Free-Fall from the Top

It has been only three years since Dong Williams (left) and Timmy Smith shone in Super Bowl XXII for the Redskins, and already their NFL careers seem long over
January 28, 1991

Five days before Super Bowl XXII, the Washington Redskins held a hard-hitting, high-spirited practice at the University of San Diego. Shortly after the start of one drill—any defensive player who forced a running back to fumble was rewarded with a case of soda—Timmy Smith, a painfully shy rookie from Texas Tech, was stripped of the football, twice. Quarterback Doug Williams, sweaty and exhausted, loped to the huddle after the second fumble and gave Smith an earful.

"Listen, you——," Williams bellowed. "I've been trying to get to this——for 11 years, and I'm not going to let you screw it up! If you fumble that——on Sunday, I'll personally kick you in the ass."

Smith laughed. "O.K., Old Man," he said. Then, noticing tears in Williams's eyes, Smith quickly changed his tone. "I'll run hard, Old Man," he said seriously. "I'll make you proud of me."

Williams, on the brink of making history as the first black to start at quarterback in a Super Bowl, was nervous and worried. At the time, he was the only Redskin player who knew that Smith would be making his first NFL start on Super Sunday. During the regular season, Smith had rushed for 126 yards, but in the team's two playoff games he had run for 138.

As it turned out, Williams and Smith were magnificent in leading Washington to a crushing 42-10 victory over the Denver Broncos, who had taken a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. When Williams entered the huddle at the beginning of the second quarter, he barked, "Let's get this sucker rolling!" and Washington went on to the biggest quarter in Super Bowl history—356 yards of total offense and five touchdowns on five-possessions for a 35-10 lead at the half. Williams, who completed 18 of 29 passes for 340 yards and four touchdowns, a Super Bowl record at the time, was named the Most Valuable Player. Smith, who didn't fumble, carried 22 times for a Super Bowl-record 204 yards and two touchdowns.

At the final gun, Williams and Smith went their separate ways. The Old Man shuffled off the field at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, thrusting his helmet into the air. After looking into a camera and telling everybody he was "going to Disney World!" in a prearranged commercial endorsement, Williams bowed his head and, under his breath, told all the critics who had ever doubled his quarterbacking ability where-they could go. Meanwhile, Smith danced gleefully in the end zone with teammates Reggie Branch and Vernon Dean. And when he finally reached the locker room, he was overwhelmed by the crush of the media. Smith began sweating profusely, and as the microphones and minicams and notepads pressed forward to record his story, he suddenly developed a splitting headache and a severe case of lockjaw.

Williams and Smith had given two of the greatest performances in Super Bowl history. Who would have thought, in the hysteria of the Redskin locker room on Jan. 31, 1988, that less than three years later, both players would be bitter, angry and out of football?

The gold four-wheel-drive vehicle crawls along Louisiana Highway 64, winding through downtown Zachary (pop. 8,971) on a mid-December afternoon. Doug Williams is driving, and he's retracing the route of the homecoming parade that was held in his honor two weeks after his glorious Super Sunday. More than 40,000 people had lined the two-mile route, with many decked out in Redskin burgundy and gold, waving pennants and pompoms and homemade signs that read CONGRATULATIONS 17! and WE LOVE YOU DOUG! High school marching bands played Hail to the Redskins. Robert and Laura Williams, Doug's parents, and all seven of his brothers and sisters rode in new sedans near the front of the parade, while Doug, his wife, Lisa, and Ashley, his daughter by his deceased first wife, brought up the rear in a shiny convertible.

"There were so many faces I knew," Williams recalls. "It was like seeing somebody in my family. People would step off the curb to shake my hand or get an autograph. It was a great day. Just perfect."

The cheers and adulation came fast and furious after the Super Bowl. There were telegrams from Rev. Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. There were telephone calls from Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson and singer Dionne Warwick. When the Redskins were honored by the District of Columbia on the steps of the Capitol, Senator Edward Kennedy proclaimed that Williams had accomplished more for civil rights in one football game than the Reagan Administration had in eight years.

Williams grew up in Zachary, which is 15 miles from Baton Rouge, in a five-room house with no indoor plumbing. Back then, a plastic Clorox jug served as a makeshift football. But now, at 35, Williams lives alone in a large brick house. He went through a messy public divorce in early 1989, and now Lisa lives in Atlanta with their son, Adrian, 2. Ashley is eight and lives with Doug's mother in a house he can see from his backyard.

