The position of quarterback has been a microcosm of the black man's struggle in America—a door supposedly “open to all”—except for us of a darker hue who continuously knock, kick, and scream until an answer comes.
For 80 years, the black man has fought tooth and nail to lead a professional football franchise to glory. Many came before Doug Williams, and some of them may have even been better skilled. But looking back on the life of Douglas Lee Williams—none were better prepared.
My mother says, “The Lord chooses whom he will.” If you ask Williams about being the Chosen One, he places it at the feet of hard work, opportunity, and determination more than anything.
Born the sixth of eight children in Zachary, LA, to Robert and Laura Williams, Doug learned the lessons of hard work at an early age. His father was wounded in the attacks on Pearl Harbor, but was able to make a living as a construction worker and nightclub manager. His mother worked as a school cook. Money was hard to come by in the Williams household, but it remained a close-knit home.
Williams was active in all sports, especially in football, where he found his niche at quarterback.
Coming out of high school, Doug was only recruited by two schools, Southern University and Grambling State University. It was Williams’ conversation with legendary coach Eddie Robinson that won Williams over and convinced him to attend Grambling.
It would be one of several conversations with Robinson that would carry Williams through the course of his life.
Williams’ freshman season at Grambling was a forgettable one—he was redshirted, which resulted in his grades and confidence dropping off. His father was so troubled that he considered removing Williams from school and finding him work. His sophomore season worked out better—he was penciled in as the team’s third-string quarterback.
Once again, not feeling satisfied with the results, Williams considered leaving the team, but coach Robinson talked him into staying on.
When it seemed darkest for Williams—opportunity presented itself. The Tigers' starting quarterback was lost to injury, allowing Williams to work his way into the starting role. From that day on, Williams would not relinquish the position. He would finish out the remainder of the 1974 season, and his remaining three seasons, as Grambling’s signal caller.
Williams enjoyed a magnificent career for the Tigers. He would win 35 of 40 games as a starter, while winning four consecutive SWAC titles. In 1977, Williams was named a first team All-American by the Associated Press and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
He would leave Grambling with 8,411 passing yards and 93 touchdowns, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Health and Physical Education.
In the 1978 NFL Draft, Williams would be the first quarterback taken, with the 17th overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Other notables selected: Earl Campbell, Art Still, Wes Chandler, James Lofton, Clay Matthews, Mike Kenn, John Jefferson, and Ozzie Newsome...and that was just the first round.
Williams' rookie season began with a contract dispute that would eventually end with him making $565,000 for five seasons. In spite of his late arrival, he would win the starting job, and he led the downtrodden Bucs to an 4-4 record through eight games.
In Week 10, Williams would suffer a broken jaw, an injury from which he would recover from in time to play in the season finale. Despite a shortened season, Williams would be named to the NFL’s All-Rookie Team.
The 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed to be a team of destiny, finishing the season 10-6. They would go on to win the Central Division and face the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round of the NFC Playoffs.
I remember this game vividly, because of the three names I heard all afternoon: Lee Roy Selmon, Ricky Bell (who the Eagles could not stop for anything), and Doug Williams. It was a long day for Jaws and the vaunted Philly O-line who had no answer for Selmon. Williams did just enough to win, as the Bucs would go on to record one of the great upsets in NFL history.
The following week the Bucs would host the NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams. Williams tore his biceps muscle, and missed most of the third and all of the fourth quarter, and despite a yeoman defensive effort, the Bucs would fall 9-0.
Williams would have to wait eight more years before his next shot at the Super Bowl.
For eight years, there was no game plan or pregame speech that could prepare Doug Williams for the all-out blitz he was going to encounter.
In 1982, things got off to a good start. Williams married Janice Goss, and he would once again lead the Bucs to the playoffs in a strike-shortened season. Again the Bucs would fall short to the Dallas Cowboys 30-17. Williams' initial contract with the Bucs had expired, and with contract negotiations looming, Williams looked forward to a windfall payday.
But it was not to be.
Bucs management offered Williams $400,000 per season. As negotiations continued, Williams' wife began to experience severe headaches. In April of 1983, it was discovered that a brain tumor had developed, surgery was scheduled immediately to remove the tumor, but Janice died a week later.
With his life shattered and career in limbo, Williams would head back to Zachary. His stay there would bring little comfort. His father Robert would develop health problems that would lead to the amputation of both legs. Williams’ talks with the Bucs would ultimately break down, ending his association with the club.
