The journey of Doug Williams is one of the great American success stories. The proliferation of black QBs in today’s NFL game can be directly linked to Williams’ ground-breaking performance 25 years ago in Super Bowl XXII, when he became the first brother to start and win a Super Bowl.
It’s never happened again, but Williams’ accomplishment was a chainsaw in cutting down prevailing myths and stereotypes about the competency of black QBs at the time. Skin Deep is an 11-part docu-series produced by Anthony Smith for the NFL Network, which explores Williams’ journey from his childhood in segregated New Orleans, his dope college career playing for legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson, his roller coaster ride with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and up to his shining moment in sports history with the Washington Redskins. The endless celebrity interviews, from Bill Cosby to RG3, put a definitive stamp on the depth of Williams’ legacy and confirm his status as a boss player in NFL history.
What was the network’s response when you pitched the documentary?
What I do during my day-to-day duties with the network is produce shorter 4-6 minute pieces. Every year, I’ll pitch something that’s a little bit longer. A documentary-length story. I went to my coordinating producer, Brian Lockhart, who will just listen to ideas all day. He came from HBO Sports and is open to new directions. It was important for me to convince whoever needed to be convinced that, not only does this story need to be told, but we can’t tip-toe around certain issues. Fortunately I really didn’t have to convince anybody to keep anything in or take anything out; my bosses were very supportive regarding the project.
Black History Month always falls in between The Super Bowl and The NFL Combine, so we always try to find a black history story that fits within that framework. The 25th anniversary of Doug Williams’ Super Bowl victory was perfect. It was Super Bowl February, the game was in New Orleans and Doug Williams is from Louisiana and went to Grambling. Just so many connections there. Then you had RG3 who was drafted, last April. I believe I pitched him in May or June before we knew exactly how big a cult icon he’d become. I felt like if RG3 even had a decent year or even a solid playoff run, there are so many tie-ins with this Doug Williams story. Brian said he’d see if he could get me some money to make it happen and from the time I pitched it, he was pretty much like go do it.
How is “Skin Deep” different from other documentaries on Doug Williams?
Other documentaries that I’ve seen over the years about Doug Williams, in video or written form, gave me pieces about him, but I never felt like I got the whole comprehensive story. There’s been a lot of focus on his time with the Redskins, and him being the first black QB to start in and win a Super Bowl. In doing this project, however, and talking to a lot of people, most of them say that what he did with Tampa Bay was almost, if not more, impressive than what he did with Washington. This was a team that at one time was 0-26, and in his second year he had them in the NFC Championship game. It’s mind-boggling when you think about it. He was also the first black QB to be drafted in the first round. There are a lot of things that haven’t been broached, as far as the story goes. He had a wife that died when he was young and he was a single dad with a daughter. He was out of the league and played in the USFL, which is another interesting, mildly visited aspect of the history of the black QB. You had leagues like the USFL and CFL with Warren Moon, which gave chances to these guys to display their skill-sets at a time when the NFL was not.
It’s been 25 years since this happened and I felt that was important considering there hasn’t been another black QB to do it since. It’s an interesting side bar to examine why that is. I didn’t really have an answer going in. But a recurring theme with everyone I interviewed, starting with Michael Vick, was a bit of shock when they realized that much time has elapsed. Most everybody said it felt like it happened just yesterday. I almost could of done a blooper reel of the facial expressions and responses.
Most importantly, a lot of young people that I’ve spoken to don’t even know who Doug Williams is. This is like a reminder of why he’s important in NFL history and how he helped pave the way for the league and different styles of QBs we enjoy today.
Would you compare Doug Williams to Jackie Robinson ?
In a way. I would say that Marlin Briscoe and James Harris and guys who preceded Williams were more like Jackie Robinson. Williams, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham are like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Willie McCovey—the next generation after Jackie Robinson. Robinson opened the door and these guys kicked the door in. There was no turning back after that. They still faced some of the prejudices that the Briscoes and Harrises faced. In fact, Williams told me a story about getting rotten watermelon in the mail, but they weren’t the first ones. Jackie Robinson was that first guy and you never get all the hate like the first guy.
Would the NFL be different if Doug Williams failed to win Super Bowl XXII?
Lawrence Ross, an author and one of the guys I interviewed said, if Doug Williams had failed, then he wasn’t only failing himself, but he was failing a people, and he would have possibly been setting black QBs back an entire generation. Williams had all that weight on his shoulders and to perform the way he did—to not only win but to dominate—there was no turning back after that. If he had failed, who’s to say what would have happened? Jim Brown said something similar, also.
