Well-Armed Pioneer

Playing in the Super Bowl is just one more challenge for the Skins' Doug Williams
February 01, 1988

Doug Williams, Grambling state's freshman quarterback, had noticed the pretty young woman around campus and had pointed her out to his roommate. "I'm going to talk to that girl someday," Williams said.

Then, one evening, while leafing through newspapers in the undergraduate library, he saw her again. Williams made his move that evening, and for the next eight years, he and Janice Goss were best friends, soulmates and sweethearts. They married in early 1982. They teased each other endlessly, forever laughing and pulling pranks. A jab here, a poke in the ribs there. The teasing continued after their daughter, Ashley Monique, was born, Jan. 14, 1983. Doug referred to the baby as Monique, the name he had selected. His playful insistence made Janice giggle, but she kept calling the child by the name she had chosen, Ashley.

Two and a half months later, the laughter stopped. On a sunny March morning in Zachary, La., at the home of Doug's parents, Janice awoke with a throbbing headache. She got up to make breakfast but had trouble keeping her balance. Williams found his wife clinging to the refrigerator and rushed her to a doctor in Baton Rouge, 10 miles away. A CAT scan at a hospital revealed a brain tumor. Doctors operated that night. "I was in shock," Williams recalls. "I couldn't believe it was happening. Then reality set in."

Eight days later—10 days shy of their first wedding anniversary—Janice Williams died. "Her death taught me that no matter who you are or how much money you make, it doesn't matter," Williams says now. "You can't buy off death. You can't pay it to go away."

When the Washington Redskins meet the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, Williams will make NFL history as the first black man to start at quarterback in The Big Game.

It isn't the first time Williams has found himself in a unique position. As a Grambling senior, he was the first black quarterback from a predominantly black school to be named to the Associated Press All-America team. And he became the first black quarterback chosen in the first round of the NFL draft when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made him the 17th pick in 1978.

"My whole life, whatever I was, I was 'the first of,' " says Williams, 32. "It was destined. It was in the cards."

Williams has never let "the first black quarterback" label become a burden. He has handled being a prominent black role model with dignity and, for the most part, tremendous grace.

"Segregation was a way of life for us in the South," says Robert Williams Jr., 46, Doug's oldest brother. "From an early age, Doug was faced with adversity. He knew how to stand up to it, to not let it stand in the way of success. So when he walked into any situation, the new obstacles never got the best of him."

On his first pass as a pro, in a preseason game against Baltimore, he heaved the ball 60 yards—over the receiver's head. The awed Tampa Stadium crowd gave Williams a standing ovation. For the next five years he was the toast of the town, leading the Bucs to the NFC playoffs three times; before Williams's arrival, the team had won two games in its two seasons of existence.

"In those days, we won with our hearts," says tight end Jimmie Giles, an ex-Buc now with the Philadelphia Eagles. "In the huddle we'd see the desire in Doug's eyes. We knew that even if we were down by 21 points, we weren't out of it. If he had to, Doug would risk hurting himself to win."

In 1982, his final season with Tampa Bay, Williams worked for $125,000, making him 46th on the NFL quarterback salary list. When his contract expired, Williams asked for a multiyear, $600,000-a-season deal; the Bucs offered him a $400,000 one. Some observers charged racism; Williams said nothing and left. "It took so much out of me," he says. "I never dreamed I'd play any other place. I gave them everything I had."

Because no other NFL team wanted him, Williams signed a five-year, $3 million contract with the USFL's Oklahoma Outlaws. In December 1984 the Outlaws merged with the Arizona Wranglers franchise, and the team moved to Phoenix. Twenty months later the USFL folded.

Williams went home to Zachary. He was contemplating a new career as a coach. In August 1986, Redskins coach Joe Gibbs phoned. Gibbs had first seen Williams play in January 1978 in the East-West Shrine Classic and the Senior Bowl. Then offensive coordinator at Tampa Bay, he had later flown to Louisiana and, using a blackboard, had spent two days quizzing Williams on offensive strategies. Now Gibbs was calling to ask Williams if his ego could handle being a backup quarterback. "There were no starting jobs available in the NFL," Williams says. "The Redskins were the only team that called me. What else was I going to do?"

Williams got into one game—for only one play, an incomplete pass—all of last season. Glad to be back in uniform, he was content to play second fiddle to starter Jay Schroeder. This season his fortunes changed. Against the Detroit Lions, on Nov. 15, Schroeder repeatedly overthrew open receivers. Williams came off the bench, threw two touchdowns before halftime and led the Redskins to a 20-13 victory. The starting job was apparently his.

