While advising his son how to be a man, Rudyard Kipling wrote, "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same . . . " In a roller coaster season, a season in which he should have whiplash from all the twists, the turns, the hesitant climbs and those terrifying plunges, Doug Williams has done his level best to be a man. As Kipling counseled, he's talked with crowds and kept his virtue, walked with Kings and not lost the common touch.

When he was benched in favor of Jay Schroeder, as much as it hurt, Williams bore the pain and maturely accepted the coaching decision. And when he replaced Schroeder, as elated as he felt, Williams humbly maintained he was just keeping the chair warm, that indeed, "Jay is the future of the Washington Redskins." Of all the words written about Williams this season, the one that springs first to mind is: "class."

Now, as the Washington Redskins prepare for the NFC championship game, Williams is firmly planted as the starting quarterback. His is the Earth and everything that's in it. The Redskins' future? He still believes it belongs to Schroeder.

"Only thing about it is," Williams said with a wink in his voice, "I never did say when the future was, did I?"

At 32, and in the prime of his football life, Williams would seem to be one victory away from becoming the first black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl, a cultural footnote that would make him the most publicized, analyzed and categorized player in San Diego. Should the Redskins win Sunday, Williams knows what awaits him. "A million writers are going to want me to talk to them and no one else. They'll want exclusive rights to my story," Williams said, laughing gently. "If things go right, anything's possible. But first, I have to get there. There's no point in me thinking about anything other than Minnesota." Williams allowed himself a thin chuckle as he underlined his point. "What do you suppose they're thinking about in San Francisco now?"

Williams is a savvy man with a wise, grandfatherly demeanor; he'll be very good at sitting on a porch being 75. He's been asked the same questions often enough to be comfortable with his answers. The Super Bowl is a football game, it isn't a crusade. "I want to go to the Super Bowl because I'm a professional football player, and that's the ultimate game for professional football players -- white and black," Williams said emphatically. But he realizes that how he performs during that game will have social and cultural impact far beyond the confines of the field. Many blacks see Williams the way many Jews saw Sandy Koufax, as a source of great pride, a combatant against prejudice. Williams doesn't hide from the view.

"I've always looked at myself as the type of figure in sports that Jesse Jackson is in the political arena, in terms of being a role model. I'm glad if I've opened doors for young quarterbacks like Don McPherson and Rodney Peete," Williams said. "But when you look at Doug Williams, I'd like you to look at him as a quarterback who happens to be black, not as a black quarterback. It's the same thing Martin Luther King used to stress: The color of a man's skin doesn't mean anything; we're all still people.

"Give us the same opportunities as everyone else to succeed. Give us time to develop. The way it's always been with black quarterbacks is, 'Put up or shut up.' For example, Vinny Testaverde gets $8 million at Tampa Bay, and they tell him he's not ready to play; they want him to learn and to develop. I got $575,000 for four years, and I had to play the very first down."

The Tampa Bay years were rough on Williams. He won there, but not enough to suit the fans, and fled to the U.S. Football League in 1984. He appears a drastically different quarterback now, much more conservative, much more willing to move up the field in small bites. Williams bristles at that. "People say, 'Doug, you're different now. You sit in the pocket. You throw short. You didn't do that at Tampa Bay.' I didn't have a choice at Tampa Bay. I was always on the run there. Look, I can play anybody's system. The system there was: Pitch left, pitch right, on third down throw long." Williams harrumphed. "People talked about me going deep all the time. Well, I haven't seen John Elway throw one touch pass yet, and he's the MVP. Early in my career I was throwing to receivers who couldn't catch like Terry Bradshaw's, so the TV guys said, 'That Doug Williams throws it too damned hard.' I didn't have Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. I asked Jimmie Giles how he wanted the ball, and he said, 'Quickly.' "

The memory caused Williams to laugh, and the sound was as rich and full as the first steaming cup of coffee on a winter Sunday morning. A winner's laugh, cascading down from a winner's perch. "Joe Namath said that the smartest thing a quarterback can do is find a good team to play for. The philosophy in Tampa Bay was: Just keep it close, and Doug will come up with a big play. I had to have some big shoulders there. Here everybody works together. Nobody's standing around waiting for Doug Williams to make a big play."

This is a better team; therefore, he's a smarter quarterback.

Of course he's laughing.

Twice this season, Williams got the chance to start, and twice fate wrenched it away. Schroeder got healthy during the strike and reclaimed his job when it ended. Then, after Williams won the job outright, he hurt his back, voluntarily stepped aside, and watched Schroeder move back in like he held a deed. Sentence had been passed. No one, least of all Williams, thought the case would come up a third time. But come up it did, for it was Williams who rescued the Redskins from these same Vikings, and Williams who had the calm, steady hand against the Bears.

It's odd how things sometimes work out. Jim McMahon didn't have a very good game; his rustiness was evident. But the Bears stayed with him rather than turn to Mike Tomczak. Maybe if they'd had someone older, more experienced to go to, someone like Doug Williams, they'd have made the move. "The irony is, Chicago could have had me," Williams said. "I was out there. The Redskins were the only offer I had. Anybody could have had me."

He said it again.