ASHBURN, Va. — The pats on the back, photo requests and adulation haven’t stopped 35 years later. When people meet Doug Williams, they know who they’re meeting: Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. On Jan. 31, 1988, he changed a narrative that Black quarterbacks couldn’t lead a team to a title and became a folk hero.
Two more Black quarterbacks have won the Super Bowl since: Russell Wilson with the Seattle Seahawks in 2014 and Patrick Mahomes with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020. Williams was the first, a designation that still resonates. He led Washington to a 42-10 win over the Denver Broncos, throwing four touchdown passes and earning MVP honors.
Now, nearly four decades after Williams’ historic game, two Black quarterbacks — Mahomes and the Philadelphia Eagles‘ Jalen Hurts — will start in Super Bowl LVII and continue the legacy Williams began.
Tracy Wright, who owns her own sports marketing company, met Williams in 2006 at an event for the Southwestern Athletic Conference, and they soon became friends. She’s often in his suite at FedEx Field in Maryland, bringing friends or family. Their reactions are always the same.
“They’re all enamored,” Wright said. “Anytime they’re in there, they want a picture with him. They’re like, ‘This is Doug Williams.’ I’ve heard people say he’s Black royalty. They’re so into him, it’s amazing how they feel about him.”
New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston calls Williams, whom he considers a mentor, the most “iconic African American quarterback.”
Williams has been a college head coach (Grambling State, two different stints), an NFL scout (Jacksonville Jaguars) and an NFL executive (Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Commanders). He has been with Washington since 2014, now serving as a senior advisor. He has accomplished a lot in a career that, following his playing days at Grambling State, started in 1978 with Tampa Bay as the first Black quarterback drafted in the first round.
He helped organize the inaugural HBCU Legacy Bowl last year along with former NFL quarterback James Harris. That pair founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
“You have guys that are very, very talented who have a renewed faith that things are possible,” former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham said. “A lot of that started with Doug Williams.”
Williams remains popular because of what he did 35 years ago, but his popularity has been enhanced because of how he treats people. He has mentored a number of young people and awarded scholarships through foundations. He remains a symbol, and while the letters might not arrive in the piles they used to, his name carries weight and that Super Bowl win remains an important milestone.
“I’ve had people come up to me from my hometown that knew we were friends and they say when they’re feeling down and having a bad time, they take his tape from the Super Bowl and put it in to raise them up,” his college roommate and teammate Ricky Grant said.
Williams’ older brother, Robert Williams Sr., goes one step further.
“If you look at the impact Doug had,” he said, “you have to put him in the category with a person like Martin Luther King, Muhammed Ali. All those guys — Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson.”
EVERYONE KNEW WHAT that Super Bowl meant 35 years ago. After all, no Black quarterback had ever played in the Super Bowl before, let alone won one. Williams was asked numerous questions about being a Black quarterback during a news conference. Williams started only two games during the regular season, losing both. But he started all three playoff games in place of Jay Schroeder, who was dealing with a nagging shoulder injury.
Williams took one of his playoff checks and sent it to his mother, Laura, instructing her to use it to pay for whoever wanted to attend the game in San Diego. Robert Williams said 21 of them headed west.
“There was so much hype about the game,” Robert said. “I’ll never forget there was a gentleman sportscaster from Alabama who made the comment that Doug would not be successful against [Denver quarterback John] Elway. I was standing there and I told him, ‘Just wait and see. You’ll see something you’ve never seen before.’ And I walked away.”
Considering the road Williams traveled to reach that point, it’s not surprising he faced more obstacles the night before the game (undergoing a six-hour root canal because of an abscessed tooth) and then during the game (hurting his knee late in the first quarter).
“When Doug went down,” Robert Williams said, “there were some relatives of Schroeder who said, ‘Washington will win the game now, Jay’s coming in.’ We said nothing. They didn’t realize we were relatives of Doug.”
