Growing up female in the South, I had little feeling for competitive sports. I certainly cheered my college teams, but football was something I thought was for men only. In recent years, however, as the Washington Redskins have shed the ugly racial baggage that once made them such a divisive force in this area, and much to my surprise, I have become a fan. Last Sunday's game, with the breathtaking triumph of Doug Williams, was the sweetest victory of all.
It was not only a triumph for the Redskins, Washingtonians and people across America, but it also was a special thrill for many black Americans because we have chafed beneath the lie that blacks weren't smart enough to play quarterback.
So when Williams became the hero of Super Bowl XXII -- the very first time a black started in the quarterback position in the championship game -- he smashed to smithereens another stereotype.
Doug Williams is a human being of such elegance: He sat on the bench with grace when he was a substitute, then played for a short time as a starter; he displayed equanimity when he was a backup again and, finally, he was modest when he got the nod as starting quarterback, leading the team to victory despite having root canal surgery and a damaged knee.
What attracts me to Williams are the same qualities that attract most people: He is a solid person with good values, a mature man who has suffered and who seems sensitive, humble, honest and modest. In this age of hype, those are values that are particularly appreciated.
Interestingly enough, he's also the complete antithesis of another high-profile athlete, Muhammad Ali. Equally wonderful in his prime, Ali was totally immodest and one could only imagine what he would have said had he been in Williams' place.
Instead of Doug Williams' modest comment, "The only important thing to me was winning," one could imagine Ali boasting, "I coulda' won the Super Bowl three years ago! I told y'all. I'm the greatest!"
But different styles aside, understatement is charming in Williams because it is girded with excellence and substance. Williams is proof that strong-rooted values can take precedence and dominance, giving a person the ability to handle practically any kind of crisis.
In recent years, in fact, I have come to realize that sports can really be a metaphor for life; indeed, it is a life process. You learn about setting goals, getting along with peers and authority figures, adversaries and friends, gracious winning and losing, and achievement.
Different games provide different metaphors, whether one is making subtle moves and waiting patiently as in playing chess; or outthinking an opponent and using subtle deception as a strategy as in tennis.
To be a great athlete like Doug Williams, you have to take all the God-given physical, mental and emotional talents and hone them to precision. But Williams also supports his prowess with strong character and values.
In fact, Doug Williams and Coach Joe Gibbs share similar values -- Gibbs exudes a certain honesty and humility. I seem to recall a photograph of Gibbs in which he had fallen to his knees during a playoff game, praying for a victory. No, these two aren't slicksters; Williams and Gibbs are country boys who both exhibit the best of the old American values.
And were it not for Gibbs, Doug Williams may have been lost to the Redskins and to Washington. As Branch Rickey was to Jackie Robinson, Joe Gibbs has been to Doug Williams. In each case, the mentor saw the potential of the man and not the color of his skin. And because of that, sports -- both baseball and now, gloriously, football -- have been significantly enhanced.
Indeed, the hundreds of thousands of fans who gathered for yesterday's parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, yes, both black and white, were united behind their quarterback and their team.
Many people have expressed doubt that the unity the Redskins have fostered in the diverse Washington area will transfer to anything else. But Doug Williams may prove to be the unifier who lasts beyond Super Bowl mania, for he exemplifies the values that decent people of all classes and races share and appreciate, but that groups are far too seldom aware of in each other.