What Doug Williams’ historic Super Bowl victory meant to D.C. The city had a real love for its comfortably middle-class black quarterback
“I’m going to Disney World!”
Thirty years later, as a native Washingtonian, watching Doug Williams — the first African-American quarterback to start in a Super Bowl game — scream this assertion of athletic excellence into a TV camera remains an ageless pleasure. After all, he had just been named the MVP of the Washington Redskins’ 42-10 romp over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII.
Upon my most recent viewing of my VHS cassette of this moment, my mother made a poignant statement. “Doug was black, Doug was amazing, and I don’t know if the Redskins will ever be that good again!”
My mom was right. The Redskins, with a franchise bearing almost as many wins as losses in the past 30 years, have been underwhelming. Moreover, it’s also easy to argue that since an epic evening on the last day of January in 1988, Washington, D.C., hasn’t been so black and so amazing, either.
In 1988, two out of three D.C. residents were black, and our infamous black mayor, Marion Barry, was three terms into a dynamic run wherein the scourges of cocaine and gun violence ran rampant citywide. But, also under his reign, the city’s teenage youths were provided summer jobs, senior citizens received guaranteed care, and in general, many black people, like my mother, slowly ascended from near poverty into middle-class respectability via jobs working in various departments of the city’s government.
The historical narrative between the Redskins and D.C.’s African-American population is not as favorable. It suffers from one-time owner George Preston Marshall being forced by the Kennedy administration to integrate the team. African-American Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis was drafted in 1961, then was traded to the Cleveland Browns for black flanker Bobby Mitchell. By 1987, the racial tensions surrounding the team had decreased. Coach Joe Gibbs, owner Jack Kent Cooke and general manager Bobby Beathard put together a championship-level franchise.
According to Edward Underwood, a Washington, D.C.-based sports fan, photographer, father of two, and my fourth-grade classmate at public D.C. school Bunker Hill Elementary, the Redskins’ front office and staff in 1988 had put together a team that “was so black and so brilliant.”
“Darrell Green at cornerback,” Underwood said. “George Rogers was on that team at halfback. Charles Mann. Dexter Manley. The ‘Posse’ of wide receivers of Art Monk, Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark. And then there was Doug, who Joe Gibbs plucked from obscurity. He was in the USFL.”
The Redskins were in first place in the NFC East for most of the 1987 season, and Williams as a starter had captured the city’s imagination after the “scabs” legendarily led the Skins to an undefeated record during the 1987 players strike. The team was so successful that a T-shirt and sweatshirt emblazoned with a picture of the quarterback and the slogan “Doug Williams: A Touch of Class” was sold by then-Hyattsville, Maryland, retail shop Shirt Xplosion.
This apparel represents — even a quarter-century later — an iconic footnote in black D.C. history. Shirt Xplosion owner and now Smart Fans founder Fred Fillah said, “Bob Piper, Doug’s manager of sorts, came to the shop. He was humble, wanted a shirt for Doug. When you’re winning, anything you do is gonna sell.”
Williams had primarily taken over at quarterback for 1986’s incumbent Jay Schroeder. Important to note here is that Williams bore similarities to many of Washington, D.C.’s, residents in 1987, which added to his connection to the community. Williams was a Zachary, Louisiana-born transplanted black Southerner who once famously was only paid a solidly upper middle-class $120,000 a year while leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC Championship Game as a starter in 1979. In comparison, Schroeder was a white quarterback who earned a robust $404,000 as a starter in his first full season of 1986.
Regarding the city’s love for its comfortably middle-class black quarterback, Underwood said, “Man, at a certain point, I don’t think anybody liked Jay, locally. Once we knew Doug could do the job as a leader and player, and he was black? He was the guy.”
“Doug was such a gentleman, handled himself like such a professional at all times, and represented something in which all black people in D.C. could be proud,” said Kamal Ali, the second-generation owner of the iconic and African-American-founded Ben’s Chili Bowl franchise in Washington, D.C. The U Street N.W. location has been frequented by six decades of sources of pride in the African-American community such as Duke Ellington, President Barack Obama, and others.
Fillah reminisced, “the African-American public lined up in droves [for the ‘A Touch of Class’ line]. Regardless of race, everyone did. Doug was, indeed, classy.”