Williams's home is filled with Super Bowl memorabilia: the silver MVP trophy; his game shoes, which have been bronzed; some bottles of Washington Redskins Super Bowl burgundy wine; framed front pages from newspapers across the country, with headlines trumpeting his success; knickknacks sent to him by fans, most commemorating the Golden Quarter; and much more.

"Sixty points wasn't out of reach," Williams says of the Redskins' offensive capability against the Broncos. "We went conservative in the second half and threw only eight passes, because [Redskins coach] Joe Gibbs and [Bronco coach] Dan Reeves are friends. The second quarter reminded me of one of those nights you have in a high school basketball game, when everything you throw up goes in. Every play we called was perfect."

Last fall, while traveling to college football games as a commentator for the Black Entertainment Network, Williams was constantly reminded that he was a symbol of black achievement. Leon Bey, the athletic director at Virginia State, a predominantly black Division II school, told Williams that his entire family was in tears while they were watching him in the Super Bowl. "That's how much it meant," Williams says, shaking his head. "I was stunned."

Williams now admits that he felt somewhat uncomfortable in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. On the Skins' flight to San Diego, he thought of how he would answer questions about his role as a black quarterback. He wanted to be certain he would articulate his thoughts clearly under the strain created by the media onslaught. In the daily press conferences, he tried to downplay the historical significance, reiterating that he was the Redskin quarterback—not the black quarterback.

Deep inside, though, he was about to burst. "I wanted to scream, 'I'm glad I'm doing this for black America!' " Williams says. "But what if I'd been a failure?"

When he was around his teammates, Williams tried to hide the pressure he was feeling and, in fact, didn't discuss the black-quarterback subject with any of them. He worried that his Super Bowl start was being made into a bigger story than the team's accomplishments, and he was afraid it would result in his being alienated from the rest of the Redskins. But he found out their sentiments early in the second quarter. Williams had just returned to the game, after being sidelined briefly with a hyperextended left knee, when he completed an 80-yard pass play to wide receiver Ricky Sanders for Washington's first TD. Walking to the sideline after the play, tackle Joe Jacoby, who is white, assured Williams. "Joe said, 'White, black, green, yellow. You're our quarterback,' " Williams says. "Then he patted me on the back and said, 'We're going to win with you.' I knew then, it wasn't an individual thing, and it wasn't a black thing. It was a team thing."

After the game, Eddie Robinson, who was Williams's coach at Grambling State University, embraced him under the goalposts and called him "the Jackie Robinson of football." The comparison puzzled Williams then, and three years later, he still doesn't see where his performance has made an impact. "I've never really sat down and thought about what I did for black America," he says. "I didn't see the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight. I didn't see Jackie Robinson steal home. So I can't picture what I've done.

"What did I change? Nothing. If there were now 10 or 12 black quarterbacks in the NFL, some black backups and third-teamers, then I'd think I had changed something. The NFL would still rather draft a [white] guy from Slippery Rock than give a black quarterback a chance. Maybe I'll feel I've made a difference when an Art Shell wins the Super Bowl."

In the two seasons following the Super Bowl, Williams started just 12 games for the Redskins. Injuries limited his playing time and opened the door for his backup, Mark Rypien, a 1986 sixth-round draft pick from Washington State who had spent his first two seasons on injured reserve. Six weeks after the Super Bowl, Williams had surgery on his left knee for the fifth time. Then there was an emergency appendectomy in the fourth week of the '88 season, which sidelined him for four games. And finally, in August 1989, he needed back surgery after injuring himself while jogging on a treadmill in his Zachary home. He returned to start two games in midseason after Rypien was benched, and he relieved Rypien in two other games.

Last February, the Redskins left Williams unprotected during the Plan B free-agent signing period, but with his $1.2 million salary, brittle knees and questionable back, no other team expressed an interest in signing him. On March 30, Gibbs told Williams the Redskins were placing him on waivers, preferring to go with their young quarterbacks, Rypien and Stan Humphries, a 1988 sixth-round pick. Soon after, the team signed 33-year-old backup quarterback Jeff Rutledge, a Plan B free agent who had been left unprotected by the New York Giants. Williams, who is 17 months older than Rutledge, was devastated. And 10 months after his release, he is still upset about how the Redskins treated him.

"Joe lied to me," Williams says. "Don't tell me you're going with a youth movement and sign Rutledge. Don't tell me you can't bear to see me as a backup. I have no problem with Rypien and Humphries. I came in as a backup [to Jay Schroeder]."

The Redskins had serious doubts that Williams could have accepted a backup role. In addition, Gibbs expressed concern about Williams's health. But Williams says, "Joe has a short memory. When he says it has to do with my back, he forgets that he played me eight weeks after back surgery. He didn't worry about my health at that point."

