Where were you? I was in my basement, pacing in front of a huge, old-school big-screen TV. Twenty-five years ago there was no hi-def, no flat screens. But on that day, there was Super Bowl XXIII.
And, there was Doug Williams.
Where were you? If you were a football fan (heck, if you were alive back then) you probably remember where you were on that Sunday evening. If you’re black and you were older than a toddler on January 31, 1988, you definitely remember. That’s the kind of day it was. Not only a day when America watched—as it always does on Super Bowl Sunday – but a day when black America cheered. Not for the jersey – for the man.
Oh sure there were some black folks rooting for the Denver Broncos, and their rising young quarterback, John Elway. But ask most of them now, and they’ll tell you that somewhere deep beneath their bright Bronco-orange jersey, they were rooting for the man, too. Maybe even praying for the man.
Williams was not a superstar quarterback for the Washington Redskins. He was no Colin Kaepernick, riding in gallantly during mid-season, as did the San Francisco 49er quarterback, leading his team to the sport’s ultimate game. Williams only started two games for the Redskins that year – the final two games of the regular season, both losses – after a spot in the playoffs had been clinched. But on three occasions he was inserted under center by head coach Joe Gibbs, substituting for backup Jay Schroeder, he led Washington to victories.
On that mid-afternoon at Jack Murhy Stadium in San Diego, he became the first African-American quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. But that wasn’t enough for us. We wanted him to win.
We wanted him to win for Willie Thrower, the first black QB to take a snap in the NFL, for the Chicago Bears, in 1963. And for the Broncos’ Marlin Brisco, the first black starter, in 1968. For James Harris. For Warren Moon. For Randall Cunningham. For Vince Evans. And for Charlie “Choo Choo” Brackins, too. Google him.
We wanted him to win for all the brothers who were believed by NFL executives and head coaches to be incapable of leading men (read: white men) on the football field, or told to switch positions if they wanted to play in the league. We wanted him to win for us, too. For all of us who had been told we didn't have the “necessities” to lead, either — particularly in the workplace.
Arrival is one thing. Winning would be altogether something different.
Shoot, if a black man could win the Super Bowl, a black man could do anything. Maybe even become President.
The night did not begin well. Elway looked as if he was performing in Dancin’ with the Stars amid the Redskins defense in the first period. Less than two minutes into the game, he hit wideout Ricky Nattiel for a 56-yard touchdown, then the fastest points ever scored in the Super Bowl. Another drive ended with a field goal and a 10-0 Denver lead. The Redskins’ offense, meanwhile, was inept — punting more than a politician during an election year.
And then…Williams dropped back to pass. He planted his leg, slipped, his left leg angling awkwardly beneath him. And he screamed. We gasped. All of us did. Even Bronco fans. He left the game, taking our collective spirit with him to the sideline.
I’m not even sure why I continued to watch. Perhaps nothing else was on. Perhaps I was keepin’ hope alive.
And then…Williams returned to the game with 14:17 left in the second quarter, limping slightly. On his first play, the historic explosion began, with an 80-yard TD pass to Ricky Sanders. On the next possession, Gary Clark makes a diving touchdown catch in the end zone. Next: a 58-yard TD run by running back Timmy Smith. Next: another TD to Sanders, this one 50 yards. Next: an 8-yard TD pass to tight end Clint Didier.
It was that fast. By the end of the quarter, Williams had completed 9 of 11 passes for four TDs. Yeah. Four. In one quarter. One record-breaking quarter. It was 35-10 Washington at halftime. They played the second half, I think. But, who remembers? I don’t. I do remember the feeling.
Final score, 42-10. MVP. Doug Williams was going to Disney World. And we all felt like we were going with him.