But in practice 11 days later Williams sprained a ligament in his lower back and missed a game against the Giants. As luck would have it, Schroeder had one of the best performances of his career, passing for 331 yards and three touchdowns in the 23-19, come-from-behind victory. Gibbs again proclaimed Schroeder his No. 1 quarterback. Williams cried when he heard the news. "Not because I wasn't starting," he says. "Because of a lifetime of frustrations."

Against Minnesota in the regular-season finale, Schroeder faltered, and Williams rallied the Redskins to a 27-24 overtime win. The job was his once again, and now he's starting in the Super Bowl. "The $18,000 I made by winning the NFC Championship will go to my mom and my family for Super Bowl tickets, hotels, airline tickets and all their other expenses," he says. "Every penny, if they need it. The Super Bowl has more sentimental value to me than the money does."

From the Baton Rouge airport you head north on State Highway 67—Plank Road—to Zachary (pop. 7,747). The two-lane road winds through fields dotted with dairy cows, horses and chickens. Just over the town line is a store called The Fishen Hole. The sign boasts live catfish from the pond out back. A placard next door reads SAWS SHARPENS.

"Zachary is a place you've got to be going to, to get there," Williams likes to say, "because you wouldn't get there otherwise."

Williams, the sixth of eight children, grew up on Plank Road in a small five-room house behind Beauchamp's Grocery. The family did not have indoor plumbing; the kids took turns drawing water from a well in the backyard. Today Robert and Laura Williams, Doug's parents, live in a new four-bedroom brick house on Lemon Road. From their back door you can see Doug's new two-story house. In fact, you can see relatives' houses everywhere you look. Within the triangle formed by Plank, Lemon and Pride Port Hudson roads live 30 of Williams's brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and cousins. The rest of the family lives in Baton Rouge, Olive Branch and Clinton. The annual Fourth of July family reunion in Zachary is 200 strong.

A sturdy woman with boundless energy, Laura, 63, is the family's backbone. Williams calls her M'Dear, short for Mother Dear, but she's known in East Baton Rouge Parish as Miss Shot, her childhood nickname. She's locally famous for her red beans and rice, which simmer on the stove in 10-quart pots.

Robert Sr., 65, has been crippled with rheumatoid arthritis the past 20 years; in 1983 his left leg was amputated just above the knee. Laura supported the family by working 12 hours a day as a cook in the Zachary school system. She was at work when the children got home from school, so she insisted that they play in the yard rather than roam the neighborhood.

Williams and his two younger brothers knocked the spokes out of a bicycle wheel, attached the rim to a maple tree and shot baskets. When it rained, they stayed indoors and shot M'Dear's pink sponge hair curlers over curtain rods. Sawed-off mop handles were baseball bats, and the balls were wads of green tree gum. The kids often played football on their knees in the living room using a rolled-up sock; outside, the football was a Clorox jug. Until Williams was 14, the only organized team sport he played was Little League. Then Robert Jr., who coached the junior high football team at Doug's school, Chaneyville High, forced him to play quarterback and middle linebacker. Williams was terrified by the roughness of the sport. To help him conquer his fear, his brother lined Doug up on defense and told the offense to run right at the youngster. It worked.

Robert Jr. was also the varsity basketball coach at Chaneyville, and he made Doug the ballboy. During practices he would pull him to the side and drill him on fundamentals. Doug often stormed off in tears. "I was never good enough for Robert," he says. "He was my toughest coach." Williams went on to become the Chaneyville Dragons' leading basketball scorer for three straight years.

"I saw a lot of potential in Doug that he didn't see in himself," says Robert Jr., who was once a pitcher in the Cleveland Indians farm system. "I pushed him to overcome mediocrity. Those who want to be average—who just go through the motions—will miss the boat."

Doug overcame more than mediocrity while playing American Legion ball in Baton Rouge in 1971, the first year Legion teams in the city were integrated. Robert Jr. was the league's only black coach, and his Central Sealtest team had the only black players—Doug, his brother Manzie and three others.

"May we help you?" league officials asked Robert Jr. when he walked into a rules meeting the night before the season opener.

"I'm here for the baseball meeting," he said.

"You're in the wrong place," one official snapped.

"No, I'm not," Robert Jr. said sternly.

After the meeting, the league rearranged Sealtest's schedule so that its first game was against the defending champion. "They wanted to embarrass us, to show us that we were not up to par," Robert Jr. says.

