By Lenny Moon
The year was 1988, the 68th year that football was played professionally by the National Football League. Fritz Pollard is said to be the first Black gridder to play in the NFL, while Marlin Briscoe is recorded as the first African American to become a starting quarterback in the league by the Denver Broncos in 1968. Along the way, gradual steps were being made by the Black signal callers such as the Los Angeles Rams James “Shack” Harris (GSU) evolving to earn Pro Bowl status in 1974. That same contest, Harris walked away with the Most Valuable Player award; both of course the first of its kind. Warren Moon was forced to matriculate across the border to Canada in 1978, to have an opportunity to apply his craft as a pro quarterback; totally overlooked by the NFL after earning PAC-8 Player of the Year while at the University of Washington. He led his Huskies to an upset victory over highly favored Michigan, but still was requested to change positions to be considered as a candidate to play in the league.
To his credit, Moon made the most of maximizing his opportunity while with the Edmonton Eskimos, leading them to five Grey Cup (their version of a Super Bowl) championships in his six seasons there. It required this type of eye-popping performance by the Los Angeles, Ca native to capture the attention of the USA’s NFL. In 1984, the pro football world witnessed a bidding war for a signal caller from north of the border who was once totally overlooked from getting a shot six year earlier. The Houston Oilers ultimately won the hotly contested bidding war, making the rifle-arm field general the highest paid player in the game. Once upgraded talent was plugged in to complement their talented quarterback, Moon became one of the best in the NFL and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
With that being provided as the foundation, it was perhaps poetic justice that a protégé of legendary college football coach Eddie Robinson would evolve into a history making figure. In addition to the aforementioned “Shack” Harris, there was a Heisman Trophy candidate, signal caller being developed out of that same Grambling State program during the late 70’s. Although Doug Williams finished fourth in the Heisman balloting to Earl Campbell in 1977, his road to become the first Black QB to take a snap in the Super Bowl was not a smooth one. Selected with the 17th pick of the first round of the 1978 NFL Draft by Tampa, Williams led a downtrodden franchise into one that participated in the playoffs in three of his five seasons there. When it came time to be compensated fair market value, Doug was forced to weigh other options and selected the then fledgling United State Football League for two seasons. When that league folded, Williams was completely out of football until Joe Gibbs and the Washington Redskins came calling representing his only NFL offer.
Brought in to be an understudy to starter Jay Schroeder, the Zachary, La native was called upon to lead the Skins in their 1987 playoff run, with victories over Chicago and Minnesota due to an injury to Schroeder. This propelled Williams to the stage that no other Black signal caller before him had ever experienced, Super Bowl XXII vs the Denver Broncos and certain hall of famer John Elway. With the weight of the world on his shoulders, the GSU product was actually injured in the first half, by hyper-extended his knee while dropping back to throw. But before the half ended and trailing 10-0, Williams spearheaded his team to 35 unanswered points throwing for four touchdown passes. The Redskins defeated the Broncos 42-10, with Williams procuring the MVP trophy and establishing a multitude of Super Bowl passing records in the process.
I remember asking Doug about that Super Bowl contest and his vivid memories from that history-making game. As opposed to reflecting on the X’s and O’s, he promptly offered being greeted by his college coach in the tunnel while heading toward the locker room. “Coach (Robinson) had tears in his eyes as we embraced. He told me that son, I’m so proud that you got back up and finished the job” he stated. All told, the rifle-armed QB led his team to a record 35 points in a quarter, four TD passes in a quarter and 306 yards passing in one half. This was accomplished despite being asked during Media Day of Super Bowl Week, “How long have you been a Black quarterback?”.