Williams returned, then threw four touchdowns — including one on his first pass after the injury — in the second quarter en route to a 340-yard day in the lopsided victory. He earned MVP honors. He was met on the field by his Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson, who compared the moment to when Joe Louis knocked out German-born Max Schmeling in a 1938 heavyweight boxing match, a victory celebrated because of what it meant to the country and to Black people.
“No question I knew the impact,” Doug Williams said. “My dad used to tell me about that fight so when he said it, I knew what it meant to my dad, too. I could imagine the impact on Black America.”
CHAMPIONSHIP SUNDAY WAS an emotional one for Williams.
In the afternoon, Hurts led the Eagles to a dominant 31-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Hours later, the Chiefs — led by Mahomes’ 326 passing yards and two touchdowns — beat the Cincinnati Bengals to claim the AFC crown, setting up the first matchup between Black quarterbacks in Super Bowl history.
Processing the historic moment, Williams could not hold back the tears.
“I wondered why I was like that, but it’s the realness of two Black quarterbacks combined with where I come from,” Williams said. “It’s unfortunate that 35 years later I would be feeling that way.”
He said it took him back to 1979, when he and Chicago’s Vince Evans played in the first NFL game started by two Black quarterbacks.
“The guys that came before me, if they had a fair chance, if the landscape was even, this might have happened a long time ago,” Williams said. “The coaches, the general managers, everyone else has changed a little bit with their mentality — not saying their mind isn’t on color, but it’s about winning.
“Andy Reid doesn’t care what color you are. I was fortunate enough to play for [Tampa Bay coach] John McKay and [Washington coach] Joe Gibbs. It wasn’t about color, it was about who can get the job done. That’s what’s happened here with these two quarterbacks.”
But, Williams said, though he’s proud of his legacy on the field, his feat hasn’t resulted in enough societal change from his perspective.
“We’re 35 years later and we’re still fighting a whole lot of battles off the field,” Williams said. “Being the first Black quarterback, it really doesn’t matter when you think about what’s really going on in this country, the division between race and everything else. That’s the part that bothers me more than anything.”
THE HARDSHIPS WERE many growing up just outside Zachary, Louisiana — 16 miles from Baton Rouge. Williams’ family — which included eight kids — had little money and no indoor plumbing. Their father, Robert Sr., was a World War II veteran who stressed family, getting together on holidays and having big Fourth of July celebrations. On Mother’s Day, the men cooked for the women.
And there were other struggles.
“It wasn’t unusual where we lived, on a Friday or Saturday night, to have a cross burning in the community,” said Robert Williams, who is 15 years older than Doug. “I’ll never forget a gentleman who lived down the street from us on the corner. Sometimes we had to walk a quarter mile to catch a bus to go to school. It wasn’t unusual to see at night KKK members coming out of his house, coming out in robes. We’re on the corner catching a bus and he came out and ran us off the corner.”
Amid this backdrop, Robert returned to Zachary following a brief minor league baseball career in the Cleveland organization that was ended by a shoulder injury. He coached his younger brother in baseball and also got him involved in football. A young Doug would often cry after losses. Coaches would tell Doug to his face that he shouldn’t be crying, but they would then tell his parents or his brother they secretly liked it — a sign of his desire and competitiveness.
Once, the brothers participated in the first integrated American Legion baseball game in their area.
That night, while Robert coached, Doug struck out 18 batters. Consider it a precursor to a larger event.
“I do believe you’re put here to do certain things in life,” Robert said. “It didn’t happen by coincidence. Doug often says I am where I am because of Robert Williams, but what he fails to realize is he’s my hero. I just feel praise for what he has done and the way he is.”
WILLIAMS WAS ONE of 10 quarterbacks at Grambling State and just wanted a chance. He grew frustrated when he didn’t get one, so he decided to make a statement. He knew what he wanted and what he believed he deserved; he was going to let others know how he felt by his actions. It was part of a lifelong pattern — at Tampa Bay, when he believed he was woefully underpaid, he set a baseline for his contract — $500,000 — and when the Bucs came in $100,000 less he became a substitute teacher in Zachary rather than playing football in 1983.