Doug struck out 14 batters and drove in four runs as Sealtest won the game. Voices in the crowd called him nigger. The name-calling continued throughout the summer. Doug was by far the league's best pitcher. "The more they called him nigger, the harder he threw the ball," says Manzie, 31. "Our father always told us, 'When people call you nigger, be so good at what you're doing they'll have to call you Mr. Nigger.' "

By his senior year, Doug was a major league baseball prospect. In one American Legion game, he struck out 20 batters. However, he preferred football. Nicknamed the Rifleman because of his powerful arm, Williams passed for 1,800 yards and 22 touchdowns in his final season as Chaneyville High's quarterback. Southern University and Mississippi Valley State recruited him. Then, late one night, Eddie Robinson, the legendary football coach of the Grambling Tigers, telephoned to offer him a scholarship after reading about the Rifleman in a newspaper clipping. "I accepted," Williams says, "without meeting him in person."

The first season Williams was red-shirted. The next season he was the Tigers' third-string quarterback until the fifth game. Then he got his chance and directed Grambling to a 21-0 victory over Tennessee State. He was the No. 1 man for the rest of his Grambling career. Williams threw a touchdown in all but one of his 40 games and passed for 93 touchdowns and 8,411 yards, still Grambling records. He finished fourth in Heisman Trophy balloting, the highest finish at the time by a black quarterback. "That was the first time I knew I was a 'black quarterback,' " Williams says. "Before then, I had only seen quarterbacks who were black."

Robinson never warned Williams about prejudice against black quarterbacks in the NFL. "Coach Rob believes in America," Williams says. "If you live in America, he says, you will get opportunities like everybody else. He never tells you what you can't do or what they won't let you do."

Even former Grambling quarterback James Harris failed to warn Williams about the obstacles he would face in the pros. On his visits to the campus, he never talked to Williams about prejudice he felt he had encountered when he was with the Los Angeles Rams. "Doug was the most talented college quarterback I have ever seen in my life," says Harris, now a college scout for Tampa Bay. "I didn't want to put negative thoughts in his mind. I was afraid that might work against him.

"I couldn't tell him that things were not going to be fair, that he was going to be criticized and unliked. The only thing I told him was to make sure he could read defenses and to be prepared to play as soon as possible. Because I knew he wouldn't be given a lot of room."

Ashley Monique Williams, 5, is twirling in front of the nearly 100 shiny athletic trophies—most of them earned by her father—in her grandmother's living room. She's dressed in bib overalls and pink slippers with Miss Piggy's head on the toes. She's sucking her thumb and clutching a pint-sized gray T-shirt with a drawing of her daddy in his Redskins uniform on the front.

When Janice died, Doug asked his mother to raise Ashley Monique. She instantly agreed. "The child needed a mother," he says. "And she needed to grow up just like me—in Zachary."

Williams was a lonely gypsy after his wife's death, living in furnished apartments in Tulsa, Phoenix and Reston, Va., wherever pro football took him. He tried to find another Janice at every stop, but nobody came close. He missed Ashley Monique very much and phoned home at least once a day to check on her. "If I ever needed an excuse to be an alcoholic or a drug head, Janice's death was it," Williams says. "You never get used to death. But somehow I was strong enough to overcome it."

In October '86, while making the Redskins' 12th Man rock video, he met Lisa Robinson, now 25, one of the video's executive producers. They explored Washington together. He talked endlessly about M'Dear's red beans and rice. On their third date she brought him store-bought barbecued ribs. "If they weren't made in Zachary, they aren't worth eating," he told her.

Last June 6, Lisa and Doug were married at the Greater Philadelphia Baptist Church in Zachary. More than 700 people attended the ceremony, and many of them had to listen to the Reverend Odell Tickles from the front lawn. Ashley Monique carried a lacy basket filled with silk flowers.

"Marrying Lisa was the turning point in Doug's life," says Jimmie Giles, who was an usher. "Doug was finally able to put the past behind him, to cope with it, and get on with his life. Good things have happened to him ever since."

Says Williams, "Through all the frustrations in my life I've realized it could have been worse. I have a lot more than most people. I've been lucky and blessed."

PHOTOJERRY WACHTERWilliams, says his brother, has never been one to let obstacles get the best of him. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERThe NFC title game wasn't his best, but Williams kept his grip on the quarterback job. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERZachary's favorite son has done the hometown proud. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERIn and around Zachary, the quarterback's kin outnumber his trophies. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERHer father wanted Ashley to stay in familiar surroundings.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)