During Williams’ negotiations with the Bucs, the United States Football League (USFL) was formed. Bill Tatham, owner of the Oklahoma Outlaws, reached out to Williams and offered him a substantial contract. Williams played three seasons in the USFL. He was unsure that he would receive an offer from the NFL, so he took a coaching job at Southern University.
In 1986, the USFL officially folded. Williams was just settling in at Southern U. when he received an unlikely call from Washington Redskins' head coach Joe Gibbs, who knew Williams from his years in Tampa Bay.
Williams would sign with the ‘Skins as the backup to Jay Schroeder. But Gibbs saw bigger things for Williams. In a conversation with ‘Skins owner Jack Kent Cooke, Gibbs let his confidence in Williams be known.
“‘I’m not going to pay him $500,000 to be a backup," Cooke said. But Gibbs was adamant, "He may not be a backup, He may win a Super Bowl for us one day."
Despite a new lease on his football career, Williams’ personal difficulties continued. He married Lisa Robinson in June of 1987, but the union only lasted about five months.
Jay Schroeder was the opening day starter, and he was injured in the opener against the Eagles. Williams would become the starter, but a 24-day strike allowed Schroeder to heal. Again, as fate would allow, Williams would hurt his back and Schroeder would regain his starting job. Williams was reduced to tears, as his final shot seemed wasted as the playoffs loomed.
In the season’s final game the ‘Skins needed a win against the Vikings to get a higher seed, and possibly home field in the playoffs. Schroeder plays a terrible first half and is pulled by Gibbs in the third quarter. Williams is put in, leads the ‘Skins to victory, and is named the starter for the playoffs.
Williams would throw three touchdowns in the Redskins' two playoff victories against the Bears and Vikings.
Although the Denver Broncos, a stupid question, a toothache, and a hyper-extended knee stood in the way of history, it would take an embarrassment from the previous season, and the hopes of those that came before him, to pull Williams through.
The Denver Broncos were led by John Elway, who had become a sympathetic figure in the eyes of many after leading his team through one of the greatest drives in NFL history to reach Super Bowl XXI. The Broncos would be trounced by the Giants in Super Bowl XXI. This was his second crack at the Lombardi Trophy.
Media week at the Super Bowl brings out some of the best soundbytes that you’ll probably get the entire week. The dumbest soundbyte was a question that came from a reporter who asked Williams, “How long have you been a black quarterback?” Williams’ response was, “Well, I’ve been black all my life.” The reporter really wanted to know how long had Williams had the intelligence to be a quarterback, while disguised as a black man.
The morning before the Super Bowl, Williams woke up with a sore tooth and a headache. The dentist could only do a root canal to promise Williams would be pain-free. Williams went through with the root canal. That night he even indulged in his pregame snack—a bag of Hershey’s kisses.
Denver had jumped out to a 10-0 lead when the inexplicable happens. Williams drops back, and the grass comes from under his feet, hyperextending his knee. He miraculously returns, but it’s the motivation behind the return that is the true miracle.
In the 1986 NFC Championship Game against the Giants, Jay Schroeder was knocked silly by Lawrence Taylor. Gibbs sent Williams onto the field to sub for Schroeder, but Schroeder furiously waved Williams off. As if to say, "I’d rather fall on my own sword in defeat, before I allow you to lead us to victory."
Williams took that show of disrespect and filed it away, vowing that if the tables ever turned, Schroeder would never be under center as long as they wore the same uniform.
Williams would return and on his first play from scrimmage, he hit Ricky Sanders with an 80-yard strike to cut the lead to 10-7. After a Denver punt, Williams found Gary Clark on a 27-yard touchdown pass. Unsung hero Timmy Smith (202 rushing yards) broke off a 58-yard scamper to make the score 21-10. Williams wasn’t done yet. Before halftime, he would throw his third and fourth touchdowns of the quarter to Sanders and tight end Clint Didier, respectively.
Before you could blink, Williams had thrown four touchdowns in the second quarter, and the ‘Skins put up a total of 35 points on the Broncos, which put the game out of reach before halftime. The Broncos would not score again in a 42-10 defeat.
Williams had made history, and in his contribution, he carried the spirits of those before him: Fritz Pollard, Willie Thrower, George Taliaferro, Sandy Stephens, Marlin Briscoe, James "Shack" Harris, Joe Gilliam, John Walton, and Vince Evans.
When a door seemed closed, Williams kept coming back. Whether it was the death of his young wife or a root canal, Doug Williams just kept getting up. Williams may never get into the Hall of Fame, and he may never become a head coach in the NFL. But for one day in January, Doug Williams was the greatest football player on the planet.
Because he was prepared to be.