Grant remembers the statement before a night practice at Grambling.
“So that evening when I’m going to practice, he said he’s not going. We had a black-and-white TV and he stayed in the room to watch ‘The Big Valley,'” Grant said, referring to a popular TV western series in the 1960s. “Missing practice for Doug or anyone, you don’t miss it, not with Coach [Robinson]. But Doug was making a big statement and he got their attention. They went and sent for him to come down and the rest is history.”
Williams — eventually — earned the starting job his freshman season. And Grant knows why.
“Coach Rob gave him his shot that night,” Grant said. “They were changing defenses on Doug and we didn’t have all those lights on the field, so it was dark. They kept switching up on Doug, and he kept connecting with receivers. From that day, he persevered again. That was the beginning of what’s happening now. There’s just something about him. He’s persevered everywhere he’s been.”
Roger Terry, Washington scout: “Before I had the [Washington] job I was interviewing in a couple places and I saw him at the airport. I saw a couple fans — it was about five or six people — go talk to him, ‘Can I get an autograph?’ He stopped for probably 30, 45 seconds, took the picture and gave them an autograph. He put smiles on their faces.”
SAINTS QUARTERBACK JAMEIS Winston was born 15 years after Williams won the Super Bowl, yet Winston knew all about Williams growing up in Bessemer, Alabama. Winston paid attention to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) athletics and watched quarterbacks such as Steve McNair, Michael Vick and Aaron Brooks in the NFL. Winston listened to his father, who watched these same players and would tell him, “Doug Williams is the one.”
On Feb. 17, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas, Winston met Williams for the first time. Both were being honored at a dinner, Winston for winning the Davey O’Brien award as the nation’s best collegiate quarterback and Williams for receiving the Legends Award.
Because their families sat at the same table, they had a chance to talk. Williams told Winston he saw some of himself in him. While Winston paid rapt attention to Williams’ words, he also noticed something else: Williams brought his young twin daughters with him.
“I was going on all these circuits and meeting different celebrities and they might have their wife, but they definitely did not have their kids,” Winston said. “I’m like, ‘This is how it’s done.'”
Williams stayed in touch with Winston — who refers to him as Mr. Williams, though he’s often told to just call him Doug — via phone calls and texts. When Winston landed in Tampa Bay as a first-round pick in 2015, the relationship grew. Williams would head there often for festivities with the Bucs, and they’d meet up for dinner. Williams would talk by phone or before games with other quarterbacks, notably Teddy Bridgewater. But he developed something more with Winston.
Winston has leaned on Williams’ advice: “Nothing can break you. … When you get your opportunity, execute. … Stay patient and always stay a pro because that will carry you farther than anything else.”
Williams left out parts of his story that Winston later discovered, like how Williams first wife, Janice, died of a brain tumor in 1983, 10 days before their first wedding anniversary, leaving him with an 11-week-old daughter, Ashley.
And Winston pointed out that not only did Williams shatter a narrative about Black quarterbacks being able to lead a Super Bowl win, he also did it as a traditional drop-back passer.
“What he had to go through when he first got in the league,” Winston said. “You lose the love of your life that early and he still prospered. That’s why I admire him and every word he speaks to me I take it to heart because he has overcome not only barriers [on the field] but so much internally. I’m grateful he opens up to me and shares things with me about his journey. He didn’t have to do that. He doesn’t have to reach out, but he calls me. I’m blessed to have him.”
AFTER RANDALL CUNNINGHAM’S rookie season with Philadelphia in 1985, Williams invited him to spend a week at his house in Zachary so they could get to know each other better, starting a friendship that has endured.
