Was Doug Williams under pressure Jan. 31, 1988 because he was the first African American quarterback to start in a Super Bowl?
Williams' Washington Redskins, the surprise NFC champions, were facing the Denver Broncos and uber-quarterback John Elway at Jack Murphy Stadium. The buildup for Elway had been enormous, the attention paid to his teammates and opponents almost negligible.
Williams could easily have crumbled. But he knew what real pressure was and had overcome it before.
Real pressure is growing up in small-town Zachary, La., where the Ku Klux Klan had regular Friday night cross burnings, and making something of yourself. It's losing a wife to a brain tumor and being left to raise a baby daughter. It's undergoing five knee surgeries, a broken jaw, losing a job in Tampa Bay and turning to the USFL, only to see the league fold. It's winning a job as a backup to Jay Schroeder for the Redskins in 1986 and throwing only one pass that season.
It's finally getting the chance to start, only to be injured. And to win the job again by leading the Redskins to a win in their regular-season finale, which persuaded Coach Joe Gibbs -- who had been his quarterback coach in Tampa Bay -- to install Williams as the playoff starter.
"The Redskins didn't bring me there to become the first black quarterback in the Super Bowl," he said at the time. "They brought me here to be the quarterback of a Super Bowl team."
As a child, Williams had no African American quarterbacks to emulate. His performance in the Redskins' 42-10 rout of the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII made him a hero for African American kids who wanted to be quarterbacks but were turned into defensive backs or wide receivers or anything else because no one thought they could handle the pressure.
Williams, who had undergone emergency root canal surgery the day before, started slowly. So did the Redskins. They fell behind, 10-0, and Williams had to leave the game briefly after being hit and twisting his knee. But he talked Gibbs into sending him back in for the second quarter.
On his first pass of the second quarter, he found Ricky Sanders for an 80-yard touchdown. Williams led the Redskins to four more touchdowns before the quarter ended.
It added up to five touchdowns in 18 plays. Time elapsed: 5 minutes 47 seconds.
Williams finished the game with a Super Bowl-record 340 yards on 18-of-29 passing and was voted the game's most valuable player.
"I'm no Jackie Robinson," he insisted.
Eddie Robinson, who had coached him at Grambling, told Williams his victory was "like Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling." And maybe it was.
It was fitting, then, that Williams succeeded Robinson at Grambling in 1998. "I'm not easily intimidated," Williams told NFL.com Insider in 2001.
No one who saw him in Super Bowl XXII has to be reminded.