by Sam Monson
One of the NFL’s favourite trivia questions is: ‘who is the only black QB to win the SuperBowl?’, and most people know the answer is Doug Williams, but is that all people should remember about him, or did Doug Williams actually have a lot more to his career than anybody remembers?
Williams wasn’t the NFL’s first black QB, but he was one of the first, at a time where there was still a significant train of thought that believed firmly that black athletes simply didn’t have the ‘intangibles’, the intelligence, to play the position at the NFL level. Having graduated High School at the beginning of integration in the SEC, Williams elected to attend Grambling St, where he won the starting job in his freshman season, and compiled a record of 40-6 in his 4 seasons there. After finishing 4th in the Heisman voting his senior season Williams became the first black QB drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft who wasn’t being drafted to switch positions. Even Warren Moon was asked to switch positions coming out of college, such was the prevalence of this opinion. Williams was drafted 17th overall in the 1978 draft, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers , who before Williams’ arrival had opened their existence with 26 consecutive defeats before finally winning their final 2 games of the 1977 season.
In 1979, Williams led the Bucs to a 5-0 start, and the NFC Central division title, their first playoff appearance, where they upset the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round, before finally losing to the Rams 9-0. Midway through the game against the Rams, Williams tore the bicep in his throwing arm, preventing him from being able to lead a comeback. Williams led the Bucs back to the playoffs in 1981 and the strike shortened season of 1982 before becoming involved in a bitter contract dispute with Buccaneers owner, Hugh Culverhouse. This dispute eventually caused Doug Williams to leave the team. He was missed immediately as Tampa Bay plummeted to a 2-14 record, starting a string of 14 consecutive losing seasons. Many fans blame this horrific run of results on Culverhouse and his refusal to bend in the Doug Williams contract negotiations. Money wasn’t the only issue that forced Williams out of Tampa Bay though, he was struck with personal tragedy. During the contract dispute, Williams’ wife of less than a year died of a brain tumour. Williams would later say I didn’t think Hugh Culverhouse, who was the owner, cared whatever happened to me, along with his General Manager. They didn’t care… It was this feeling as much as anything that caused Williams to leave Tampa Bay.
In 1983 Doug Williams found himself out of football. He wouldn’t find a home until he joined the rival USFL in 1984. Unfortunately Williams found himself on pretty dire football teams, and struggled through 2 seasons with the Oklahoma, then Arizona Outlaws before the league folded in 1986. It was then that the coach that had originally recommended Williams to Tampa Bay in the 1978 draft got in touch, and asked Williams if he would come to Washington to be a backup QB. That coach was Joe Gibbs. Gibbs was a first year offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay in 1978 when he was the only NFL coach who came to see Doug Williams before the draft. It was Gibbs’ glowing recommendation that led to Tampa drafting Williams 17th overall.
The guy’s a special guy
Despite Williams coming in for an injured Jay Schroeder just 4 minutes into the 1987 season opener and leading the Redskins to a win against Philadelphia it took until midway through the season, after the player strike, with the Redskins at 6-2, for Joe Gibbs to bench his starting QB in the middle of a game. Williams entered in the 2nd quarter, with the score tied at 3, and threw 2 touchdowns to win the game. It became apparent that not only was Doug Williams a fine player in his own right, but his attitude and the way he appreciated his teammates, meant that he made players around him better also. Williams had the gift of making others rally around him. After rallying his team from 21 points down against the Rams to within 4 points, Williams sustained a back injury. Despite this injury he played on, and had 2 chances to win the game in the final moments, with both throws hitting Art Monk in the hands, neither being completed for the game winning TD. The injury was to put Williams out for the next game against the Giants, and Schroeder played well enough in a comeback win to be named the starting QB again. This wasn’t to last, and in the season finale Schroeder struggled badly enough to be benched. Williams again took his chance, leading the Redskins to a 3 point victory over the Vikings, and played well enough for Joe Gibbs to name him the starter going into the playoffs. From that point on Williams drove his team to his finest moment, SuperBowl XXII.
Trailing 10-0 against John Elway’s Broncos, and having hyperextended his knee early in the game, Williams played through the pain to earn an MVP award, and to win the game. I’m thinking in my mind, ‘if I’m able to get up and walk, I’m going to finish this football game, pain or no pain.’ After the injury Williams threw for 340 yards, and 4 TDs, thanks largely to the performance of the Washington Redskins O-line. The Offensive line knew I was hurt, and they knew that the most important thing was not to let anybody touch Doug Williams. Said Williams, showing to this day how much respect and credit he would hand out to his teammates. I’d never seen an offensive line, dominate a defensive front like our offensive line did, and I’ll never, ever, forget what they did for me on that particular day.
Centre Jeff Bostic sums up the feeling about Doug Williams from his teammates when he says You love a guy like Doug Williams. The guy’s a special guy, and I couldn’t have been happier for anybody on that team.
A true leader
After winning the Super Bowl, Doug Williams would only be able to play 2 more seasons with the Washington Redskins, before knee and back injuries forced him to hang up his cleats for good. Williams had a career that was blighted by injuries, and unfortunate situations often beyond his control, but in his relatively short career he had 100 passing TDs and 15 rushing TDs in just 88 NFL games.
Predictably, Doug Williams could never leave the game that he loves, and his life has been moving full circle since he began his coaching career at Northeast High School in his hometown of Zachary, La. This coaching career took him back to Grambling State University in 1998 where he led the Tigers to 3 consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference titles from 2000-2002, succeeding the legendary Eddie Robinson, from whom Williams himself learned as a QB for Grambling. Williams then returned to his NFL roots, where he became a personnel executive for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002.
Today Doug Williams is remembered as being the only black QB to win the Super Bowl, but he’s forgotten for the man, and the player he was. Williams was a true leader, an inspiration for a Washington Redskins team that wasn’t the league’s most talented, but they stepped up and dominated when it counted, because Williams inspired them to it. Doug Williams faced a lot of adversity in his journey to the pinnacle of the NFL, but along the way he did it with integrity, and with some impressive play. Williams should not only be remembered as a man pioneering the African American QB, but as a great man, a great leader, a guy who would play through any pain possible, and the man who raised his play for the biggest game he would ever play.
Learn More about past NFL greats in our History Archive