On Thursday, the Super Bowl hero went to the dentist in a white stretch limousine and got lost. Back and forth the limo cruised, up one street and down the other. In the back seat, Doug Williams sat with his bum leg propped up on the cushy leather interior, flossing his teeth and watching himself win the Super Bowl on the limo's VCR. "My mailman taped the game for me," he said. "He left it in my box."

Decanters jiggled in their holders. The TV flickered in the dark. Williams' college friend Herb Nelson frantically dialed the dentist, pleading for help and shouting directions while Williams pondered the question everyone's been wanting to ask.

"How do I feel?" he said. "I've got a sore knee. I'm going to the dentist. I don't feel great. But I'll live -- hopefully."

A week ago today, Doug Williams led the Redskins to the NFL championship, erasing 22 years of Super Bowl records and generations of bias in the process. On Monday, he returned home to his apartment in Reston with the rented furniture and the paper plates and the unopened fruit basket still wrapped in yellow cellophane. On Tuesday, doctors put him on crutches to ease the pain of the knee injury he suffered in the first quarter of Sunday's game. On Wednesday, he limped up to the microphone at the Redskins victory parade, where 600,000 people, white and black, called his name, and he visited the Oval Office, which he says has "a nice, homey atmosphere." On Thursday, he went to Howard University, where he was embraced by the student body as one of their own, and he, a graduate of Grambling, another predominantly black university, told them that was unnecessary because he was already one of them.

Now he was sitting in the back seat of a limousine, bracing himself for another session with his root canal, watching Clint Didier catch the fourth touchdown pass of that landmark second quarter. "It's getting to be Didier time," he heard Al Michaels say on ABC. "Touchdown!"

He smiled at Frank Gifford's commentary: "Doug Williams is having a dream day for a quarterback. He's had a dream year, a dream moment here in San Diego."

He watched as the camera cut away to Coach Joe Gibbs on the sideline. "Gibbs is cool, ain't he?" Williams said. "He just walks away."

Has anyone ever been cooler in the face of hot adulation than Williams these last two weeks? During the pregame media siege, he answered the most absurd questions about his race and his profession with a dignity and grace that underscored the absurdity of prejudice. In the days since his triumph, he has been stately and unflappable, thanking all the right people, making all the right moves.

And the deluge is just beginning. Tomorrow he goes to New York to receive his Most Valuable Player award and the car that goes with it. Thursday is the second Doug Williams Day in the District of Columbia. Saturday is Doug Williams Day in his home town of Zachary, La., where his wife Lisa and the rest of his family reside.

He's on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a new Wheaties box. His first postgame endorsement, a commercial for Disney World, aired 24 hours after the game. There have been telegrams from Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King and Berry Gordy. John Thompson phoned and so did Dionne Warwick. And Thursday, a woman called wanting to give him a fur coat.

Everyone wants a part of him and already he knows there isn't going to be enough to go around. The question is -- is he ready to be a hero? Is anyone?

"All the heroes I know are dead," he said. "I just want to be me now. I don't need no Secret Service."

More than most people, Doug Williams knows the vicissitudes of life. He also knows there isn't necessarily an up for every down, which explains a lot about his perspective and his demeanor and what he means when he says, "I look back and think about all the things that have happened to me, and the last few weeks have been Doug. Ain't that something?

"Ain't it something we won the championship and no one gave us a chance? Ain't it something that Doug Williams won the MVP award and they thought he was just showing up as a black quarterback to make history? There's a lot of things that make you sit back and say, 'hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.' "

As he says, "I've had more than my share of firsts."

He came into the league in 1978, the first black quarterback chosen in the first round of the NFL draft, and ended up leaving Tampa Bay five years later amid acrimony, pain and unfulfilled expectations. He joined the USFL and it failed. In 1986, he became a Redskin, mostly because no one else in the NFL bothered to call. He began this season as he had begun the last, as the backup quarterback to Jay Schroeder. It wasn't until the final game of the regular season, when Schroeder faltered and Williams rallied the Redskins to an overtime win over Minnesota, that the job became his for the duration.

So who'd have thought he'd be sitting in the back seat of a stretch limousine being chauffeured to the dentist? "Who'd have thought in '83, I'd have lost a wife?" he said. "Who'd have thought in '86, when I came here, no one else would call and give me a chance? How could I have thought this would happen? It doesn't amaze me because I know anything can happen in America."

He's a happy man, but turning flips just isn't his style. "I'm not limber enough," he said. "The happiness I showed coming off the field, that's the extent of it. All the people in my room Sunday, my brothers, my mom, they're the ones really excited. I don't need Herb around me turning flips and high-fiving people. I think people enjoy it more than me. Let them have their fun."