What kind of insight did Jim Brown offer to the documentary ?
It’s funny, talking to older guys like Jim Brown, Mean Joe Green and Vince Evans, I found that they aren’t bound by any political correctness. Jim Brown told me a story about when he was in the Army Reserves right before he joined the Browns, and he was driving down to Alabama. He said every time he drove down there the sheriff would pull him over and shake him down for money. Turns out the sheriff was also the Grand Dragon of The Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. What Jim Brown was saying was that a lot of the older guys set the stage for where Doug Williams came from. They endured a lot of racism in the 50s and 60s, which eased the transition of future guys like Williams, but Williams was still getting racist hate mail in the late 70s, early 80s. So older guys like Jim Brown give us a realistic, at times bitter, view of how it was and how far we’ve really come with race not only in sports, but in our country.
What did you learn about fraternity of black QBs ?
I read a lot of books. I’m a big black history buff, and in working with the NFL, I’m a big black-history-in-the-NFL buff, too. So there’s a lot of aspects of this story I was pretty familiar with going in. What surprised me was some of the connections these guys still had to the league. For example, going into the project, I thought I knew everything about Doug Williams, and was just going to tell the story. In telling his story and learning about him, I found that he still is well-connected to the league. Coaches like John and Jim Gruden and current players, they all speak highly of him and have a lot to say about Williams as a person and a player. His connection to Joe Gibbs was a lot deeper than I initially thought going in, too. That blew my mind, as well as how many of these people wanted to talk about Doug Williams and were emotionally invested in wanting to tell the story.
A perfect example is Bill Cosby. I went out to Vegas to interview him. He said he didn’t have much time to talk, but he ended up talking with me for two hours. The passion that he and others spoke with about Doug Williams was very surprising. The fraternity of black QBS, well, I knew they were close, but didn’t realize how close they were as far as being there for each other away from the field.
How big a role does Eddie Robinson play in this story?
Over the course of the creative process, a few people have mentioned that another reason the story of Doug Williams is so impactful, and what made Doug Williams the right guy at the right time, was his connection to Eddie Robinson. I go back to the Jackie Robinson correlation. There may have been other black ballplayers at the time that were better than Jackie, but he served in the military and went to school at UCLA and had a lot of positive things going for him, which positioned him to be the right guy to integrate baseball and deal with all the rough stuff that came with it. If he wasn’t the best guy, he was definitely the right guy. And Branch Rickey had the foresight to see this. In a similar way, Tampa’s John McKay, who started a black QB at USC in the 60s, was colorblind and helped integrate the SEC in the early 70s by taking Sam Bam Cunningham and his USC team down to Alabama. Williams’ connection to Eddie Robinson, and John McKay made him the right guy.
If you look at the NFL Hall of Fame and the black Hall-of-Famers of the late 50s, 60s and 70s, and even into more modern era with Walter Payton and Jerry Rice, you’d be surprised to find that the majority of these players came from historically black colleges like Grambling, Jackson State or Southern. The list is eye-opening. Eddie Robinson is the most influential figure in the history of black college football. This coincides with the beginning of the NFL’s Super Bowl era, when the league exploded into the national consciousness, eventually growing into the juggernaut it is today. So, the impact of HBCUs and Robinson can’t be understated.
Is there such a thing as a black QB anymore?
I think there is. Even in the years immediately following Doug Williams’ ground-breaking moment, people still tried to mold black QBs in their own image. People had an idea in their heads of what a QB is supposed to be. You know, a drop back, throw it down the field guy like Dan Marino and Joe Montana. Michael Vick was criticized for having that school-yard kind of undisciplined street game at QB, if you will. Michael Wilbon said something very interesting as well. He explained that black people had so much pride concerning Doug Williams, because he wasn’t the stereotypical scrambling QB. Guys liked to say that black QBs weren’t leaders and they won with their legs not their arm and brain. When Doug Williams hit the scene he was throwing lasers and dropping dimes. It was like he was beating them at their own game. Robert Griffin III said something to me that was interesting. He said he does feel pressure as a black QB to perform and excel and meet expectations. I think you can’t help it. When Cam Newton came out in 2010, there were questions about his intelligence and Vince Young, as well. These are things that you heard 30 or 40 years ago and as a black person you are always sensitive to that.
Guys like Williams and Moon were prototypical pocket passers, disproving past myths about black QBs. If you look at the league last season, with Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and RG3 benefitting from coaches developing schemes around their skill-sets by implementing offenses like the Pistol, we’ve gotten to a point where GMs and coaches are evaluating the talent they have and deciding not to try and change the QB. I think that’s the next step.