SUPER BOWL XXII : HISTORY'S QUARTERBACK : Williams Says He's Just the Starter

Times Staff Writer

It was the week before the week before the Super Bowl in Herndon, Va.

School was not quite out yet in the National Football League. History awaited.

Doug Williams, a preoccupied man, emerged from the locker room at Redskin Park. He was wearing a faded Grambling letter jacket as he long-strided toward the players' parking lot.

Already this day, Williams had studied film of the Denver Broncos' defense, worked out with his teammates and conducted group interviews before and after practice. Turns out there are hundreds of ways you can ask a man what it feels like to be the first black to start at quarterback in the Super Bowl. Turns out there is only one answer.

"I just happen to be a Redskin, a quarterback and a black," Williams repeated. "I'm just trying to deal with the football game. After the game--black, white, green or yellow--we'll deal with that then."

Now there was a gathering of fans at his car. He signed their autograph books.

A long, cool woman with black hair, brown skin and a blue coat glided to his side, slid her arm around his waist and commandeered a bystander to take their picture. Williams, 32, and married, indulged her photo fantasy politely but without humor.

Next, the woman in the blue coat wanted to take a picture of Williams alone. He waited patiently by his car door while she adjusted her camera.

"Give me a great big smile," she cooed.

Instead, she got a great big chill. "I don't have a phony smile," he said. But she didn't understand. He repeated himself and grinned broadly at onlookers. "You should have shot that," he said. The woman cursed her camera and fidgeted. Williams was gone.

Her pass was incomplete. But only because Williams wanted it that way. Everybody who knew him 10 years ago says he is so much more mature now, his judgment so much better.

That is his style on the field, too. He says the title for his autobiography, as yet uncommissioned, will be: "I Saved the Best for Last." And he laughs a real Doug Williams laugh.

"I like being Doug Williams," he says. "I like being me."

In 67 games in a previous NFL life as quarterback-savior of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers between 1978 and 1982, defenders sacked Williams just 65 times. Washington General Manager Bobby Beathard and Coach Joe Gibbs remembered those numbers when they agreed to sign Williams as a backup to Jay Schroeder before the 1986 season.

In 17 games this year, opponents have sacked Redskin quarterbacks 39 fewer times than Washington defenders have sacked opposing quarterbacks. In playoff victories over Chicago and Minnesota earlier this month, Williams got sacked once. His teammates sacked Bear and Viking quarterbacks a total of 12 times.

"Sure, it frustrates defenses when they don't get sacks," said Bear personnel boss Bill Tobin. "It can take them out of their game."

Said Williams: "The sack is like their touchdown."

But the further the Redskins advance, the harder it is to avoid the rush. Which is why Williams appreciates the protection he receives from his porcine offensive line and a public relations department that screens an avalanche of requests daily.

"It's like Namath said," a reporter suggested to Williams last week, "The smartest thing a quarterback can do is. . . "

Williams broke in, " . . . find a good team to play for." Then he flashed the real Doug Williams smile again. "I agree with that," he said.

Most people have already forgotten that Williams started only a few games for the Redskins this season. In 1986, he threw just one regular-season pass. It was incomplete. But when Schroeder lost his short touch and developed a crisis in confidence, Williams responded. He threw 11 touchdown passes against only 5 interceptions and even completed 56.6% of his passes.

Before the Redskins resurrected Williams from the ashes of the United States Football League last year, he had been gone from the NFL for three full seasons. "Anybody could have had me," he says now. "Anybody."

Beathard still insists he doesn't know why he was the only general manager willing to deal with Tampa Bay, which owned Williams' NFL rights. The price was a No. 5 in the 1987 draft and a conditional pick this spring. The cost was a three-year contract at a reported $1.4 million. Denver quarterback John Elway made $600,000 more than that. This year.

The Redskins told Williams that he wouldn't be a starter. He said he understood. But Beathard had looked at USFL film of Williams and discovered he had found a "feel" to go with his uncommon arm strength. Just when everybody was thinking Williams was finished, Beathard and Gibbs were thinking he was a finished product.

"He was not a hot item," Tobin said. "If you took him, you took him off of what he did with Tampa."

The Buccaneers had been 0-14 and 2-12 in the two years before his arrival. They made the playoffs three times during his five seasons there. They have gone 2-14, 6-10, 2-14, and 4-11 since his departure.