It's going to take some time and some sleep for him to absorb the meaning of it all. He shook his head and smiled. "Like the monkey in the satellite says, 'Hold on, it's a little too fast,' " he said.

Between the phone ringing, the cameras rolling and his knee throbbing, he'd been lucky to get a couple of hours of sleep a night stretched out on the rented sofa in his living room. "That's one reason I'm not really able to enjoy it at this point," he said. "Because along with the hype and the pain, from a mental and physical standpoint, I haven't had time to put it all together."

Sometimes, the emotion eclipses the fatigue, as it did when he spoke about the injury to his left leg. It was late in the first quarter when he slid on the turf at Jack Murphy Stadium and his knee collapsed beneath him. He howled in pain. "You could see the root canal," Nelson said.

"But when I got up I knew I was going to play," Williams said. "They would have needed a broom and a dust pail to get me out of there."

In a way, as his Louisiana friend Ricky Grant says, the injury is emblematic of his career. "Ricky says, 'Every time you've been down, you've always come to the top,' " Williams said. " 'When they think they put the top on you, you pop it off and rise again.' He said, 'You went to Tampa and when you didn't sign a contract, they thought they had gotten rid of you. So you went to the USFL, and they banned it but you popped back up again and all of a sudden here you are the MVP of the Super Bowl.' "

Walking -- limping -- off the field after the Redskins defeated the Denver Broncos, 42-10, he held his helmet high and thought about guys he played with in Tampa Bay, about his first wife Janice, who died after brain surgery in 1983, about their daughter Ashley Monique, who was three months old when her mother died. "I thought about if Ashley knew what the hell was going on," he said.

More than most, Williams understands that what-ifs are a lot of what life has to offer. He had come to terms with that. He had accepted what he could not control. Four months ago, he said he'd probably be remembered as a man who had never fulfilled his potential. Now, he figures he'll be remembered as a guy who had a great game. "Most of my career, it's been what if," he said. "What if I was with a good team, what if I wasn't with a good coaching staff, what if I was in a good city, what if I was paid like everyone else, that's a lot of what-ifs. I guess a lot of ifs are gone."

Finally, belatedly, the limo pulled up to the correct address and Williams collapsed in the chair waiting for Barry Rudolph, the team dentist, to finish the job he began the day before the Super Bowl, when he spent 3 1/2 hours working on Williams' root canal. Sitting there in his little blue bib, the quarterback looked up at the doctor and flashed his prettiest smile: "What can I say, Doc? We pulled me through."

The dentist leaned over and hugged him.

On Wednesday, he had stood at the lectern outside the District Building and watched as people fainted at his feet. He seemed almost daunted by the din. "These people cheer you on in the rain and the wind and the storm and the cold," he said, sitting in the dentist's chair waiting for the drilling to begin. "These people make a difference."

He praised the Redskins organization and his teammates and the city and backed away from the microphone as if in shock at being the fulcrum of such emotion. "It's wild, it's amazing, it's unbelievable," he said. "In a way, it makes me feel bad because I didn't do it by myself. I couldn't hardly walk. I was a lame duck. If it wasn't for the offensive line, I'd have been mincemeat. Those guys worked their butts off. Don't just holler Doug. Holler Hogs and receivers. I don't want them to feel I'm hogging it because I'm not. I know why I'm in the position I'm in today."

The position he's in is enviable. The outpouring of encomiums and affection should translate into an outpouring of endorsements and opportunities, though Williams says it has not so far. Much as he craves the financial security, he is wary of the process, wary of using people, wary of being used. "I call it bandwagoning," he said. "When it's going good, they ride. When things are bad, they get off ... People shop on busy streets. Tysons Corner's always busy."

He has a lawyer in Louisiana, Eddie Sapir, who also works for Yankee Manager Billy Martin, and a representative in Washington, Bob Piper, but he says he's in charge. "I'm not going to go out and beat the bushes," he said. "I never had it and I always survived. If someone thinks Doug Williams is worth representing their company, I'm sure they'll find a way to find me.

"I don't want Piper and Sapir out there beating the bushes because I'm not going to do a lot of projects per se. I'm not going to go on a speaking circuit where I have to make 10 trips for a total of two or three days trying to make $5,000. I'll run myself crazy.

"Today two people came to Piper to discuss some project, some advertising people. They had a project to do a video, a 15-minute thing McDonald's was sponsoring, to show to all high school kids in the area. That's great, but McDonald's don't pick Michael Jordan to do that. They pick Michael Jordan to talk about eating Egg McMuffins and Big Breakfast. I want to be one of those type guys."

He is entering the last year of a three-year contract with the Redskins worth $475,000 a year. He is 32 and hopes to play another two or three years. "I'd like to sign an extension," he said. "I hope something might be done for next year. I hope they can extend and adjust. We're in America. We can do that kind of stuff."

