SAN DIEGO — It was the week before the week before the Super Bowl in Herndon, Va.
School was not quite out yet in the National Football League. History awaited.
Doug Williams, a preoccupied man, emerged from the locker room at Redskin Park. He was wearing a faded Grambling letter jacket as he long-strided toward the players' parking lot.
Already this day, Williams had studied film of the Denver Broncos' defense, worked out with his teammates and conducted group interviews before and after practice. Turns out there are hundreds of ways you can ask a man what it feels like to be the first black to start at quarterback in the Super Bowl. Turns out there is only one answer.
"I just happen to be a Redskin, a quarterback and a black," Williams repeated. "I'm just trying to deal with the football game. After the game--black, white, green or yellow--we'll deal with that then."
Now there was a gathering of fans at his car. He signed their autograph books.
A long, cool woman with black hair, brown skin and a blue coat glided to his side, slid her arm around his waist and commandeered a bystander to take their picture. Williams, 32, and married, indulged her photo fantasy politely but without humor.
Next, the woman in the blue coat wanted to take a picture of Williams alone. He waited patiently by his car door while she adjusted her camera.
"Give me a great big smile," she cooed.
Instead, she got a great big chill. "I don't have a phony smile," he said. But she didn't understand. He repeated himself and grinned broadly at onlookers. "You should have shot that," he said. The woman cursed her camera and fidgeted. Williams was gone.
Her pass was incomplete. But only because Williams wanted it that way. Everybody who knew him 10 years ago says he is so much more mature now, his judgment so much better.
That is his style on the field, too. He says the title for his autobiography, as yet uncommissioned, will be: "I Saved the Best for Last." And he laughs a real Doug Williams laugh.
"I like being Doug Williams," he says. "I like being me."
In 67 games in a previous NFL life as quarterback-savior of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers between 1978 and 1982, defenders sacked Williams just 65 times. Washington General Manager Bobby Beathard and Coach Joe Gibbs remembered those numbers when they agreed to sign Williams as a backup to Jay Schroeder before the 1986 season.
In 17 games this year, opponents have sacked Redskin quarterbacks 39 fewer times than Washington defenders have sacked opposing quarterbacks. In playoff victories over Chicago and Minnesota earlier this month, Williams got sacked once. His teammates sacked Bear and Viking quarterbacks a total of 12 times.
"Sure, it frustrates defenses when they don't get sacks," said Bear personnel boss Bill Tobin. "It can take them out of their game."
Said Williams: "The sack is like their touchdown."
But the further the Redskins advance, the harder it is to avoid the rush. Which is why Williams appreciates the protection he receives from his porcine offensive line and a public relations department that screens an avalanche of requests daily.
"It's like Namath said," a reporter suggested to Williams last week, "The smartest thing a quarterback can do is. . . "
Williams broke in, " . . . find a good team to play for." Then he flashed the real Doug Williams smile again. "I agree with that," he said.
Most people have already forgotten that Williams started only a few games for the Redskins this season. In 1986, he threw just one regular-season pass. It was incomplete. But when Schroeder lost his short touch and developed a crisis in confidence, Williams responded. He threw 11 touchdown passes against only 5 interceptions and even completed 56.6% of his passes.
Before the Redskins resurrected Williams from the ashes of the United States Football League last year, he had been gone from the NFL for three full seasons. "Anybody could have had me," he says now. "Anybody."
Beathard still insists he doesn't know why he was the only general manager willing to deal with Tampa Bay, which owned Williams' NFL rights. The price was a No. 5 in the 1987 draft and a conditional pick this spring. The cost was a three-year contract at a reported $1.4 million. Denver quarterback John Elway made $600,000 more than that. This year.
The Redskins told Williams that he wouldn't be a starter. He said he understood. But Beathard had looked at USFL film of Williams and discovered he had found a "feel" to go with his uncommon arm strength. Just when everybody was thinking Williams was finished, Beathard and Gibbs were thinking he was a finished product.
"He was not a hot item," Tobin said. "If you took him, you took him off of what he did with Tampa."
The Buccaneers had been 0-14 and 2-12 in the two years before his arrival. They made the playoffs three times during his five seasons there. They have gone 2-14, 6-10, 2-14, and 4-11 since his departure.