Cunningham grew up in Santa Barbara, California, and attended college at UNLV before being drafted by the Eagles. Spending a week at Williams’ house opened his eyes.
“I asked a lot of questions about the history of his life and the people he encountered and how it was growing up down there,” he said. “I understood about slavery and segregation, but Doug said, ‘I’m in the middle of that.'”
Three years later, Williams won the Super Bowl.
“He was purging a generation of people who have gone through a lot. That equates to those lost in the past and to those who struggled. Him winning the Super Bowl elevated the confidence of many, not just African Americans but all cultures.”
Cunningham boiled it down to one word: confidence.
“Just the confidence of knowing someone who looks like me had accomplished such a great feat. I said, ‘Wow, now I guess we will be accepted,'” Cunningham said. “It was just a boost in confidence as an African American, like I do have a place. With all the naysayers and people not believing, I realized it was not only an option but it was possible.”
WILLIAMS SAID HE feels respect from other quarterbacks; it doesn’t always come in the form of seeking advice. Before a home game in 2016 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was warming up when he spotted Williams. He pointed at him and nodded his head.
“That says a lot,” Williams said.
In 2009, when Williams was an executive with Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers played New England in London. After the game, Williams talked to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, telling him how much he respected his career.
To which he said Brady replied: “No, man, I respect your career.”
“I don’t know where I feel it’s a responsibility,” Williams said. “I think it’s naturally me. When I see somebody, no matter who it is, I feel obligated to engage them and start talking.”
Williams understands what he has done and what he symbolizes.
“The respect of how I came up and the road I traveled and the success I had, people give you that respect,” Williams said. “I know who I am. I feel good about who I am. I don’t put myself above nobody.”
That’s what former workmates witnessed. Eric Schaffer, a former Washington executive who worked with Williams for six years, said Williams was treated like a rock star at stadiums — with everyone wanting a picture — making their trips from the press box to the field before games a long one.
“What’s remarkable about Doug is that when he got off the bus, the people driving the bus looked at him with reverence,” Schaffer said, “and Doug would give them the exact same time and respect he would give to owners down on the field.”
Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said he gravitated toward Williams because of the wisdom he dispensed. Williams talked to McLaurin about the consistency it takes to become a Pro Bowl player in the NFL.
“I got to talk to him for a few minutes during my contract negotiations,” McLaurin said. “He encouraged me to stand on what I feel I deserve and come back ready to help the team. He understands the business side of things, but also the player and human aspect.”
WILLIAMS’ SON, D.J., is an offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints who embraces his father’s accomplishments. D.J. Williams said before games opposing coaches routinely bring up what his father did, sharing thoughts on what it meant. Tampa Bay coach Todd Bowles, whom Williams helped get his first job in coaching, hugs D.J. every time their teams meet.
Once, D.J. spoke to then Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner before a game. But, he said, Turner didn’t realize he was Williams’ son. In their next meeting, Turner immediately found him and gushed about his dad, telling D.J. about his impact on the game.
“Hearing those things never gets old,” D.J. said.
But, for D.J., one lasting memory involves taking a VHS NFL Films highlight version of the game to school.
“I remember in kindergarten in Black History Month I showed it to the class,” D.J. said, “and to see everyone else’s reaction and to see the teacher’s reaction it was like, ‘Wow, this is something pretty cool.’ That was big for me as a kid. That was the first time I remember seeing the magnitude my pops had not only on the game but Black culture and people period.”
That’s why D.J. always remembers what his father often tells him: “People don’t remember what you did or how you did it, they only remember how you made them feel.”
For Williams, leaving a legacy matters.
“Every day I think about it and wonder what it would be like if it wasn’t me,” Doug Williams said. “Thank God for me and my kids it was me, whether I’m here or not they’ll have something to hold on to. They’re proud of it and a lot now are just beginning to realize he’s not just daddy. In a lot of people’s eyes he’s a folk hero. That’s not something I go around and say. I just try to be me.”