He says he refuses to negotiate through the papers, refuses to compare himself with Schroeder, who reportedly signed a three-year contract worth $2.7 million before the 1987 season. His popularity will negotiate for him. In the flush of victory, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke was asked what motivated him to pay $475,000 a year for a backup quarterback. "It was very easy to do," Cooke replied, inadvertently establishing Williams' negotiating position. "It was the essence of wanting to win so badly that had it been $875,000 or $1,875,000, I would have said the same thing to Joe {Gibbs}, but I would have said it quite a little bit reluctantly, though I would have said it."

On Monday, when he got home from California, Williams said: "Somebody smiled on me."

Two weeks ago, when Doug Williams left for San Diego, he knew the world would be judging him as the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl. When he returned, there was nothing left to prove. He was a winning quarterback who happened to be black. The change in perception was not inconsequential. It prompted Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to say that Williams had done more for civil rights in one afternoon than the Reagan administration had done in eight years.

"That's an awful lot to expect to happen in one day," Williams said, ruefully, his drawl muffled by painkillers. "Three hours."

The dentist's work was done. Numb with Novocain, and the week of a lifetime, Williams hobbled back into the limousine, where he tried valiantly to answer imponderable questions about the sociological impact of what he had accomplished.

He knew what to expect in San Diego. He was determined to be in control. "I prepared for last week, to be honest with you. Those five hours on the airplane, thinking about what we were taking on, I was trying to play some of the questions in my mind and how to handle them."

He answered every question, however insulting, however inane. He says the whole thing was crazy. "People didn't take us seriously. They thought we had a circus. You know how Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus comes to town with the midgets and the biggest man on Earth. They thought we had a circus with a black quarterback. There were times I could have taken the mike and stuck it down some people's throats. But what would that have proved? I would have fell right into what they wanted me to be, most of them -- angry."

He refused to get angry, refused to bow to lowered expectations. "All week, everything was geared around black and god, which was {Denver quarterback John} Elway," he said. "I was just there for the black ride. Elway was there to win." And when the Redskins fell behind 10-0, he wasn't "trying to show the world anything. I was trying to win."

He says, "I didn't play the game to wipe the slate clean."

But there are those who believe things will be different in America because of what Doug Williams did. Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster, who attended the game, believes Williams' performance will have "a special meaning and banner" of pride in the black community as well as a political impact in the white community. "I believe it will increase white voters' willingness to accept Jesse Jackson," Hart says. "It has more of a carrying power than one quarterback throwing four touchdowns in one quarter."

"That's heavy-metal stuff," Williams said, riding through the winter night. "Maybe I don't understand the impact. Maybe I've been confined to the smaller things in life."

He shrugged. "It is a compliment. I wish I could change a lot of things as far as race relations. That's the thing Martin was talking about, the dream, that everybody would be able to walk together hand in hand and sit down at the same table and buy the same dinner and talk about the same subject and nobody consider themselves better than others. I guess that's what bothers me more than anything. I don't want to be better than anybody else because I don't think I am."

He doesn't want to be on anyone's pedestal, is wary of the deification already underway, and the responsibility and the vulnerability that come with such an elevation. He knows his words have new weight. "I just try to stay away from issues that are sore subjects with blacks and whites because I don't think I'm an authority on politics," he said. "At this point, anything that Doug Williams says, a lot of people are going to listen. Whether it's good or bad, people are going to listen. So I just try not to get caught in anything. Some people try to put added responsibility on you. I can't take on the whole world."

He knows politicians will seek his support. If Jesse Jackson calls seeking an endorsement, he'd tell him, "I'm not into politics," he said. "But I'll vote for him because I'm a Democrat and I think he can do the job -- not just because he's black."

He would like to believe that what he accomplished has some sociological import, but says, "We won't know all that for years to come." He would like to believe you can defuse racism with a superbly played football game but is skeptical.

"I view it as the Super Bowl, a football game, a great event that happens once a year. I was part of the 22nd. I don't understand what it would do for America ... I don't think sports are going to do it. No sporting event is going to change a lot of things in life."

On the TV screen, the news was replaying his morning at Howard University. He watched in silence, rubbing his numb chin. Some athletes, like Reggie Jackson, revel in the "magnitude of me." Magnitude is not Williams' style. He struggles to explain what it feels like to have 600,000 people standing in the street chanting his name. But he can tell you what it feels like to stand at the corner of 12th and U streets signing autographs -- and that's what he talked about at Howard.

He told them about the time late this season that he went to Ben's Chili Bowl to eat. "One guy walked up to me and said, 'Man, you've done a lot of good for this corner tonight.'

"It made me feel like I was somebody that can make others feel like somebody when they don't feel like anybody. I lifted up the corner."