The National Football League is celebrating the Golden Anniversary of it's biggest event on Sunday, February 7th as Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers take on Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Over the next two weeks, The Shadow League will be sharing some of our most memorable reflections from the game that has become much bigger than football, morphing into an essential piece of the tapestry that defines who we are as an American society.
The resounding performance by Doug Williams against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII changed the narrative about African-American quarterbacks and was a chainsaw in cutting down prevailing myths and stereotypes about the competency of black signal-callers.
His flawless fortitude on the world stage opened doors for the plethora of black signal callers we've enjoyed in our lifetimes. On that historic day, Williams received his blessings for being a pioneer, a sacrificial lamb and martyr of sorts as his life journey and purpose became more important than football. He took some L's along the way that not only benefited elite black QBs, but allowed suspect soldiers like Akili Smith and Vince Young opportunities to fail.
Williams became a heroic figure and racial ground-breaker in 1988. We still celebrate him today as Cam Newton attempts to become only the third African-American QB to win a Super Bowl.
That night before Super Bowl XXII, Williams spoke to his legendary college football coach at Grambling University. Eddie Robinson told Doug that ”it was just another football game...but you and a lot of people have a lot riding on it.”
My family was one of those people. Having never seen an African-American QB perform on the grandest stage in pro football, we were very much anticipating the game. We were a household full of Giants fans who despised the Redskins. But the cultural significance of Williams’ opportunity resonated profoundly with my Pops.
That day, we were Doug Williams fans and therefore rooting for the Redskins.
Pops actually became a fan of Williams, the second black quarterback to earn a starting job in NFL history, when Williams was selected in the first-round of the NFL Draft in 1978 by the Tampa Bay Bucs. The young, controversial black bomber took a team who had never been to the playoffs and elevated them to the postseason three of his four years there, reaching the NFC Championship in '79.
However, bigotry in pro sports was still prevalent back then and a racist Bucs ownership didn’t want to pay Williams what he was worth, which forced the proud and determined brother to bounce to the USFL in '84, before returning to the league with the Redskins in '86.
What began as one of the most emotionally-draining Super Bowls because of the drama that took place in the first quarter, ended as one of the worst blowouts in history.
Early in the game, it appeared as if the worst case scenario had occurred. Williams got injured and had to be carried off of the field. Going into the commercial break, an uneasy silence fell upon my house.
My loud-mouthed Uncle Mike didn’t even say a word. The injury looked bad. The party was over before it started. Williams wouldn’t even get a chance to fail. He was twisted like a pretzel on the previous play. The day was looking like a total failure for African-American fans.
Williams was either a contortionist or the football gods were creating one of the greatest dramas in the history of pro sports, because when the second quarter began Williams limped out of the booth like Superman and tossed four touchdowns in one quarter to set a Super Bowl record.
In the process, he turned a tumultuous first quarter into a party for the rest of the evening as the Redskins cruised to a 42-10 victory. Williams completed 18 of 29 passes for a Super Bowl record 340 yards and four touchdowns and grabbed Super Bowl MVP shines that year.
After the game a reporter asked Williams, “So how long have you been a black quarterback?” Williams looked up, thought about it a moment and with the class and grace of a true champion, he replied to the absurd questioning by smiling and saying, “Come to think of it...I’ve always been a black QB.”
Fast Forward three decades and thanks to Doug, new age QBs like Russell Wilson and Cam Newton don’t have to be asked racially offensive questions because they aren’t black QBs anymore. They are Super Bowl QBs who happen to be black.