January 31st will mark the 20th Anniversary of Doug Williams historical Super Bowl XXII MVP performance and the epic performance still resonates today.
January 30, 2008
(Philadelphia, Pa) --- The date of January 31st maybe just another day of anticipation for many NFL fans as they count down the days toward Super Bowl XLII and the Giants quest to stop the Patriots climb to perfection. But the date should be marked with a moment of reflection throughout the NFL and in society. Ironically the day before the start of black history month will mark the 20th Anniversary of Doug Williams’ MVP performance in Super Bowl XXII. The final score in San Diego, California that day may have been Washington Redskins 42, Denver Broncos 10, but the victory was one of those magical moments where sports and society collide in such a way that the explosion goes far beyond the reaches of the sports venue, making everyone take notice. Williams stunning Super Bowl MVP performance not only uplifted the Redskins and their fans, but it meant so much more. The former Grambling State quarterback’s effort was truly historical as he negated long held drastic misconceptions and stereotypes regarding a “black” quarterback’s ability to lead his team to the NFL’s ultimate prize -- Williams even said before the 1988 Super Bowl, ''I know, some people thought we (black quarterbacks) weren't smart enough.''
The Redskins victory that day set off a celebration around the United States especially in the African American community that still reverberates today. The Super Bowl XXII victory was a culminating event that many blacks had been praying for -- I can still remember the Pastor of my church asking our congregation the morning of the game to watch and pray for Doug and his team. Legendary Grambling State football coach the late Eddie Robinson referred to the experience of watching his prized pupil from the stands that day as the greatest moment in his career. Coach Rob after the game through teary eyes told Williams that the win was a “Joe Louis - Max Schemling moment” and that the young quarterback would not be able to comprehend it until he was much older. The venerable coach was teaching his former player another lesson this time regarding the societal significance of his feat and cementing the fact that this was not just another championship. It meant so much more the same way the Brown Bomber’s demolition of the “perceived” German superman some forty-two years before had made everyone walk with their heads a little bit higher.
“Joe Louis – Max Schemling” moments are so rare that sometimes everyone including the viewers and participants don’t fully understand them until they are over. The event is usually accompanied by goose pimpled arms and lasting memories that will never fade. Much like the “Do you believe in miracles”, 1980 United States Hockey team’s win over Russia on their way to an improbable gold medal in the Winter Olympics, memories of Super Bowl XXII and Williams efforts do the same for many people –- Heck even my Mom and Grandmother who are not sports fans talk about the Doug Williams Super Bowl with glee. January 31, 1988 will always be remembered as the day Doug Williams from the small town of Zachary, Louisiana –- a place where Williams can still vividly remember the Klan parading through the town -- proved that a “black” quarterback could get it done.
What made the moment so special was that the veteran quarterback had survived a circuitous career first playing in the NFL for the volatile Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then in the USFL before reaching the mountain top. Williams recently told my BIGPLAY Football podcast audience in an interview for the book Third a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback (Listen to BPR #60 here), that just one year before the game he was at home figuring his career was over when Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs –- a huge supporter of Williams going back to their days together in Tampa Bay -- called looking for a veteran backup. Williams almost leapt through the phone as he accepted his only chance to return to the NFL even if it meant he would have to be Jay Schroeder’s backup. The cagey veteran sat through most of the ’87 season and then throughout the 1988 season, he watched as Schroeder struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness. Sensing a change was needed going into the playoffs, the future hall of fame coach decided to bench Schroeder for the playoffs and started Williams in his place. It was a risky move to some, but Gibbs and many others -- It was widely known around the league that most of the Redskins locker room was firmly behind Williams -- believed in the veteran leader and there was no “black quarterback” talk.
The Redskins responded by beating the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings on their way to Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos. But with the country’s biggest game coming up many wondered if the pressure cooker of the Super Bowl would get to the first African American Quarterback to start in the game. Leading up to the game all the talk was of the Redskins being underdogs (3 ½ points) with the expectation that the Broncos and their star quarterback John Elway would easily win the game. Elway was cast as the “Golden Boy” and Williams of course as the “black” quarterback by a good majority of the media. The media hounded Williams with questions about him being the first black to start in a Super Bowl game and one befuddled media member even asked him the galling question “So how long have you been a black quarterback?”, which he did not answer. Williams decided to take the high road with a veteran mindset that the Super Bowl was a “football game first” and that he needed to prepare to win. He told my listener audience that he approached all of the hype and pioneer talk around the game as “Winning was the only thing on his mind and that he was the quarterback of the Washington Redskins first”.
His cool veteran demeanor served him well in a game that didn’t start out as well as expected -- to say the least. Williams twisted his knee in the first quarter -– I recently joked with him how everyone in my house hollered, “Get Up !!” and he said he was thinking the same thing while laying on the turf -– with the Broncos jumping out to a 10-0 lead. After instructing/pleading with the trainer to “Give him a minute” and saying “If I can stand I will be okay”, Williams took one play off and responded with a second quarter that some say was the greatest performance by a quarterback while setting Super Bowl records of 228 yards passing with four touchdowns in one quarter. With each pass to receivers Ricky Sanders, Gary Clark, and Art Monk, I could hear Sly and the Family Stone’s song “Can You Take Me Higher” in my head as the whooping and hollering was at a fever pitch in our Philadelphia home of all places, which was deep in Eagles country and was nowhere near a Redskins haven –- But on January 31, 1988 everyone was a Doug Williams fan. The game was basically over at the half and Williams finished the game with a then Super Bowl record 340 yards and 4 TD’s in the triumph and was named the MVP.
Williams’ victory was hailed as a defining moment in American sports, it may not have been Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it was a significant event that brought people of all races to their feet. Twenty years later, I firmly do believe that it was a watershed moment that opened the floodgates of opportunity to the quarterback position for African American players at all levels in football. From peewee to high school to college to the NFL there are now hundreds and possibly thousands of African Americans playing the position including 19 on NFL rosters in 2007 -- who knows what would have happened if Williams hadn’t won Super Bowl XXII. All of the young African American quarterbacks that we are seeing excel today from mega high school recruit Terrelle Pryor to Vince Young ‘need to recognize’ as they all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Williams and the other pioneering black quarterbacks (Joe Gilliam, Willie Thrower, Marlin Briscoe, James Harris, Warren Moon, and many others) for the path that they blazed.
Williams, now a key member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers personnel department, said about his historic Super Bowl performance “At the time it was hard to imagine the impact when it is yourself”, “When you look back on it, you realize that you are walking history”.
--- Submitted by Lloyd Vance