The circumstances surrounding his falling out with Tampa Bay were bitter and still aren't entirely clear. When his contract expired after the 1982 season, his agent, Jimmy Walsh, demanded a new one starting at $875,000 per. Owner Hugh Culverhouse didn't want to pay more than $400,000 a year. Williams later said he would have settled for $600,000. Buccaneer officials later said they offered him $600,000.

But when nothing happened, things got ugly. He signed with the USFL's Oklahoma Outlaws and openly rooted against the Buccaneers when the 1983 season began. He said he hoped they finished 0-16. And he didn't care who heard him say it.

He even ripped former Buccaneer coach John McKay, who had fiercely and tirelessly defended Williams' abilities and performances.

"He could have done something," Williams said of McKay's role in the failed negotiations. "As much power as he had."

"Hurt?" said McKay when Williams' remarks got back to him. "You're damn right it hurt. He had a friend."

The two haven't spoken since. Last week, McKay issued a prepared statement through the Tampa Bay public relations office rather than deal personally with a flurry of interview requests.

"Going to the Super Bowl was one of Doug's career goals," McKay said in the statement. "And I am very happy for him that he has made it. He seems to be the same player who did such an outstanding job for the Buccaneers. His completion percentage may not be as high as some others, but that is vastly overrated. He has a great ability to make the big play and is an intense competitor. Those are things that win games. It's a fact that we were not as good a team after we were unable to keep him in 1983."

Asked if he harbors any bad feelings toward McKay now, Williams shrugged and said, "I don't have any bad feelings. I'm in the Super Bowl."

Close observers say the relationship between Williams and McKay was more like father and son than coach and player, which made the falling out doubly difficult.

Worse, Williams had suffered a personal tragedy earlier in 1983, losing his wife to cancer. Right after Easter, doctors discovered a brain tumor the size of a grapefruit. Janice Goss Williams was dead a week later.

"Suddenly, I didn't give a damn if I played another down of football or not," Williams said.

They had been married less than a year. Their daughter, Ashley Monique, was 3 months old.

Williams has since remarried--his second wife is the former Lisa Robinson of Baton Rouge--but the memory of his first wife is strong. They attended Grambling together for four years. She called him Doggie Lee. He called her Gossie May.

Last September, Williams told the Washington Post he still hadn't fully come to grips with the loss of Janice.

"A lot of times I make Lisa suffer for it," he said. "I try hard not to let it happen. But it gets in the way sometimes. It's like driving and that car you're meeting, Janice is going to be in it. . . . You're going to meet her in the highway and she's going to say, 'Doug, why did you get married?'

"Sometimes I'll be driving and I'll turn down the music and Ashley will say, 'Janice is up there. The devil ain't going to get her.' I say, 'Your momma is a good momma.' I'll talk to her more when she's at the stage to understand death."

Ashley turned 5 earlier this month. Williams calls her "my honeybun." But, not counting her birth, the year of her infancy was his worst. "Throw out 1983 and I would have had a perfect life," he said.

Janice Goss hated controversy and wouldn't have liked the way things ended in Tampa for her husband. She didn't like the boos her husband got when he overthrew a covered receiver rather than take a sack or risk an interception.

During the Iran hostage crisis, St. Petersburg sportswriter Mike Tierney suggested that the United States send Williams to the Mideast because he was the only American who could "overthrow the Ayatollah."

Tierney's line spread across the country. Few people bothered repeating Williams' response. "It wouldn't do any good to send me over," he said. "They've already sent all the black people back on a plane."

People were more comfortable with jokes, caricatures and cartoon characterizations of Williams. His accent was deep, deep South. He said ax instead of ask. And his subjects and predicates didn't always match up. Williams referred to the stereotyping as "the Stonewall Jackson mentality."

"Maybe they think I'm dumb because my grammar isn't perfect," he said. "But I think I talk OK. I mean, people can understand what I'm trying to say."

Williams once astonished Gibbs when he instantly recalled a variety of formations and schemes, player for player, several minutes after Gibbs had erased them from the blackboard.

George Heddleston, former 49er and Lion public relations director and later a USFL general manager in Pittsburgh, said Williams' leadership qualities were never in question at Grambling. "He practically ran the practices for (Coach) Eddie Robinson down there."

And now Williams is bearing the brunt of a publicity overload that has brought down better teams than the Redskins and better players than Williams. For the most part he is handling it all remarkably well.

"I ain't gonna tell no lies," he said after arriving here. "There are times when I'd like to take a camera or a microphone and stick it down their mouths. But that wouldn't be nice."

