Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl, will be watching from his home in Tampa with great interest and a strong sense of pride Sunday afternoon when the Atlanta Falcons play the Philadelphia Eagles for a chance to play in Super Bowl XXXIX. Former Washington Redskins safety Brig Owens, who played quarterback in college in the early 1960s but was denied the opportunity as a professional, will watch from his home in Northern Virginia. In Newport News, Va., so will Tommy Reamon, who coached Michael Vick at Warwick High School and shooed away any college coach who dared to hint that Vick might be better suited to play running back.
For the first time in NFL history, black quarterbacks will be starting for opposing teams in a conference championship game, Vick for the Falcons and Donovan McNabb for the Eagles. It will not be the first time they have played against each other -- they met in the divisional round of the 2002 playoffs with Philadelphia winning, 20-6 -- but the stakes are considerably higher, as is the significance of their roles in such a big game.
Although Michael Vick only had 14 touchdown passes, he ran for a team quarterback-record 902 yards in 2004.
(Bill Haber -- AP)
"You'd be crazy to say that it's not significant," said Williams, who led the Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XXII on Jan. 31, 1988, and is now a personnel executive with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "We're now in a time where these guys have the opportunity to be doing this. Back in the day, Michael Vick probably wouldn't have had the chance to play quarterback at this level. He'd have been a defensive back, a running back or a wide receiver. McNabb would have been the same. Daunte Culpepper would have been a tight end or a linebacker.
"That in itself is the significance of the day. It's a great weekend, not only for guys like myself, and James Harris, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham [all pioneering NFL black quarterbacks] but for the NFL. It helps the league move even further away from the old stereotypes that a lot of us had to deal with coming up: not smart enough, can't lead, that kind of garbage. Now, it's not about black and white. It's about opportunity. We're in America, and this is how it should be."
McNabb's fourth straight title game comes 16 months after radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, working as an ESPN studio football analyst, touched off a controversy when he said of the Eagles' quarterback, "I don't think he's been that good from the get-go.
"I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there's a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn't deserve. The defense carried his team."
Limbaugh resigned from the ESPN show days later and issued a statement at the time saying his comments were meant more as a criticism of the media than of McNabb. He declined a request yesterday for an interview.
McNabb led his team back to the title game last year, with the Eagles losing at home to the Carolina Panthers. And this season, with the addition of wide receiver Terrell Owens, McNabb had a career year, completing 64 percent of his passes, throwing for 31 touchdowns and only eight interceptions, and finishing with a 104.7 passer rating, his highest in six seasons with the 13-3 Eagles, the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Vick, after missing most of the 2003 season with a broken right fibula, led the Falcons to an 11-5 record and the NFC South title in 2004. Though he only had 14 touchdown passes, he ran for a team quarterback-record of 902 yards, including 119 yards in a 47-17 playoff rout of St. Louis on Saturday night.
Sunday's game is "significant for the simple reason that African-American athletes have arrived at a certain point in football and this [two black starting quarterbacks] hasn't really been remarked upon very much," said Gerald Early, a professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis and a Philadelphia native and avid Eagles fan. "I suppose I noticed it, but certainly didn't make a big deal about it, and I think that's a good thing."
During the 2004 season, six black quarterbacks -- McNabb, Vick, Culpepper in Minnesota, McNair in Tennessee, Aaron Brooks in New Orleans and Byron Leftwich in Jacksonville -- started most of their teams' games, with their job security and status undisputed. Six more were on rosters as backups around the league.
"I thought what [Limbaugh] said was such an ignorant statement," Brig Owens said. "Just look at what McNabb and all these guys have been doing on the field. McNabb has such a great control of the game, such a command of his team. You can say the same thing about Vick, about Culpepper, Steve McNair. These guys are all football players, and you can't separate them by race."
In 1968, the Oakland Raiders of the AFL made Eldridge Dickey of Tennessee State the first black quarterback selected in the first round of any professional draft. A year later, James Harris of Grambling State became the first black quarterback to start at the position with the Buffalo Bills.
"The stereotype was always was about leadership," said Williams, who also went to Grambling, an historically black college. "When you look at Division I head coaches, it's still that way. At most of these schools, the majority of the players are black. You mean a black college coach can't lead black college players? They sure can in the pros. Come on."