’s modern era, found hope while watching Williams torch the Broncos.

“I watched the game in jail,” Briscoe said. “But I felt I was a part of what Doug did. I felt like what I did all those years ago helped Doug. It was the best feeling I had had in a long time.”

It was fitting that Williams broke through one of the game’s toughest barriers.

After a stellar career at Grambling, Williams also was the first African-American quarterback to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft post-merger. Williams learned a lot from legendary Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson – especially about life as a black man in America.

“You have to understand: I went to Grambling. I played for Eddie Robinson,” said Williams, who succeeded his mentor at Grambling. “When it comes to blacks and whites and history, I understand about that.

“I understand how I was looked at when I played. I understand how we [all black quarterbacks] were looked at in different points of football history. But what I showed, and other guys showed, is that we can play this game as well as anybody. And win.”

As Williams walked off the field after the Redskins’ Super Bowl victory in San Diego, Robinson met him in the stadium’s tunnel. “We both were crying,” Williams said. “Coach Robinson said to me, ‘Man, you ain’t old enough to understand this, but today is like Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling [in a 1938 heavyweight bout].’ I went back and read about how much that meant to America. The whole country was talking about it. And that’s what coach Robinson likened it to.”

In a different era, Williams also drew the nation’s attention. And he delivered a knockout, too.

Liner Notes

The Undefeated profiled 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marked 30 years since Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the big game.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.