Perhaps the attention imbalance will pay off for Williams and the Redskins. The 1969 Jets and the 1985 Bears won Super Bowls after Joe Namath and Jim McMahon had taken the focus off their teammates the week before the game.

Namath, Williams' boyhood idol, brashly predicted victory over the heavily favored Colts. McMahon mooned a helicopter in New Orleans, giving new meaning to the appellation, Crescent City.

Williams has kept his pants on and made no predictions. The color of his skin is the story of the week here.

"But a lot of people have blown it out of proportion," he says.

The black quarterback issue is one that by Sunday could become as big as the Super Bowl itself. And, says Harry Edwards, "it is certainly a legitimate point of interest from the perspective of the media and the public."

Edwards is the Berkeley sociologist and black activist who serves as a consultant to baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth on affirmative action. But more than that, Edwards has, for years, served as a kind of national traffic cop, blowing his whistle at the busy intersection of black America and big time athletics.

He won't downplay the significance of Williams here. "It is a legitimate issue from the perspective of developments at the interface of race and sport," he said.

But Edwards warns everybody, especially Williams, against taking this all too seriously. "My advice to the brother (Williams) would be, 'Hey man, forget that stuff.'

" 'I mean, you are the quarterback of the Washington Redskins football team and your sole concern should be making sure that when the gun sounds you are the winning quarterback.' "

"If that's not the case, whether Doug Williams is black or white simply becomes a footnote to developments," Edwards added. "He is not conducting a class on race relations or the sociology of sport and I'll tell you something: If he goes out there with any perspective other than that, they should go ahead and let Jay Schroeder start."

Edwards says he expects Williams knows that. Williams says he does.

"People are always going to have their opinions," Williams said. "The worst thing I can do is get involved in other people's opinions."

It's just that the heat from the national spotlight at the Super Bowl can burn a hole right through reality. If Williams plays poorly, there is danger that the public and the football Establishment will interpret that failure as a sign blacks can't play quarterback in the NFL.

If Williams plays well, the reverse might be true for the wrong reasons: Hidebound power brokers might figure that a black quarterback, like a car phone, is something they must have to keep up with the competition.

Williams understands all that, too.

"He's not going to take it personally if he doesn't have a good game," said Anthony Brown. "He's a veteran athlete. He has dealt with adversity before. And I'm delighted for that."

Brown is a Madison (Wis.) public relations executive who received a phone call from Benjamin Hooks, NAACP national executive director, at 6:30 the morning after former Dodger personnel boss Al Campanis had created a national furor on ABC-TV's "Nightline" last spring.

Among other things, Campanis said blacks didn't have the "necessities" to handle "positions of power within sports." Hooks commissioned Brown to represent the NAACP on affirmative action and work with the NFL, the National Basketball Assn. and major league baseball.

Brown began monitoring minority hiring in all three leagues last May. Through November, he says, the NBA has hired 55 blacks to positions ranging from front office to clerical and including coaching. The corresponding NAACP number for major league baseball is 30. The NFL, yet to name its first black head coach, has hired 15 blacks during that span.

All of which makes Brown more thankful for Williams' role. And all of which heaps more pressure on Williams.

The NFL defends itself against Brown's numbers by pointing out that it has more than 200 minority employees among the nearly 1,500 total employees at the club and league levels. That includes attorney David Cornwell, a black, hired in October to be the NFL's director of equal employment. Cornwell also serves as an assistant league counsel.

Williams has failed before. He failed to attract the attention of the major colleges as a senior at Chaneyville High School in Louisiana. Only Grambling and Southern University, both less than 20 miles down the road from his tiny home town of Zachary, La., offered scholarships. The major colleges stayed away mostly because there were only 25 students in his senior class. It was impossible to judge the level of competition.

The eight Williams children spent lots of time playing sports in the front yard of their Zachary home, tucked behind a dusty barn that housed school buses. They fashioned a basketball hoop from coat hangers. All of them had strong arms. Doug remembers knocking mailboxes down with rocks.

His mother was a school lunchroom cook; his father a disabled veteran, confined to a wheelchair. His biggest influence was his oldest brother, Robert, who later pitched in the Cleveland Indian organization. Robert forced Doug to play quarterback because that's the position Robert had played. He also refused to allow anybody to switch Doug to another position.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Robert," Williams said. "I don't think I'd be in San Quentin . . . but I don't think I'd be in San Diego either."

Williams failed to convince the Heisman voters in college, although he threw 38 touchdown passes his senior year. He finished fourth in the balloting that season, right behind Notre Dame tight end Ken MacAfee, later a bust with the 49ers.