In truth, Williams no longer could play without suffering severe lower back pain. In April, the Los Angeles Raiders invited Williams for a tryout, and he had to take two pain relievers to get through that workout. The Raiders did not offer him a contract. Even today, the back pain, which extends down Williams's right leg, limits him to being on his feet for only 20 minutes at a time. He has to take pain relievers to play a round of golf.

Williams also wonders why the Redskins didn't offer him a job in the organization befitting his status as a Super Bowl hero. In interviews, Williams has suggested that Redskins officials begrudged him the publicity he received from community work he did in Washington, and he has leveled vague charges of racism against various members of the organization. The Redskins deny these charges and cite them as evidence of a growing bitterness on Williams's part that they feared could have led to divisiveness on the team. "When he couldn't play, there were a lot of things that changed in Doug," says one Redskins source. "There was a lot of resentment. It became a black-white issue on the team."

Today, Williams sometimes sounds confused about his abrupt fall from grace in Washington. Having spent 11 seasons in the pros—five with the Tampa Bay Bucs, two in the USFL and four with Washington—he questions why Gibbs didn't place more value on his leadership capabilities in the locker room, especially among black players. In one breath, he allows, "I know I can't play anymore." In the next, he says, with some rancor, "I understood what my Super Bowl ring meant when I was released. It symbolized what it took to get there, what was inside my heart. I was the MVP. I worked in the community. And they still cut me. I'm just a number. When you go in you're a number, when you leave you're a number."

The borrowed late-model compact eases up to a toll booth at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Timmy Smith digs into the pockets of his ripped blue jeans for a couple of bucks and mistakenly pulls out two tickets to the Phoenix Cardinals-Dallas Cowboys game that will be played a few days later, on Dec. 16. "I got them from one of the players to give to a friend," he says. "I don't go to games. I don't want to sit in the stands and have people ask me why I'm not playing. I feel like I slipped off the Empire State Building and landed flat on my face."

Ask NFL player-personnel directors why Smith was out of football 2½ years after his stunning performance in the Super Bowl, and they cite a lack of discipline and concentration, and a love for late-night partying.

"Teams questioned my work habits, and there were rumors that I was supposed to have been on drugs," says Smith, now 27. "But I've never flunked a drug test. My big problem is, I've never gone in and spoken up for myself. If teams don't want me, O.K., say that. If they don't think I have talent, O.K., say that. But don't go around making stuff up."

Caught up in the Super Bowl XXII afterglow, Smith reported to the Redskins' training camp the following summer 25 pounds overweight. Although he rushed for more than 100 yards in two of the first three games of the 1988 regular season, his mind seemed to be elsewhere. In the second game of the season, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was ejected for bumping an official during an argument with him. Three weeks later against the New York Giants, on a key down in the closing minutes of a game the Redskins would lose by a point, Smith cut inside on a running play designed to go outside.

Smith eventually lost his starting job, didn't carry the ball in the last four games and finished with 470 yards rushing. In one game he rushed 12 times for six yards. He never worked his way out of Gibbs's doghouse, and on Feb. 1,1989, a year and a day after his Super Bowl heroics, the Redskins decided not to re-sign him, leaving him unprotected under Plan B.

Smith worked out for the Miami Dolphins, who offered to pay him $100,000 for the season if he made the team, but Smith wanted more money. Knee and ankle injuries that required surgery during his career at Texas Tech caused him to flunk a physical with the Phoenix Cardinals. But the San Diego Chargers offered him a $250,000 salary if he could make their roster, and he signed with them. Smith suffered a setback in training camp when he severely sprained his left ankle, but his chances of succeeding in San Diego were damaged even more by his association with a suspected drug dealer.

"Steve Ortmayer, the director of player personnel, said I'd been seen with a drug dealer," Smith says. "I'd seen this guy after practice one day, and he asked me if I had a roommate. If not, he said, I could move in with him. I told him I already had a place. Some people on the team saw me shake his hand. The next day, the Chargers made me take a drug test."

Two weeks later he was cut. According to a Charger source, "He was seen with a drug dealer. [Coach Dan] Henning said, 'That scared the hell out of us.' Timmy didn't have football smarts. He wasn't focused on the job at hand. He was worried about what was going on that night."

Smith moved in with a friend near the Texas Tech campus in Lubbock, began working out and spent the 1989 NFL season following the progress of the league's running backs. Having fired his agent, Steve Endicott, he called player-personnel directors himself. The Dallas Cowboys agreed to give him a tryout.

