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Free-Fall from the Top
Jill Lieber
January 28, 1991
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
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January 28, 1991

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

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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.

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