Rodney Peete led Southern California to the 1987 Pac-10 football championship and a Rose Bowl appearance as a junior. The next season he capped a four-year Trojan career by winning the Johnny Unitas Award as the nation’s most outstanding senior quarterback and finishing second to Barry Sanders for the Heisman Trophy.
But it wasn’t until Doug Williams led the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 triumph over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII — becoming the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl — that Peete felt confident he’d have a chance to play quarterback in the NFL.
“It was a sight to see; truly amazing. But it was more than that,” said Peete, 51, who recalls every detail of Williams’ MVP performance. “It didn’t have quite the global impact of Jesse Owens going to Berlin and winning the (1936) Olympics, but it was something that was so powerful — something that a lot of people running these (NFL) organizations didn’t believe could happen.”
On a personal level, it meant validation for a college junior wondering whether there was a place for him — at quarterback — in the pros. “I was a junior,” Peete explained, “and to me, any success Doug would have would trickle down to me and give me an opportunity.”
As Wednesday’s 30th anniversary of his triumph neared, Williams, now 62 and the Redskins’ senior vice president of player personnel, acknowledged how keenly aware he was of the stakes heading into the game.
From the moment the 1987 Redskins defeated Minnesota in the NFC championship to secure their spot in Coach Joe Gibbs’ third of four Super Bowl appearances, Williams took on the hopes and expectations of millions he’d never meet.
His hometown of Zachary, Louisiana, exploded with pride.
The day after the NFC title game at RFK Stadium, Williams served as Grand Marshal of a birthday parade in Southeast Washington to honor Martin Luther King Jr. As the procession wended through Anacostia, Williams told a cheering crowd, “I’m just glad that I am going to be one part of Martin Luther King’s dream,” by being the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl.
Redskins fans near and far exulted. Even legions of Dallas Cowboys fans set aside their loyalties to cheer on Williams and the Redskins, which had been the last NFL team to integrate under former owner George Preston Marshall.
“I knew it was history-making,” recalled Williams, who was probed and prodded about being a black quarterback in the days leading up the Super Bowl. “But for me, I couldn’t look at it that way. Everybody else was making a big deal out of it, but I had to look at it as, ‘What is best for the Washington Redskins?’ ”
The rout over Denver remains a glorious memory for Redskins fans. And for a generation of black quarterbacks who followed, Williams’ four-touchdown MVP performance opened doors — amounting to a powerful rejection of the insidious notion that exceptional African-American athletes were ill-equipped for the complexity and leadership demands of being an NFL quarterback.
Yet 30 years to the date, opinion differs about the extent to which such stereotypes persist.
A 2017 study by University of Colorado researchers found that unconscious racial bias still influences views of quarterbacks, with interview subjects, both black and white, tending to stereotype black quarterbacks as talented and strong and their white counterparts as strong and hardworking.
Those biases are what’s behind the historical pattern of “positional segregation,” in the view of Cyrus Mehri, a Washington-based lawyer and counsel to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advocates for diversity in NFL coaching and executive ranks.
“I see it as part of the same historical package as bias — the view that minorities can’t be in ‘thinking positions’ — even after we’ve had Barack Obama as president,” Mehri said.
Since Williams’ MVP performance, only one black quarterback has led an NFL team to a Super Bowl victory: Seattle’s Russell Wilson.
Asked if he would have expected more to replicate his achievement, Williams said he believes the opportunity has been there for the taking, pointing to the other black quarterbacks who have reached the Super Bowl in addition to himself and Wilson — Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton.
“The opportunity has been there,” Williams said. “It’s just a matter of finishing the job. That’s the most important thing.”
In Williams’ case, finishing the job was not easy.
The day before the Super Bowl, he underwent an emergency root canal that left him in pain. And on the Redskins’ first offensive series — already trailing Denver, 10-0 — he slipped, wrenched his knee and lay immobile on the turf for several seconds that felt like forever to Redskins fans.
