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How an Underpaid Backup QB Broke Barriers & Won The Super Bowl

In Tampa, Doug Williams was the 54th highest-paid QB despite being the starter. Here’s how he became an NFL legend.

The story of how Doug Williams became the first Black QB to win the Super Bowl
Credit-NFL/AP/Joker Mag

Doug Williams is a regular attendee of the annual Bayou Classic game. If you’re ever in New Orleans the Saturday after Thanksgiving, expect to experience a spectacle.

Described by some as a big family reunion, the Bayou Classic kicks off with an elaborate parade on Saturday afternoon. It features alumni and students from Grambling State University and Southern University.

The two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) take the field that evening. They both aim to stake a claim at the coveted Bayou Classic Trophy.

The halftime show is admired just as highly as the game. Both schools boast two of the most extraordinary bands, battling for bragging rights.

Beyond the baton twirling, scrumptious seafood, and high-octane offenses on the field, a proud tradition of over five decades continues in the Deep South.

It’s unrivaled in college football.

Doug Williams played in that game from 1974 to 1977 for Grambling State University. He never lost to their rivals at Southern.

He holds his experience at an HBCU as a pivotal experience in his life’s journey. 

“[HBCUs] offer [learning about] survival,” Williams said.

“On the football field, we didn’t have the best of facilities, but we had damn good players. Coach Rob used to tell us we had done so much with so little, we could do anything with almost nothing.”

Williams blazed a path from little that opened doors for many.

He became the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl in 1988 for the Washington Redskins. Often overlooked and doubted, he made a habit of proving naysayers wrong throughout his career.

Doug Williams grew up in Zachary, Louisiana, a small town 16 miles north of Baton Rouge. He was the sixth of eight children.

They grew up with little money and had no indoor plumbing. During that period, the city was also segregated and the family would see routine images of deep-seated racism.

“It wasn’t unusual where we lived, on a Friday or Saturday night, to have a cross burning in the community,” said Doug’s older brother, Robert.

Young Doug Williams was a strong-willed and gifted athlete. He went to Chaneyville High School where he started his football career as a linebacker, but later switched to quarterback.

That’s when he began to make his mark. 

In his senior year, he threw for 1,180 yards and 22 touchdowns. During that era of football, those numbers should have warranted serious consideration from many colleges.

But during the 1970s, black quarterbacks were like unicorns: mythical creatures.

A stigma surrounded them that they were incapable of good decision-making and being able to lead a team.

But Coach Eddie Robinson of Grambling State University always hunted for talented black players and spotted Williams’ explosive potential. He offered Doug a scholarship to play for the Tigers in 1973.

Williams hit the ground running as the starting QB at Grambling State. He ended up with an overall record of 36-7, throwing for over 8,000 yards and 93 touchdowns. 

He still holds multiple school records almost five decades later: the most passing yards in a season (3,286), most career yards (8,411), most career completions (484), most touchdowns in a season (38), most touchdowns in a game (7), and most career touchdowns (93).

A rarity among HBCU players, he finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1977.

Along with the records, Williams was a winner. He led the Tigers to three Black College National Championships and two Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) titles.

But the NFL didn’t want to pay him much attention.

Doug Williams on his time with Tampa Bay: "I was the 54th highest-paid QB and I was the starter. My backup on my team made more money than me."

Out of 28 teams at the time, only one visited Williams to work him out and scout him. Joe Gibbs, the offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, took a trip to the Bayou and was impressed by what he saw. 

In his scouting report, Gibbs called Williams “football smart” and ranked him as the best quarterback in the draft.

At the time, the hapless Tampa Bay Bucs had very little to lose. They’d just become a franchise in 1976 but had yet to win a game in two full seasons.

Following Gibbs’ advice, the Bucs drafted Williams in the first round of the 1978 NFL draft. He became the first black quarterback ever drafted in the first round.

Playing under the winningest coach in college football history at Grambling State helped him change Tampa’s fortunes. He started 10 games his rookie season and won four of them, a revelation to the desperate fan base.

But his season was cut short when he broke his jaw against the LA Rams. He still played in their final game of the season, showing his toughness, but could not call audibles due to his wired-shut jaw.

Doug Williams took the Bucs to new heights in his second season as a starter. They went 10-6 and made their first franchise appearance in the conference championship game.

All in all, Tampa made the playoffs in three out of five seasons with Williams at the helm. He was named the MVP of the Bucs in 1980 and 1982, throwing for over 3,000 yards in both seasons.

Even though he was a proven winner and leader, he faced constant racism and disrespect.

While in Tampa, he was paid $120,000 a year, the lowest salary for a starting quarterback.

“I was the 54th highest-paid QB and I was the starter,” Williams said.

“My backup on my team made more money than me.”

Frustrated with the lack of financial compensation for his play on the field, he asked owner Hugh Culverhouse for a $600,000 contract. But Culverhouse refused to go beyond his initial offer of $400,000.

