Doug Williams traveled a long road, not to mention an atypical one, to become the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
He starred at a historically black college, Grambling, before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked him in the first round of the 1978 draft — on the recommendation of then-offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs. Nine seasons later, he helped Gibbs and the Washington Redskins win Super Bowl XXII.
Williams, the subject of an upcoming sports movie biopic, put together the best quarter in Super Bowl history with four touchdown passes and earned MVP honors.
His final NFL season came in 1989, and he has spent much of the past decade in league front offices, first with the Buccaneers and since 2014 in various roles with the Redskins. Williams is currently Washington’s senior vice president of player development. He has helped mentor a number of African American quarterbacks over the years, including Jameis Winston and Dwayne Haskins.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police and the subsequent protests around the world, Williams opened up to ESPN about experiences from his childhood and playing days and shared his unique perspective on the current social unrest.
Here are Williams’ thoughts, in his own words, as told to Redskins reporter John Keim this week:
My son, D.J. [an offensive assistant with the Saints], sent me a text Saturday morning [June 6] that brought me to tears.
“You raised a strong black man! You created America’s worst nightmare. A SMART, EDUCATED, AMBITIOUS, BLACK MAN with great character. Thanks for that Pops. I can’t even begin to imagine the things you went through coming from seeing crosses burning and just your ride as a black man and a black player in this country. Love you Pops. I’m a product of you and that’s what I am most proud of my brother”
We always have had a great relationship, talking about life and how to handle situations. When he was driving back and forth to Grambling [where he went to college and played football], I used to tell him, “If you get stopped, be compliant. You’ve got to get out and say, ‘Yes, sir.'” He was going through Mississippi and a few country towns. Don’t be argumentative. He would always say, “Don’t worry about me.” But I had to worry, because he’s black and he’s driving by himself through little towns. And then to get that note? It says a lot about him and what he thinks of me. It made me feel like I’d done a decent job. He wanted me to know the impact I had on his life, that I raised a smart, educated, ambitious black man. As an older black man, that’s pretty good. Yeah, from an emotional standpoint he brought something out of me.
A new generation
Players can speak out now. The economic part of the game gives them more strength to say what they want to say. Back [when I played], you’d get cut and there were no [salary cap] implications on the team or nothing. There wasn’t any visibility or talk radio or cellphones, no tweets and no Instagram. You had nothing. You just got cut and you might never get another chance in life. When I saw that video by the players, it was powerful. And it was powerful guys in that video. That’s what made it more powerful. We’re dealing with guys you can’t call into the office and say, “You can’t say that.” It’s an amazing point.
Because I got called into the office
When I was at Grambling, all my coaches were black and everyone I played against, their coaches were black. I was asked a question after a game my rookie year in Tampa about what I thought about when the national anthem was playing. My dad served in World War II; I know the military. When they asked me that question, I said I was looking on the other side to see how many black coaches were on the sideline.
The next day I came to practice and Coach [John] McKay said, “Dougie, come to my office.” I go there and it’s Coach McKay and Tom McEwen, who was the sports editor for the Tampa Tribune. Tom told me point-blank, “You can’t make that kind of statement down here.” It threw me for a loop. I guess he got some calls. He said people were upset. … But there weren’t a lot of black coaches on the other sidelines in 1978, so I didn’t have to count long. That’s where we are today, in 2020. We’re talking 42 years ago, I got chastised for saying I was counting the number of black coaches. You just wanted to see somebody who looked like you be in position to make decisions. We had one black coach on our staff, Willie Brown, who coached the running backs. I thought I had a right to count how many black coaches were on the other side, but I got chastised.
It’s been a long road
When I see what’s going on today, there’s no one thing you can point to, but I think about this: I’m old enough to have been here during the Civil Rights time — ’65, ’67, ’68. You look at the people you thought were doing something for the African American community back in the day and something happened to them. It started in 1963. I remember being in the second grade wondering why the teacher was crying. She said President Kennedy was shot. Their thing was, he was the only person that gave blacks a chance to get from under what they had been under their whole life. They saw hope in President Kennedy.
“You raised a strong black man! You created America’s worst nightmare. A SMART, EDUCATED, AMBITIOUS, BLACK MAN with great character. Thanks for that Pops. I can’t even begin to imagine the things you went through coming from seeing crosses burning and just your ride as a black man and a black player in this country. Love you Pops. I’m a product of you and that’s what I am most proud of my brother.” D.J. Williams, son of former NFL QB Doug Williams, in a text to his dad
And then you got Martin Luther King giving himself up marching, nonviolent, getting arrested, getting calls. Little girls getting bombed in Birmingham. It was all going on because people wanted to be treated like they were supposed to be treated, like humans.
Growing up in Louisiana, we understood who the bad folks were. I’m from Zachary, Louisiana. Six miles down the road is Baker. I remember stopping at a red light and the KKK was passing out pamphlets in their hoods. That was a scare tactic to black folks, to keep them in their place.
There were so many young people, from Emmett Till  to the bombing of the little girls in Birmingham  and the Freedom Riders, the two whites and a black in Philadelphia, Mississippi, who got burned in their car . You just remember them. You go back to that, to where we are today. That’s  years and we’re still doing this. I told my wife this morning [June 8] that George Floyd will be remembered for the rest of our lives.
Out of all the Tamir Rices and Trayvon Martins, all the other blacks that were brutally killed in the arms of the police or what have you, George Floyd will stand out the most because we’re not just talking about the United States protesting, we’re talking about the world. This is the worst time with the pandemic, so there are two major issues in 2020 that should — should — change the world. Whoever thought it would be with a kneeling? There was so much controversy a few years ago about kneeling. Kneeling during the anthem is different than kneeling on the neck. Some people want to put so much emphasis on the looters. That’s a small, small, small percentage out there compared to the people peacefully protesting.
This might be a tipping point
The good thing about this is we got young folks doing it, black and white young folks, across the United States and across all seven seas. We’ve got people who can’t speak English doing it because they saw it in broad daylight. We can’t do it alone. Where are the hearts of the good people in white America? We’ve got all kinds of religious folks whose main goal is to try to get into heaven and they’re all reading the Bible and talking about God and God’s children. I grew up around the church and some things a lot of people stand for, they didn’t tell me those things in church. I’m not one to preach the Bible to nobody, but I do know being around my grandma and my mama and everyone I know that was strong religious folk, moralistically if you’re a Christian and a good person with moralistic values, you can’t put up with some of this stuff.
A lot of this is homeschooled. I’ve got eight kids, and two are in school here and they’re definitely in the minority. They don’t have a hatred bone toward no one they go to school with. I’ve had some incidents where they came home and said a little kid called them a name. How else would a second- or third-grader know to call them a certain name? You look at videos and you see a son or a daughter riding in the back of their parents’ car with their middle fingers up. That’s sickening. What kind of parents teach their kids that you’re better than the next guy? Hopefully the parents become better parents; don’t tell your kids you’re better than him because his skin is a little darker than yours. That’s so unfortunate. The last few weeks have been teaching moments.
It shows you how important race relations are, because so many came out upon this situation. That says a lot about a lot of people in this country, how important changing the culture is in the United States, which is supposed to be the strongest and the biggest. Everyone should look up to the United States and now people are looking down on us.