“It was a little pain, but with an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl, if you can’t play with a little pain. … ” Williams said. “The most important thing was, I got up.”
That’s among the more powerful memories three decades later for Brian Norwood, associate head coach at Tulsa, who was reared in a Redskins-loving family and whose son, Jordan, was a member of the Denver Broncos’ 2016 Super Bowl-winning team.
“Doug Williams opened a door for African-American players and quarterbacks to be evaluated and looked at in a different light,” Norwood said in a telephone interview. “He fought through the injury and showed such a high level of leadership, character, poise and discipline. All the things you look for in a quarterback, Williams displayed that Sunday in front of all eyes.”
Peete, whose 16-year NFL quarterback career included one season as a backup in Washington, said he feels stereotypes about the black quarterbacks are “90 percent done with,” adding, “I think there are still some issues with old-school factions in the NFL.”
The way Peete measures progress is the increase in the number of black quarterbacks chosen in the first round of the NFL draft.
“Before, it would be very rare you’d see a black quarterback go high,” said Peete, a sixth-round pick in the 1989 NFL draft despite his Heisman runner-up credentials. “They’d get drafted late and have to earn their way. In that respect it has changed.”
In 1999, three of the five quarterbacks chosen in the first round were black (McNabb, Akili Smith and Daunte Culpepper). In 2001, Michael Vick became the first black quarterback chosen first overall. He has since been followed by JaMarcus Russell (2007), Newton (2011) and Jameis Winston (2015).
But for decades, black athletes who excelled at quarterback in high school and college were converted to other positions when they reached the NFL. The biases persisted well after the Buffalo Bills became the first NFL team to name a black quarterback, James “Shack” Harris, to start the season, in 1969.
Peete, a three-sport star in high school, heard it, too.
“When I was being recruited in high school, there was still that stigma of the black quarterback: ‘Can he handle it as a leadership position?’ ‘He’s a great athlete, so let’s put him at wide receiver or defensive back.’ All those types of things,” he recalled.
Chief among the reasons Peete signed with Southern Cal was that it not only let him play quarterback but also allowed him to play baseball, too. As he weighed whether to choose a pro career in the NFL or Major League Baseball (he was also a star third baseman for the Trojans, drafted three times), his black NFL quarterbacking role models were few — Warren Moon, who’d gone undrafted in 1978 and earned his way in the NFL via six seasons in the Canadian Football League; Randall Cunningham and Williams.
In Williams’ case, he said he never confronted a coach who tried to talk him out of playing quarterback. That was among the myriad benefits of attending a historically black school, Grambling State, and learning the position from the legendary Coach Eddie Robinson.
“When I went to Grambling, I wasn’t a black quarterback, no way! I was just a quarterback at Grambling, so I didn’t have to face that in college,” Williams said, adding with a chuckle, “And I certainly didn’t have to face that in the pros with the 4.7 I ran!”
Though the number of black NFL quarterbacks has increased in recent decades, the specter of bias on a subtler level persist.
As April’s NFL draft nears, for example, questions about Louisville’s Lamar Jackson’s prospects as an NFL quarterback continue to percolate.
The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Jackson announced earlier this month that he would enter the draft one year after becoming the youngest Heisman winner in history. Some football analysts, dazzled by Jackson’s dual-threat ability (he topped 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons), predict he’ll go as high as sixth to the New York Jets. Others eye him as a second-round pick, apparently sharing concerns aired by an unidentified ACC coach about his accuracy and ability to read defenses. Veteran NFL executive and Hall of Fame inductee Bill Polian feels Jackson is best suited to wide receiver, pointing to his size and durability (although he’s the same height and a few pounds heavier than Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and bigger overall than Drew Brees and Russell Wilson).
Said Williams, “It’s all about opportunity. If Joe Gibbs, and Bobby Beathard and Jack Kent Cooke hadn’t given me the opportunity 30 years, ago, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation.”