Twenty-five years ago, when Doug Williams shook off a first-quarter knee injury to pass for a then-record 340 yards and four touchdowns in the Redskins' 42-10 win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, he collected his MVP trophy and was greeted in the stadium tunnel by his legendary coach at Grambling, Eddie Robinson.
"The first thing Coach Robinson told me, I would not understand the impact of that moment until I got older," Williams said of becoming the first Super Bowl-winning African-American quarterback.
Robinson was right.
Williams understood the story line heading into that Super Bowl. He didn't begrudge people for focusing on the historical significance. But at 32 and having been through some trials in his career — from being allowed to walk in 1982 when the Buccaneers didn't re-sign him, to struggling for two seasons in the NFL, to joining the Redskins as a backup — Williams was more focused on winning the game than blazing a trail for black quarterbacks.
"Everybody was talking about a black quarterback going to the Super Bowl," said Williams, drafted 17th overall by the Bucs in 1978. "Black quarterback this and black quarterback that. But for me, it was an opportunity to quarterback the Redskins in the Super Bowl. It wasn't about color for me because from the day I stepped in Tampa, everybody let me know I was a black quarterback.
"Winning the game was all that mattered to me. I understood all the hoopla and all the aggravations and all the articles that were going to be written. But it was important I didn't get too deep into that. Let the people who are writing about it do their jobs. But at the same time, I had a job to do and that was to go out and play the best I could in the Super Bowl."
It almost didn't happen.
Late in the first quarter of that Super Bowl, Williams set up to pass and his right leg slid out from under him. As he fell, he twisted his left knee. On his way back to the huddle, he collapsed.
Jay Schroeder replaced Williams for two plays — a sack and an incompletion — forcing the Redskins to punt.
"It was ugly, and I was fortunate enough to be able to get up and walk away and finish that football game," Williams said. "Even though at the end of the day I was in tremendous pain.
"(Coach) Joe (Gibbs) asked that question before we got the ball in the second quarter. Joe Gibbs came to the back of the bench and said, 'Can you go?' I said, 'Yeah.' I went back in the second quarter and the first play was a touchdown. At that time, I didn't think Joe or anybody else worried about my knee."
Gibbs had been on the Bucs staff during Williams' rookie year at Tampa Bay. So when the United States Football League folded, Gibbs brought Williams to D.C. to back up Schroeder.
Williams replaced a struggling Schroeder in the final game of the regular season against the Vikings and won the game. At the next news conference, Gibbs announced that Williams would be the starter in the postseason.
Williams didn't disappoint. After returning from his knee injury in the Super Bowl, he led the Redskins to five touchdowns in five possessions and established a postseason record for one quarter of 35 points. Williams had nine completions in 11 attempts for 228 yards and four touchdowns, and his scoring passes covered 80, 27, 50 and 8 yards.
Williams, 57, still hasn't watched an entire replay of that Super Bowl. He saw parts of it for only the third time this week when he taped something for CBS.
"That day, after I walked off that field, tomorrow didn't even matter to me," Williams said. "Yes, that was history. But whether I played another down, it didn't matter to me because I had that same feeling Martin Luther King talked about, I'd been to the mountaintop. Plain and simple, I was at the mountaintop so nothing else mattered to me. I understood the significance of it. I understood the significance of it before, I just didn't buy into it."
What else did Robinson say to Williams in that tunnel?
"He said to me, it was like Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling," Williams said. "That's how he described the Super Bowl.
"You wake up in the morning, I do, I think about the fact that it happened, and I think about the fact that I was the one it happened to. Then I think about the fact that even if it hadn't been me, it was good that it happened."