Colin Kapernick has been asked some dumb questions this week in the lead up to this week’s Super Bowl but he hasn’t been asked if he thought America is rooting for the 49ers or against them because their quarterback is of mixed race. In the week leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX, nobody asked Donovan McNabb how long he has been a black quarterback. During the media circus prior to Super Bowl XXXIV nobody asked Steve McNair if he felt like Jackie Robinson.
The questions Kaepernick, McNair, and McNabb were asked were more about football and less about race because Doug Williams took all of those questions for them, and then some. Twenty-five years ago on Thursday he was the first black quarterback ever to start a Super Bowl. He is still the only black quarterback to win the game and take home the MVP trophy.
Williams’ story was a classic riches to rags to riches story that the media assembled in San Diego for Super Bowl XXII following the 1987 season would have eaten up. He was the top draft pick of the Bucs and took them from 2-12 the year before he joined them to the NFC Central championship in his second season. Then came a contract dispute, a departure for the rival USFL, the death of his wife, and, after his USFL team folded, a job holding a clipboard for the Redskins in 1986. He was behind 26-year-old Jay Schroeder, who went to the Pro Bowl that season after leading the Redskins to the NFC championship game.
But Schroeder got hurt in the 1987 season opener and Williams came in. The quarterback controversy went on all year as Joe Gibbs switched starters three times. The job was Schroeder’s going into the last game of the regular season against the Vikings. Had he been able to generate a touchdown or two it is likely that Gibbs would have had him start the playoffs. But in the third quarter the Redskins had not scored offensively and Gibbs made his final switch back to Williams. The Redskins won in overtime and the next day Gibbs announced that Williams would start in the playoffs. After wins over the Bears and Vikings, the Redskins were Super Bowl bound.
His career storyline, however, was overshadowed by the color of his skin. During his sessions with the media he was posed the Jackie Robinson and who is America rooting for questions and many others of the same ilk. Williams didn’t like it but he took it in stride.
“All this talk about it bothers me,” said Williams. “But what’s a guy to do? I know a lot of people want me to elaborate on it.”
“But I don’t think it is something that should be hit on as much as it has been. The bottom line is: Who is the quarterback and what did he do? Not what color he is.”
When they finally got around to taking on John Elway and the Denver Broncos on Super Bowl Sunday, Williams was the quarterback and here’s his bottom line: 18 of 29 passing for 340 yards and four touchdowns. All four touchdown passes came in a delirious 35-point second quarter that obliterated Denver's 10-0 lead. All that was left in the second half was to kill the clock and wait for Williams to be named the game’s MVP.
After the victory parade, it looked like Williams, 32 at the time, would be the Redskins’ quarterback for at least the next few years. But he underwent an emergency appendectomy three games into the 1988 season, giving the untested Mark Rypien a chance. The starting job went back and forth between Williams and Rypien the rest of the year. During the offseason Williams suffered a herniated disc while running on a treadmill, an injury that required surgery. That effectively ended his NFL career.
As noted above, a black quarterback reaching the highest level of the sport is no longer a novelty. The quarterback jobs in the NFL are awarded on merit with skin color not even being a consideration. It’s not all smooth sailing for quarterbacks of color as evidenced by the ex-ESPN talking head commenting on Robert Griffin III being a “cornball brother”.
But it’s better than it was when Williams was around, thanks in large part to how Williams played and handled himself 25 years ago.