"[Cowboy director of pro personnel] John Wooten was straight with me," Smith says. "He said they'd sign me, but because I'd had a bad reputation in the past, that I was supposedly using drugs, that I'd definitely be randomly tested."

Last May he reported to Dallas, determined to make a good impression. He learned both the tailback and fullback positions and was a surprise early in training camp. But when the Cowboys traded for fullback Alonzo Highsmith on Sept. 3 and when their No. 1 draft pick, Florida running back Emmitt Smith, ended his hold-out a day later, Timmy lost his job again.

"Emmitt was a No. 1 draft pick making $1 million," Smith says. "I was making $175,000. They had to prove he's a good investment. It would have made everybody look bad if I'd made the team ahead of Emmitt."

It is Smith's opinion that he has been blackballed in the NFL by Bobby Beathard, formerly the general manager of the Redskins and now the G.M. of the Chargers. "Players blackball themselves," Beathard says. "It's easy to use somebody else as an excuse. Dan Henning and [Cowboy coach] Jimmy Johnson wanted to give him a fresh start. If he's a good player and can help a team, nobody is going to listen to me. The Cowboys didn't ask me once about Timmy Smith. Timmy is his own worst enemy."

At times these days Smith still sounds like the naive rookie of Super Bowl XXII. According to Williams, Gibbs didn't want Smith to be told he was starting against the Broncos until right before the pregame warmups, because Gibbs was afraid to give Smith too much time to think about it.

"My eyes got big," Smith recalls of the moment when backfield coach Don Breaux delivered the news. "I'm glad they waited to tell me. I probably would have thrown up."

Smith kept the secret to himself as he loosened up, but when he returned to the locker room he sought out Williams. Smith promised the Old Man that he would run hard. Then he giggled about his good fortune with Branch, who said, "Kick some ass, T."

When the Washington offense exploded in the second quarter, Smith ran for 122 yards on five carries, including a 58-yard touchdown romp. "I felt so good that day, I could have gotten 300 yards," says Smith, who was removed from the game with seven minutes still to play. "I had so much confidence in the offensive line, and I was focused on what I had to do."

On the sideline during the third quarter, he debated with Sanders, who by then had caught six passes for 177 yards and two TDs, as to which of them might win the MVP trophy.

Of course, that award went to Williams. But Smith, a virtual unknown who had burst into the Super Bowl spotlight, also was the target of a media crush after the game. "All of a sudden, there were cameras and reporters in my face. It made me nervous," he says. "For 45 minutes they came up, in waves of 30 at a time. They asked my whole life story. I wanted to tell them how I felt during the game, before the game. I wanted to talk about what was deep in my heart. But I was tongue-tied. It was one of the best feelings I ever had, and I couldn't talk about it."

These days Smith feels a bit more relaxed talking about himself to strangers, which he has had to do while interviewing for jobs since being released by the Cowboys. After combing the Dallas newspapers, he sought employment at a parcel service to drive trucks and at an airline "to do anything." He wound up working for a telemarketing firm, conducting consumer surveys for $8 an hour.

But Smith hasn't given up on himself as a pro football player. He's planning to go to Orlando on Feb. 20 for a tryout with the new World League of American Football, and if he doesn't make it there, he will try to catch on with a Canadian Football League team in the spring.

Smith, like Williams, has learned that Super Bowl fame can be fleeting. But it is also enduring—for them as well as for Joe Namath and Percy Howard. Whenever he returns to his hometown of Hobbs, N.Mex., to visit his mother, Smith stops at the local bank, asks for his safe deposit box and checks on his Super Bowl ring.

"I was so young—the Super Bowl was all a dream to me," he says. "It didn't dawn on me that we won it until we got our rings. I remember right before the 1988 season, there was a ring ceremony at Redskin Park. We had a barbecue for the families. My ring was in a little blue box with a little ribbon and a white bow on top. I opened the box and said, This is mine. No matter how long I play, they will never take this away.' "

PHOTOGREGORY HEISLER PHOTOANDY HAYTWilliams, the first black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl, ably handled the pregame media rush. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERA hyperextended knee sidelined Williams for two plays, but he returned to lead the second-quarter assault. PHOTOJOHN IACONOSmith rushed for a Super Bowl-record 204 yards, and he says he easily could have reached 300. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERSmith accepted Beathard's hug in San Diego, but after a brief stint with Dallas (below), he accused his old G.M. of blackballing him. PHOTOLOUIS DELUCA/DALLAS TIMES HERALD[See caption above.]
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)