25 years later, Doug Williams’ win still resonates

With less than 24 hours to go until the biggest game of his life — a game that blew open a door for black athletes and erased a stereotype that remained long after the civil rights movement — Doug Williams didn’t have his mind on football.

He couldn’t. He was focused on a toothache.

“You couldn’t imagine,” Williams said last week, recalling the weekend that changed his life (and, by extension, the lives of many others). “That tooth was just ... you couldn’t take your mind off of it.”

It might’ve been a blessing in disguise. All that pain might’ve served as distraction from the pressure.

Williams’ up-and-down life had moved from Chaneyville High to Grambling; from a superstar’s role in college to a roller-coaster ride with Tampa Bay; from Tampa Bay to the USFL; and from the USFL to a backup job in 1986 with the Washington Redskins, who elevated him to the starter’s role late in the ’87 season.

Now, a day before the game in San Diego on Jan. 31, 1988, he was on the verge of becoming the first black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl, against John Elway and the favored Denver Broncos.

But this pain in his jaw was a monster. Williams awoke that Saturday with a horrible toothache, and the pounding wouldn’t go away.

“If you’ve ever had one, it’s hard to explain,” he said. “You know it’s in that area, but you can’t explain it. You don’t know exactly where it is. ... The pain was all through my head, everything.”

So while teammates lounged around, he endured a four-hour emergency root canal. Luckily, the next morning, Williams woke up with no pain. His usual pregame treat, a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, was in his belly.

And his performance — 340 yards and four touchdowns, leading to Super Bowl XXII MVP honors — was even sweeter.

Thursday marks the 25th anniversary of Williams’ greatest game as a pro, one that all but eliminated the stereotype that black quarterbacks couldn’t handle the responsibilities of the position in the NFL.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“It just means a lot for what he’s done for guys (to) open doors as a quarterback,” said Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, who was 9 at the time of Super Bowl XXII.

But the anniversary brings to light another issue: In the quarter-century since Williams lit up the Denver defense, black quarterbacks have become commonplace, and black coaches and executives have risen to the championship level.

Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome could win his second ring as an executive Sunday when his team faces San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII. The 49ers are led by mixed-race quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who could become only the second minority QB to win a ring as a starter.

That Williams helped break down the barrier was hardly a given. He was 35-5 as a starter at Grambling, and the Bucs drafted him in the first round in 1978.

That, in itself, was something of an upset. Although several players came before Williams — Fritz Pollard took snaps in the 1920s, and Denver’s Marlin Briscoe started a game in 1968; he was followed by James Harris and others — for the better part of a half-century, black quarterbacks in pro football were incredibly rare.

“I would say that prior to Doug Williams winning the Super Bowl, there was this kind of informal, collaborative belief in the NFL that black quarterbacks didn’t have the ability to read defenses,” said Charles Ross, director of African-American studies at Ole Miss, who wrote a book about integration in pro football.

“There was this belief that black quarterbacks were better at the option, that they possessed the gifts. They could be good in college ... but in the pros, you needed someone who could just stay in the pocket and make throws to the outside.”

Williams could. In fact, a super-strong arm occasionally undermined his success: In Tampa, he sometimes fired 7-yard rockets when a softer touch would have been better.

Williams left the Bucs after a contract dispute, and after two years in the USFL, he signed in 1986 with the Redskins and coach Joe Gibbs, who was on Tampa Bay’s staff when it drafted Williams.

For the better part of two seasons, Williams was a backup to Jay Schroeder, who was talented but somewhat unpopular, even in the Washington locker room.

Williams took over late in the ’87 season, leading the team to wins over Chicago and Minnesota.

In the Super Bowl, the Redskins fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter, and Williams missed two plays after he twisted a knee — a setback that looked much worse at the time than it wound up being.

The second quarter became the most remarkable 15-minute stretch in Super Bowl history. It began when Williams hit Ricky Sanders on an 80-yard bomb, cutting the deficit to 10-7. It was the first of four TD throws by Williams, who also showed off his touch with soft, well-placed throws to Gary Clark and Clint Didier.

By halftime, the Redskins had a 35-10 lead, and they cruised to a 42-10 win.

Williams’ iconic coach at Grambling, the late Eddie Robinson, later said that the quarterback’s MVP performance was “the greatest thrill I’ve ever had in football. At my age, I thought I might never see a black quarterback in the Super Bowl.”

Sure, the Houston Oilers’ Warren Moon already had proved that black quarterbacks could not only play in the NFL, but excel. But once Williams performed so well on such a stage, the stereotype seemed to vanish.

“Doug Williams really shattered that unwritten belief system that was prevalent in NFL,” Ross said. “What he did could not be downplayed.”

Even 25 years later, Williams, now 57, said the memory of that day is vivid. People still stop him in airports, tell him where they were when they watched the Super Bowl and how much it meant to them.

He still remembers all the black quarterback-themed questions from reporters that week, the bus ride to the stadium, the toothache, everything.

His son D.J., now a sophomore quarterback at Grambling (where his dad is the coach again), can recall being an 8-year-old ball boy at Grambling more than a decade ago, signing autographs for grown men simply because he shared his father’s name.

Personally, Doug Williams said he felt a nearly equal thrill in 2006, when two black coaches — Indianapolis’ Tony Dungy and Chicago’s Lovie Smith — squared off in Super Bowl XLI.

That leads him to today, where a troubling question has arisen. The Rooney Rule, incepted in 2003, required NFL franchises interview at least one minority candidate during searches, and that led to more opportunities for black coaches.

But this offseason, when teams filled eight head-coaching jobs and seven GM positions, none went to minority candidates. Ross, the Ole Miss historian, noted that Smith was fired after a 10-win season with the Bears and remains out of work. Andy Reid, on the other hand, got a job in Kansas City on the heels of his final season with the Eagles, who went 4-12.

“It is a concern, but what can you do about it?” Williams said. “It’s out of your hands. They abide by the rules; they go through the process and make their decisions.”

This month, the Fritz Pollard Alliance wrote a letter to the NFL, suggesting an expansion of the Rooney Rule to cover coordinators.

“We believe pipeline issues are a part of the reason we’ve seen a reduction in head coaches of color over the past few years, and this expansion will diversify the head coaching pipeline,” the letter says. The NFL said in a statement that it’s “developing a plan for additional steps that will better ensure more diversity and inclusion on a regular basis in our hiring results.”

For his part, Williams said he believes that at some point, the NFL will correct course, through force or simple passage of time.

As he proved in 1988, pain sometimes serves as a precursor to a brighter moment.