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Williams Reborn as Redskin : He Gives Team a Shot in Arm When Schroeder Falters

January 10, 1988|JANE LEAVY | The Washington Post

For Doug Williams, it all changed that Sunday he replaced Jay Schroeder as quarterback of the Washington Redskins.

A few days later, Williams hunched over a little white ball trying to exert some control over its impending flight.

"Make a contribution, Doug," says his college friend, Herb Nelson.

Williams, who has not made much of a contribution to his party's golf score, or until that previous Sunday to the Redskins', grumbles. "My daddy always said, 'I can't imagine hitting that little white ball and walking behind it.' "

The drive lands 240 yards away--in the trees. "Sherwood Forest," Nelson says, as Williams jumps in a golf cart and careens down the fairway in pursuit. A marshall is waiting with the ball when Williams arrives. "What a body!" he says, as Williams drives away.

All morning, people keep offering him champagne, which he declines, and congratulations, which he accepts. "Hey!" former Redskin Roy Jefferson says, shaking his hand on the third tee.

Their smiles say anything else is superfluous. Everyone knows the score of that NFL opener: Redskins 34, Philadelphia Eagles 24.

Williams is wearing a bright red Grambling T-shirt with a pussycat of a tiger across the front. It says: "I Am Loved at GSU."

"At RFK, too," a woman says, hugging him.

Women cling to his side, ogling his legs, wanting to be photographed with him. White guys in plaid polyester call him "bro." Williams rolls his eyes and smiles.

"You know," Gary Cofer, one of his playing partners, says, "I was the only white guy who came and talked to you last year."

Williams surveys the Tantallon golf course, site of the annual March of Dimes celebrity tournament, and nods. "I was nobody out here," he says, without enmity or vindication. "Today, everybody wants to talk."

TV types want him for interviews. "Everybody but Dan," he says. Meaning Rather. Friends (some of whom he can't quite remember) are calling from all over to tell him he owns D.C.--"It's not my town," he protests. "I'm just a squirrel looking for a place to hide."

Since late November, Doug Williams has been The Man, the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins. He replaced Schroeder when the former UCLA star's passing accuracy slipped (40% completion ratio overall.)

Until that September day when Williams first went in for Schroeder, it had been five years since he started a game in the National Football League. Lots of people wondered where he'd gone, what he had been doing. Still a quarterback, he told them. But there's a world of difference between playing quarterback and being a quarterback.

"For a whole year, it's been all dressed up and nowhere to go," he says. "Go out for pregame warmup. Listen to the tunes. Go back in the dressing room. Come back out for kickoff . . . sit on the sideline. Then somebody calls and says, 'Hey, man, come on down here.' . . . You feel wanted. Needed. . . ." Williams likes to be alone. But as a black man in the National Football League who happens to play quarterback, visibility is a given. Nine years ago when he was a rookie playing in Tampa Bay, he was The Man who was finally going to put the lie to the notion that a black man couldn't cut it as a quarterback in the NFL.

Williams had so much potential: not just as an athlete but as a harbinger of a more equal world. It was an ungodly burden to put on anyone's arm, no matter how strong.

"Martin Luther didn't change it," he says. "John F. didn't change it. All I can do is live my life the way I'm living it and be an example of how you can overcome some obstacles and still survive."

He played five years for Tampa Bay, threw for 12,648 yards (including 10 300-yard games) and led the Buccaneers to the playoffs three times, including the NFC championship game in 1979. But critics pointed to his incompletions, his overthrows. Send him to Iran, they said, and let him overthrow the Ayatollah. And worse.

After his contract with Tampa expired at the end of 1982, he decided to sit out the next season rather than accept another one he believed was beneath him. He played two years in the USFL and last season was ransomed from obscurity by the Redskins, to warm the bench for Schroeder. He threw one pass the entire season.

Last winter, Redskins' Coach Joe Gibbs, who scouted and coached him for Tampa Bay, said the Redskins would try to accommodate Williams' desire to be traded to a team needing a starting quarterback. Earlier this season, on a Monday morning, Williams says, Gibbs called to say there was a good chance he'd be going to the Raiders in exchange for a second-round draft choice.

"When I got to practice that evening, Joe said it was off," Williams says. "Monday was gloomy."

He knew--and Gibbs knew--that, at age 32, it was probably his last chance to be a starter again. All week, coaches tried to console him--you never know what can happen. "You're always one play away from something happening," Gibbs said.

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