After 25 years, Doug Williams finally soaks in Super Bowl win

by | National NFL Insider

GRAMBLING, La. -- San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will soon attempt something only one other person has done in almost half a century of Super Bowls: be a starting quarterback of African-American descent to win the game.

This is the 25th anniversary of the first and only man to do it. That man lives just a five-hour drive away from all the Super Bowl hoopla in New Orleans. He is a grand piece of American history that almost no one is talking about. And, at the moment, he is sobbing.

Doug Williams is a strong, noble person. Always has been. He's not one to easily cry, but sitting in a chair, watching himself as a Washington Redskins player 25 years ago on a large screen, reliving one of the most important moments in sports history, he suddenly becomes overwhelmed with emotion.

Williams agreed to sit with and watch the game that caught the attention of presidents, social historians, bigots and the ordinary man and woman alike, particularly, the African-American man and woman. That game was Super Bowl XXII, where Williams became the first black man to win a Super Bowl as a quarterback. He was named the game's MVP after going 18 of 29 for 340 yards and four touchdown passes in a 42-10 hammering of John Elway's Denver Broncos.

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We watched the game in an auditorium on the Grambling campus. Williams, shockingly, has never sat down and watched it like this -- almost every vital snap -- and he begins by retelling what went through his mind as he was introduced to the Jack Murphy Stadium crowd and a national television audience 25 years ago. "The idea of getting there," he said. "When I think about coming out those chutes. The road I had to travel to get there. So many things were going through my mind at the time ..."

The screen shows a tall and lanky Williams as ABC's cameras move closer to Williams. "Twenty-five years later it's kind of an emotional thing," he said. "... knowing who was in the stands, my mom ..."

Then, Williams started to cry. Not long before that game, his wife had died from complications arising from a brain tumor. His father couldn't make it to the game because of illness. As he took in the moment, and the anthem played, these were some of his thoughts. There were others. There was the historical aspect and how Williams had annihilated the common belief in football at the time that blacks lacked the mental necessities to play the position.

There was the road he took to get there. Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse paid him just $120,000 a year, making him the lowest-paid starter in football. He was paid less than a dozen backups in the league. Then there was going to the USFL. Then the USFL folding. After that, the Redskins. The only team calling.

"When I think about coming out of those chutes," he said, "and the road I had to travel to get there ..."

Joe Gibbs treated Williams with the kind of respect Williams had rarely seen. Gibbs invited Williams over to his house to have dinner with his wife and children. Then, in the 1988 postseason, Williams was named the starter by Gibbs, and in classic fairy-tale form, led Washington to the Super Bowl. In that game Washington scored five second-quarter touchdowns in just 18 plays. It's considered by many the greatest quarter of football in Super Bowl history.

It's only in watching the game with Williams that it can be truly digested just exactly how he was able to not just win the game but also how he was able to do so with the thorniness of race as a constant backdrop. An example of how far society and football has traversed? Williams was asked at every opportunity by the media about his ethnicity, while the topic of Kaepernick's race has rarely been discussed this week.

Williams begins with describing the week of practice for Washington leading up to the game. The Redskins were significant underdogs because the press viewed Williams as a journeyman and Elway as royalty. But Williams, as he watches the first quarter beginning on the screen, remembered that Washington players knew they were going to win following what was a stunningly efficient week of practice.

"The greatest week of football practice I've ever been associated with was in San Diego," he said.

It didn't seem as if that week of practice would pay off. The Broncos jumped to a 10-0 lead.

Then the first dramatic moment of the game came. Williams' planting foot slipped on the turf and he hyperextended his knee.

"Oh, there you go," Williams says now, seeing the injury on the screen. "Watch my right leg."

The leg moves backward quickly and Williams practically does a split. Team trainers move in and Williams tells them to stay away. He leaves the field for several plays. On the sideline, Williams took two Advils. "There was no way I was missing this game," he said. " ... if you're going to let a little pain stop you from getting to the mountaintop, you don't deserve to be at the mountaintop."

Then came the second quarter.

"Joe Gibbs came to the bench and said, 'You ready?'" Williams remembered. Williams said he was despite the pain in his knee.

The first touchdown was a play called "Charlie-10-Hitch" and it was supposed to be a shorter route but Denver defensive back Mark Haynes jammed receiver Ricky Sanders too loosely and Sanders ran right by him. Williams, his knee still aching, threw the football perfectly. Williams watches the play, smiles, and says humbly, "Ricky ran under it."

Washington's next offensive series: He threw another perfect pass, this one for 27 yards. It was 14-10. The passes opened up a Timmy Smith 58-yard touchdown run. It was 21-10. Then, another great throw, this one leading to a 50-yard score and 28-10 lead. Another Williams score and it was 35-10 -- this throw was a corner route with the ball put neatly into the hands of tight end Clint Didier.

The game was over at halftime.

Williams was 9 for 11 for 228 yards and four scores. In the second quarter alone.

At halftime, assistant coach Joe Bugel approached Williams and said that since the game was basically over, if Williams was in too much pain, he could sit in the second half. Williams refused. "I told them I wanted to take the shot," Williams said.

Williams took a pain-killing injection in the knee.

As Williams watches his younger self on the screen there isn't pride as much as happiness and a sort of re-realization of just what he was able to accomplish. Williams says he doesn't have pride in being the only African-American to win a Super Bowl because he wants others to do the same. "I am appalled it hasn't happened [again] but at some point it will," he said.

That point could be Sunday. Kaepernick was quoted last week by Newsday that it would be special to duplicate Williams' feat. "It's a great opportunity to show it doesn't matter what your skin color is," said Kaepernick.

Williams stressed the NFL has been neglectful in commemorating his achievement. He's right.

Williams remembers how in the tunnel, at the end of the game, he saw his mentor and former coach Eddie Robinson, the legendary Grambling leader. Robinson told Williams that he wouldn't be able to appreciate the importance of the moment until years later. This is a fact Williams says would prove accurate.

But in that moment Robinson said something else. Robinson told Williams he compared the moment to when Robinson saw Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling in 1938, which is considered one of the most pivotal moments in African-American history. Williams knew how much that moment meant to men and women like Robinson.

The end of the game plays on the screen and Williams is getting congratulated by teammates. It's announced Williams had won the MVP. On the screen, he smiles, soaking it all in. Twenty-five years later, Williams re-watched the moment, and did the same.


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