When you hear about someone’s 15 minutes of fame, you think of fleeting popularity or their short moment in the sun. However, when you think of Douglas William’s historic 15 minutes of fame in Super Bowl XXII, you think of that short span where Williams put an end to the notion that a black quarterback could not lead his team to the promise land.
It was the second quarter of Super Bowl and it was liberally more than 15 minutes, but it was 15 minutes of football time that changed the course of history. The first quarter ended with William’s Washington Redskins trailing the Denver Broncos 10-0 and, more importantly, Williams was limping on the sidelines after spraining his knee at the end of the opening period.
All seemed lost as the Grambling State product had the weight of the African-American sport legion on his shoulders. You see he was the first black quarterback to have an opportunity to win a Super Bowl. In a blink of eye, the tide had turned when Williams connected with Ricky Sanders for a long touchdown pass. The next thing you knew, the Skins were up 35-10 going into halftime as Williams picked apart the Broncos defense with surgeon-like precision. His highly touted counter-part, John Elway, could only stand on the opposite sideline and watch as Williams stole not only the spotlight but the game itself. He ended up completing 18 of his 29 passes for 340 yards and four touchdown passes. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player for his heroics. The performance Williams and Redskins were so impressive that NFL Films put it best when they said by the end of the second quarter everybody watching the game knew the words to Hail to the Redskins.
Prior to that day, there have been few black quarterbacks that were given the opportunity to play the position. Marlon Bristoe was the first to be given a chance. He started out throwing for 14 touchdown passes in his rookie year for the Denver Broncos and then was asked to switch to wide receiver after his impressive start. In order to stay in the NFL, he reluctantly agreed to switch positions and he ended up winning two Super Bowl rings as a receiver with the Miami Dolphins. Joe Gilliam guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 4-1-1 start to kick off the 1974 campaign but drugs derailed his career. James Harris, another Grambling product, guided the Los Angeles Rams to the NFC Championship Game but couldn’t get them over the hump. Warren Moon had to go to Canada to earn the respect of NFL general managers before he was given a chance to start his Hall of Fame career in the continental United States.
But here was Williams, who with his play and composure, conquered plenty of myths that afternoon. African-Americans went to work the next day beaming with pride. The only thing I can equate that feeling to was when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.
William’s head coach at Grambling State University, Eddie Robinson, groomed him and James Harris to succeed as signal callers. The legendary coach implemented an NFL-style offense, including changing plays at the line of scrimmage. Like so many before them, Harris and Williams were asked to switch positions, but they refused and stood their ground.
There is no doubt that William’s performance that day opened the door for the likes of Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin, III. But he also showed America that blacks could lead just as well as whites.
Robinson told Williams after the game that he probably wouldn’t realize the significance of that victory for years to come. And the coach was right. Williams still gets stopped in the street by football fans and non-football fans alike, who remind him of what he did that day and what it meant to them on a daily basis. I watched that game with three graduates from Grambling. Two of them played for Robinson, and by the end of the game, these big bruising individuals had tears in their eyes.