Doug Williams Is Passing (and Running) the Bucs Toward a Stunning Division Title
In his first pro appearance, a 1978 preseason game against Baltimore, Tampa Bay quarterback Doug Williams stepped back and threw an incredible 60-yard pass over the head of his receiver. Buccaneer fans leaped to their feet with a roar of encouragement. "I'd never seen a standing ovation for an incomplete pass," observed Tampa coach John McKay, "but they had just seen a new record for the longest incompletion."
In those days, Tampa fans were not a demanding lot. The 1976 expansion team had won only two of its 28 regular season games. Any player who ran onto the field without stumbling was likely to have a fan club started in his name.
This season is different. Tampa Bay won its first five games, thanks in large measure to the 6'4", 215-pound Williams. Buccaneer ticket holders were ecstatic. But when the team lost the next two, they booed and Williams angrily told a reporter, "We've got some good fans but some aren't worth a damn. Does it bother me? No, I'm going to the bank tomorrow."
Thus did Williams, 24, learn the price of a loose lip. Irate calls and letters flooded the Tampa newspapers. One letter writer, alluding to Williams' pass completion average, suggested that if Doug threw his money into that bank, "he'd get it there only three out of 10 times."
Williams' apology was a headline that ran across the Tampa Tribune's sports page: "I'M SORRY." Now he says ruefully, "It was my first experience like that. I was as mad at me as the fans were. But I was trying as hard as I could."
Williams' new maturity had been encouraged by his brother Robert, 38. "He's like my daddy," Doug says. "He read the paper and said, 'Come on, Doug. You're better than that!' It hurt him. Now it hurts me." Doug's response was to lead the Bucs to victory in their next two games, giving them a fairly comfortable lead in the Central Division of the NFL's National Conference.
When coach McKay chose Williams as his top draft choice in 1978, Tampa wondered why. The NFL tradition against black quarterbacks was still strong, and this was after all a Southern team. Williams' talent did not seem to be an issue. At the predominantly black Grambling State University in Louisiana, he had set major college passing records and was named a first-string All-America. Governor Edwin Edwards even declared Grambling's 1977 homecoming Doug Williams Day.
Nonetheless, Williams' first year was not a happy one. His second pass of the regular season was intercepted and returned 62 yards for a touchdown. Then he suffered a shoulder injury. By mid-season, when the Bucs were 4-4, a broken jaw all but ended 1978 for him. The team wound up with a 5-11 record, though Williams had earned the respect of his opponents. "Next to Roger Staubach," said New York Giant defensive end Gary Jeter, "he was probably the best quarterback we faced last year."
The sixth of eight children in a close-knit family (he has 16 aunts and uncles), Doug grew up in an all-black neighborhood outside Zachary, La. His dad was almost totally disabled in World War II and rarely worked. "Doug never was a boy to run the streets," says his mother, Laura. "I always believed he would be something in sports, because that's all he ever did."
Gifted in baseball (he struck out 21 batters in a statewide Little League All-Star game) and basketball, Williams chose football at Grambling, his brother Robert's alma mater. Doug graduated with honors in physical education and spent almost every Sunday morning in church. He still does not drink, prefers the red beans, rice, corn bread and ham hocks of his childhood, and for entertainment watches football on TV in his four-bedroom suburban Tampa home.
He is hardly a naive country boy, however. He's already had salary troubles with his club. "If I told a lot of people what I was making," he says, "they would laugh." His agent, Jimmy Walsh, also Joe Namath's lawyer, says Williams earns a little more than $50,000 a year. "It seems there might have been someone taking advantage of this poor little black boy," Walsh observes slyly. "They tell him he's not going to play for three to five years, and all of a sudden he starts the first year. It's a shame that one of the finest young athletes ever to play in the NFL may be one of the lowest-paid. If that's because he's black, then it's a frightening shame."
Williams says, "Until I was a senior in college, I was just a quarterback. Then I became a 'black quarterback.' " Most black pro football firsts have already been achieved—except first black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl. "I don't worry about it," he says. "No matter what the color, if you can do the job, you can do it."
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine