This is so strange, so wondrous, Doug Williams fears he may be dreaming.
“Doug…Doug…Doug-ee, we love you!”
Here he is, riding down the main drag of his hometown, Zachary, La., a hamlet so small that he jokes, “You have to be going there to get there.” And the streets are jammed with people ecstatically chanting his name. People he’s grown up with. Friends. Neighbors. Black and white. Williams pumps the men’s hands, kisses the women’s cheeks, calls back to them. “And I’m not just saying ‘hi’ to them,” he says. “I’m saying, ‘Hi Joe, hi Mary, hi Bill.’ I’m shaking their hands.”
This is no dreamscape, of course. This is the homecoming parade for Doug Williams, Super Bowl superhero and quarterback of the Washington Redskins. It’s a logical extension of his dream season.
The parade sweeps by the Wal-Mart on Main Street. And Elvin Green, a member of Govenor-elect Buddy Roemero’s staff, screams himself hoarse. “Everyone’s so proud of him,” Elvin rasps, over the roar of the crowd. “Not only is he a homeboy, he’s never been involved in trouble.”
That does not mean, though, that Williams hasn’t had trouble thrust upon him. Two years ago, he was on the NFL scrap heap. The Redskins came to the rescue by making him their backup quarterback. This year Williams, 32, returned the favor. He came off the bench and led the Skins to an NFL championship, then went out and beat the pads off the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. Filling the air with passes, lighting up the scoreboard like a slot machine on jackpot during an incredible second quarter, he turned the game into a 42-10 massacre. He won the award for MVP, and his feat was all the more remarkable when you consider he’d spent the two weeks before the game being worked over by the media. Did we mention he’s black? The sports-writers wouldn’t let up on the fact that he was the Super Bowl’s first black starting quarterback. “It was a circus,” says Williams. But he proved a skilled ringmaster. He answered every question, no matter how dumb, with dignity and aplomb. He even smiled at howlers like, “How long have you been a black quarterback?” “I’m not the black quarterback,” he would patiently explain, “I’m the Redskins’ quarterback.”
After picking up his MVP car in New York, Williams flies home and finally has a chance to reflect on this sudden celebrity. “On the flight down I played back all the ups, downs, pains, agony and bitterness,” he says. Arriving in Baton Rouge at 11:30 a.m., however, any bitterness vanishes: He is met at the airport by his brother Robert Jr., 46, the district middle school administrator, and they quietly drive the 20 miles to Zachary. For the first time since the start of the season, Williams will be able to sleep at home.
The parade ends at Zachary High School. The local dignitaries lionize their favorite son for his humility, family values, courage, perseverance…Finally, Doug himself rises to speak. “I’ll be brief, for everybody said everything needs be said,” he tells the crowd. “My eyes are already filling up. If I start to talk too long, I’ll start to cry.”
Too late. Tears are already coursing down his face. “This is home,” he says. “And it always will be.”
It’s the morning after the homecoming parade and Williams looks haggard. This is no hangover—he doesn’t drink. It’s a case of overload. Since becoming role model to millions, he’s been under virtual siege. The Wheaties people have slapped the Redskins’ picture on their boxes, and Williams has made the obligatory visit to the Oval Office. Next month he’ll do Oprah. Right now, there are two TV crews setting up in his living room. At times, the big house on Lemon Road seems filled to the rafters with aunts, uncles, cousins and their offspring. That’s not surprising, since 30 of Williams’ relatives live in Zachary, while another 200 live close enough by to attend the annual family reunion on July 4. A family friend calls her husband on Williams’ phone. “I’m with Doug Williams!” she squeals. Then she puts Doug on. “That’s right,” he tells the husband. “I got your wife.” As the room rocks with laughter, he adds, “But it’s not what you think.”
“I’m gonna get a hotel room,” he whispers to his bride of nine months, Lisa. “There’s no rest for me at home.”
Pity, for the four-bedroom brick colonial has all the comforts. Satellite dish out back. State-of-the-art kitchen. Whole place impeccably decorated in haute country. And Williams hasn’t lived in such splendid style for long. He and seven siblings grew up in a cramped, five-room house behind a neighborhood store. Until Doug was in ninth grade, the family had no indoor plumbing. His father, Robert Sr., 65, was disabled by arthritis 20 years ago. So support of the family fell to Laura Williams, now 63, who worked 12-hour days as a cook in the school system. Sports came into Doug’s life through his oldest brother. “My biggest hero,” Doug calls him.
A pitcher in the Cleveland Indians organization, Robert Jr. had his career cut short by injury and became Doug’s mentor-tormentor. Doug loved baseball and loathed football, especially the pain and hurt of it. “I didn’t want no part of the game,” he says. Robert, then a high school football coach, convinced him otherwise. “I told him he had to play or fight me,” he says. “He played.” But Robert did not neglect the baseball side of his brother’s education. He started an American Legion team, and Doug became his star pitcher. “He worked me twice as hard as the other guys,” Doug still complains. Robert doesn’t deny it. “I suppose,” he says, “I felt I had let my father down when I hurt my shoulder.”
It was baseball that taught Doug how to deal with prejudice. Except for Robert’s team, the league was lily white. “His first game, when he was 16, they screamed ‘nigger’ at him,” Robert recalls. Doug responded by striking out 14 and driving in four runs. The rednecks had run afoul of a family code: “My father always told us,” says Robert, “that when you do something, do it so well that when people call you nigger, they have to call you ‘Mr. Nigger.’ ”
After destroying most records at Grambling State, Williams was picked in the first round of the 1978 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. An expansion team with a two-year 2-24 record, the Bucs were woeful beyond words. Three times in five years, Williams took them to the playoffs. After being eliminated in the final round in ’80, a huge gift box was delivered to him in the locker room. Inside, Doug found a rotten watermelon—a memento from a racist. Soon after, Williams got into a rancorous salary dispute with the Bucs—he was earning $125,000 a year, 46th among the approximately 83 pro quarterbacks—and signed with the Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL.
In April 1982, Williams married Janice Goss, who had been his sweetheart at Grambling. When their daughter, Ashley Monique, was born, the new parents were joyous. Then one morning Janice woke up with a blinding headache. She tried to fix breakfast but, losing her balance, she grabbed for the refrigerator. That’s how Doug found her—hanging on for dear life. He rushed her to the hospital, where a CAT scan disclosed a brain tumor. Surgery proved useless. One week later—just 10 days short of their first anniversary—Janice was dead.
“It put a lot of things in perspective,” Williams says. “No matter who you are, no matter what you do, life is not promised to you tomorrow.”
When the USFL folded in 1986, Williams waited for the phone to ring. It did, just once. On the other end was Joe Gibbs, the Redskins’ coach.
Last year Williams threw just one pass. But he connected in more significant ways. While making the Skins’ music video in October, he met Lisa Robinson, 25, one of the video’s producers. He overcame her lack of interest with the same quality that finally made him a top quarterback—perseverance. “He just kept calling and calling,” says Lisa. They married last June. “Lisa’s the missing link,” says Robert. “They’re happy together and looking forward to a beautiful life.”
It is late afternoon in the big house in Zachary, and Williams is looking forward to some peace. “Our house has been like the local museum,” he says. As if on cue, there goes the doorbell. For the second time today, a perfect stranger—this one from Shreveport—wants a picture or autograph. For the second time today, Williams obliges. “You will? You will?” the man cries. Sure. The hero who built a career on perseverance has not yet learned to say no to anybody who perseveres.