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Doug Williams talks this historic Super Bowl matchup of two Black quarterbacks


No matter what happens in the Super Bowl, history will be made at kickoff. Almost 70% of NFL players are now people of color. But for the first time ever, the game will feature two Black starting quarterbacks - Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles. Doug Williams was the first Black quarterback to lead his team in the Super Bowl 35 years ago, and we should note he did win that game. And Doug Williams joins us now on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Welcome.

DOUG WILLIAMS: Good. Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.

SUMMERS: Thank you for being here. OK. So when you first saw that there was a chance of this becoming a reality - two Black starting quarterbacks at football's biggest game - were you rooting for the Eagles and Chiefs to win last Sunday, or was this more kind of a it'll-happen-when-it-happens situation?

WILLIAMS: I was rooting for Jalen and Patrick...


WILLIAMS: ...So I guess you could say the Eagles and the Chiefs, basically. But no, you know, I sat there patiently after Jalen and the Eagles had won that game. I sat there patiently and watched Cincinnati, and I thought all hopes was lost with the fumble. I thought, once Joe Burrow's got the ball in his hand, everything was over with. I really did.

SUMMERS: You're talking about a moment of anxiety that sticks in...

WILLIAMS: Oh, my God.

SUMMERS: ...Every Chiefs fan's heart right there.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know, after that game, man, when that ball went through the uprights, I can tell you this - cold chills went through my body, and I got a little emotion. There wasn't no tears running, but I had eyes full of water. Let me say that...


WILLIAMS: ...'Cause, you know, it was great for me to see and just to be here, knowing what had transpired with me 35 years ago, and to see this now - not only one quarterback, but we got two in the Super Bowl. And that's a great feeling.

SUMMERS: I have to imagine you were just flooded with calls and messages on Sunday night. Was there anybody that you just had to pick up the phone and talk to about this?

WILLIAMS: Yeah - James Harris. James Harris played quarterback with the Rams, and we both went to Grambling. So we just like brothers. But right after that game, I called. And I told Shack - I said, Shack, we can't lose. I said, we can't lose. We got two in the Super Bowl, you know? And he was happy like I was. And, you know, we talked for a little bit. Like you said, the phone started ringing after that.

SUMMERS: It probably seems incredible to some now. But when you played, some people - a lot of people, frankly - openly questioned whether a Black quarterback could succeed in the NFL. For our listeners who may not know or remember the obstacles that you faced as a QB in - when you broke into the league in 1978, can you explain what that looked like?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know, as a Black quarterback, it was never about my ability to play the position. That wasn't the question. The question has always been leadership. Could you lead a team? You know, quarterback - it's not about whether or not a Black guy could lead a team. It's whether or not they'd get the opportunity to do it. I think that's the bottom line. You know, the opportunity don't mean the guy getting behind the center for a game. Opportunity mean the coaches, the owner - everybody give a guy time to play, and that's what it takes.

SUMMERS: Do you think the thinking around the league - around professional football - has changed as we think about present day?

WILLIAMS: No. We still got a lot - I mean, all you got to do is look at the scope of the Black coaches. It had not changed. You know, I think the player situation had to change. When you think about these Black quarterbacks, you know, they only playing because they the best that the team has. You've got to play what you got. It's about the best guy. But I don't think they always pick the best coaches, and that's all about leadership. You know, you leading a whole lot of men, and they got to give more coaches an opportunity to coach in the National Football League to say that we've made a lot of progress. Now, we've made some, but we still got a long ways to go.

SUMMERS: If you were to speak to either Mahomes or Hurts before this big, historic game, what advice would you give them?

WILLIAMS: The only advice you can give either one of them is play your game. I mean, what they've done all year got them to where they are today. And there's not too much me or anybody else can really tell them. Listen to the coach and the game plan. That's the bottom line.

SUMMERS: Doug Williams, now senior adviser to the president of the Washington Commanders - he led the franchise to a Super Bowl title in 1988. Thank you so much for being here.

WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAS SONG, "I CAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.