Tampa Bay used the 17th pick of the 1978 draft to make Williams the first quarterback selected that year. It was an ideal situation for Williams. The Buccaneers needed a quarterback. And McKay hadn't been afraid to start a black, Jimmy Jones, at quarterback while coaching at USC.

The public relations director at Tampa was Bob Best. Best had learned his trade at the knee of veteran publicist Roger Valdiserri, the Cardinal Richelieu of Notre Dame athletics. Best was well prepared to handle the media army that camped on Williams' doorstep when McKay made him an instant starter.

Williams caught on in a hurry. Soon he was telling Best that Notre Dame was the "white Grambling." The local reporters loved it.

Williams' first year with the Buccaneers was also the first year in Tampa for a little-known offensive coordinator named Joe Gibbs, who had been an assistant under McKay at USC. Gibbs left after a year to become Don Coryell's offensive coordinator in San Diego.

But years later, Gibbs concurred with Beathard's opinion that Williams was "head and shoulders" ahead of the next best available backup for Schroeder.

The NFL had already written off Williams. Now the word filtering out of the USFL was that Williams was through.

"They were underground comments," Heddleston said. "There was no question about his arm. But there were conversations that he might be losing it physically. It wasn't really even a knock. It was just the word."

Heddleston maintains that Beathard once again simply out-hustled the rest of the league.

"Bobby just works harder," he said. "A lot of people know who the players are. And a lot of people can talk about them. But Bobby goes out and sees them."

He liked what he saw. So the Redskins signed Williams.

Raider owner Al Davis liked what he saw in the new Williams so much that he tried to trade for him before the 1987 draft. Beathard wanted a No. 1 in return. The Raiders were offering much less.

"We set the price high on purpose," Beathard said. "It was a price we felt we wouldn't be offered. And we weren't."

Would Beathard trade Williams now?

"The Raiders couldn't get him then. And they definitely won't get him now."

Beathard and Gibbs saved Williams' career. And he won't soon forget it. Even if it means juggling loyalties.

"I can't go on the record saying I'm playing for black America when Joe Gibbs, Bobby Beathard and (Redskin owner) Jack Kent Cooke signed me to a contract," Williams said.

Williams figures he can't lose if he plays to win. It's been that way all year.

Heddleston said: "To me, he finally looks like the player the Bucs always hoped he would be."

Williams will gladly and simply settle for being the player who quarterbacked the winning team in Super Bowl XXII.

"I see a lot of Hall of Famers who aren't able to buy their groceries today," he said. "The most important thing is to perform and when it's all over be able to hold your head up, be yourself, be somebody."

The first black quarterback to play in the NFL is now a construction foreman in New Kensington, Pa. His name is Willie Thrower, perhaps the best name ever for a quarterback before Chuck Long hit the scene. Thrower played briefly in two games for George Halas' 1953 Chicago Bears. After that he played three seasons for Winnipeg of the Canadian Football League.

Fifteen years passed before Denver signed the NFL's next black quarterback, Marlin Briscoe.

"A long stretch . . . from 1953 to Briscoe," Thrower said.

Since the mid-'60s, 190 players have thrown 25 passes or more in the NFL. Nine of those players are black. One of them is Bear running back Walter Payton.

In 1974, Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam could have been the first black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. The Steelers were 4-1-1 and had won three straight when Coach Chuck Noll benched him in favor of Terry Bradshaw.

The Steelers went on to win their first of four Super Bowls in six years. Bradshaw was voted the most valuable player of their first Super Bowl victory.

Gilliam's demotion was linked to drug problems, and he concedes that Noll did what he thought he had to do.

Gilliam left the Steelers a year later. Now he works as a counselor in a drug-alcohol prevention center in Nashville, Tenn. Both he and Thrower will watch Williams closely in Super Bowl XXII.

"My heart and soul, 90% of my entire being will be down on the field with him Sunday," Gilliam said. "I'll be dodging tacklers with him. I'll be looking for the open man with him. I really hope he pulls it out."

Said Thrower: "I don't feel any real connection with Doug but I'm rooting for the guy. I hope he wins just for the glory."

Hope and glory. And dreams.

Not five feet from Williams' dressing stall in the Redskin Park locker room, there is a sign taped to a post. It says:

I have a dream. I have been to the mountain top.

--Dr. Martin Luther King

April 4, 1968

"I'm here, I'm Doug Williams," Doug Williams says. "I can't hide. This will be something for all America to witness."

History awaits.--DOUG WILLIAMS

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