Full of pride and dismay from the unappreciation, Williams decided to sit out the 1983 season.

He returned home to Zachary, LA, and briefly served as a substitute teacher at the middle school where his brother was principal.

Williams was one to stand on his principles, even if it meant putting a hold on his NFL career.

The birth of the United States Football League (USFL) in 1983 rebirthed Williams’ hopes to play football. He signed with the Oklahoma Outlaws for a $3 million contract, making him one of the highest-paid players in all of pro football.

He was finally getting compensated for what he felt he deserved. Unfortunately, the league was short-lived.

After three seasons, the USFL folded due to financial issues.

Williams found himself again out of a job. But his journey would come full circle. 

Joe Gibbs, his former coach from the Tampa Bay Bucs, was now the head coach of the Washington Redskins.

In 1986, Gibbs asked Williams if he would be interested in signing as a backup to starting quarterback Jay Schroeder. Doug jumped at the opportunity to play football again at the highest level.

Fast forward to the 1987-1988 season and Washington was a solid, playoff-bound team. Even though he only started two games that season, Williams was chosen to lead the Redskins through the playoffs with his superior 94.0 passer rating. 

After dispatching the Bears and then the Vikings in the conference championship game, the Redskins found themselves in their second Super Bowl in six seasons. 

But this time was different.

Doug Williams was set to become the first black quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl. The historical significance was obvious to him, but he tried to stay grounded. 

“Being myself, being an African American quarterback? I knew exactly what I was in for, but the most important thing was not to get caught up in it and that’s when the emotion comes in. Keep your emotion out of it.”

Having faced adversity throughout his career, the Super Bowl was no different for Williams. The day before the biggest event on the biggest stage, he had an abscessed tooth. The tooth had to be removed and required him to have a six-hour root canal surgery.

As if that wasn’t enough, Williams went down towards the end of the first quarter, hyper-flexing his left knee.

But he hadn’t made it this far just to make it this far.

“I felt if I could walk, I could set up,” he said. “No matter what the pain was.”

Doug Williams quote: "Don’t count yourself out, whatever you want to do. I never saw myself as the backup...and those opportunities will come if you just keep working."

Toughing it out, he returned with a brace. But the Redskins faced an uphill battle.

They were down 10-0 to start the second quarter and had been outgained in yards 64 to 142 by the Denver Broncos.

Neither he nor the Redskins expected what happened next.

“We didn’t say we were going in there and scoring 35 points on 18 plays,” said Williams.

“We went in there with the idea of being able to execute what was called. After it was over, everyone was amazed. It was something out of a storybook, you couldn’t even write a story like that knowing you were part of something of historic proportions.”

The Redskins, led by Williams, set a Super Bowl record that still stands to this day. They scored five touchdowns in that second quarter to go into halftime up 35-10. 

Williams started the rally with an 80-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Sanders, tying the record for longest touchdown pass. He swiftly added three more touchdown passes in a relentless barrage on the shell-shocked Denver defense.

Williams ended the day 18 of 29 with four touchdowns (all in the second quarter). He set the Super Bowl record for most touchdown passes thrown in a quarter. Most importantly, the Redskins won their second title of the decade.

Williams won Super Bowl MVP, becoming the first Black quarterback to win the award.

“I know a lot of people wanted to make it about me,” Williams said.

“Being Black and playing in the Super Bowl, that was great. But, for me, I just happened to be the quarterback of the Washington Redskins, who just happened to be Black. That’s how I looked at it. I went out on that field with one thing in mind, and that was finding a way to win.”

Today, he serves as the Senior Advisor to the president of the now-Washington Commanders. He uses his experience of paving the way for future black quarterbacks to create opportunities for others.

In 2022, the HBCU Legacy Bowl played its inaugural game in New Orleans. Williams is co-owner of the HBCU Legacy Bowl along with fellow former Grambling State quarterback James “Shack” Harris (who became the first black quarterback to start and win a playoff game with the LA Rams in 1974). 

The HBCU Legacy Bowl showcases the best draft-eligible football players from HBCUs. The game is broadcast on NFL Network.

It has resulted in 36 players who were drafted, signed as a free agent, or worked out with a team in a camp.

To this day, Doug Williams gets a ton of fanfare wherever he goes. He’s still most known for his ground-breaking performance with the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII.

People still remember where they were when they witnessed history being made.

With his legacy secured, Williams continues to inspire future generations to achieve more.

“I say this to anybody out there: Don’t count yourself out, whatever you want to do. I never saw myself as the backup. I prepared [to become] the starter, and those opportunities will come if you just keep working.”

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Written By

Rodney is a freelance writer and alum of the University of Georgia. He grew up in the Atlanta area but now resides in Tampa, FL. His interests include sports, writing, reading, and talking smack about his favorite sports teams.

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