The now-septuagenarian Fillah estimates well over 100,000 shirts sold from their then-Hyattsville headquarters and retail locations stocking the shirt.
“There were lines and lines of people,” Fillah said. “The shirt got so popular that people started knocking the shirt off. It got so bad that I had to go on television to describe to a reporter how we used Zipatone dots to achieve skin tone coloration in the fingernails on our ‘official’ version of the shirt.”
I wore my “A Touch of Class” sweatshirt that was given to me as a Christmas present to school the week that the Redskins played the Chicago Bears in the divisional playoff on Jan. 10, 1988. Sadly, it failed the Zipatone dot test. But I wore my T-shirt, though a size too small, throughout the entire playoff run and during Super Bowl XXII. When next September rolled around, I pulled it out of the mothballs, and it was now, somehow, two sizes too small. But I still proudly had it in my closet. I took it down when, after complications from appendicitis during the 1988 season, Williams was replaced by then-rookie Mark Rypien, who would wrest the starting job from Williams, and eventually be the MVP of the Redskins’ triumph in Super Bowl XXVI following the 1991 season.
In the years following Jan. 31, 1988, a series of unfortunate setbacks have befallen black progress in the nation’s capital. These failures have often wounded our pride in our community and ourselves.
Williams retired from the NFL following the 1989 campaign. On Jan. 18, 1990, 24 days after the end of that year’s regular season, then-mayor Barry was arrested for possession of cocaine while freebasing crack cocaine before engaging in extramarital sexual activity. He subsequently served a six-month prison sentence for perjury and drug possession. Soon thereafter, Redskins coach Gibbs retired from the NFL in 1993.
Then, to add legislative insult to athletic injury, from 1995-2001, the D.C. government’s finances were, due to a $722 million budget deficit accrued after Barry’s three terms as mayor, overseen by a congressional “financial control board.” The board’s first significant cuts were to the government payroll, elderly welfare benefits and youth programs.
Barry was re-elected as D.C. mayor and served from 1995-1999, and Gibbs came out of retirement to coach the Redskins again from 2004-2007. However, neither achieved the same level of success they had in 1988.
Also since 1990, Washington, D.C., had become one of America’s most infamous studies for the ills of gentrification, as the African-American population has dipped 20 percent while the white population rose by the same figure. Much of this is due to economic disparity that has displaced many middle- and lower-class blacks to the city’s immediate suburbs.
On Oct. 18, 2011, Tom Sherwood, a noted D.C. journalist and co-author of essential D.C. historical tome Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., foretold the racial and social future of Washington, D.C.
“[D.C.] has been a seat of black power for four decades. Economic power is going to change this city. I just hope we don’t do it in a way that African-Americans are left out. But I fear that’s going to happen.”
Since the era of Doug Williams, the Redskins have faltered on the field, and the sports-loving eyes of many African-American fans have turned elsewhere.
Ali said, “I’m enjoying baseball these days. The Senators left town when I was very young in 1971, so it’s great to see the Nationals playing so well. It’s a new experience.”
Washington, D.C., sports teams such as the Bullets/Wizards have featured black icons such as Michael Jordan in their lineups. But, in Jordan shooting fadeaway jumpers in the paint at the Capital One Arena, as “Chocolate City … and its vanilla suburbs” (as George Clinton called it) was in the midst of inverting upon that lyric’s demographic proclamation, the effect of black excellence on black people’s everyday existence was just not the same.
As Ali said, “D.C. is doing well economically as a city right now.” But as far as African-Americans are concerned, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and yes, people are leaving. It’s bittersweet.”
While I was preparing to complete this story, D.C.-based podcaster and journalist Geronimo Collins called me, and upon deeper reflection about what I was working on, said: “If Doug Williams wasn’t winning games for the Redskins, that meant something wasn’t quite right with D.C. Super Bowl XXII? So many fans sadly hold onto this day.”
Collins was a 6-year-old resident of the suburban D.C. outpost of Oxon Hill, Maryland, in 1988.
“When I knew Doug wasn’t coming back to the Redskins, I didn’t watch football again for 15 years,” he said. “Without Doug behind center, there was no reason to watch football.”