Like most days last spring, I got up early on the morning of March 28 and drove my 7-year-old daughter, Ashley, to school. Then I went right to the office behind my house in Zachary, La., and worked out on the treadmill and weights. I had a football season ahead of me.
There were only three days left in Plan B free agent signing period, and I expected to return to the Washington Redskins. I was looking forward to the 1990 season, even though Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs had announced Mark Rypien would be our starting quarterback. We had a talented group of veterans, most of them part of our Super Bowl victory in January 1988, and I thought we had a good chance to get back in the playoffs and make a run at another championship.
This was going to be my 10th season in the National Football League, five with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and five with the Redskins. At Tampa Bay, we made it to the NFC championship game in my second season and only the fourth year of the franchise. No other expansion team has been successful so soon. In my years with the Redskins, we had been to two NFC championship games and won a Super Bowl.
I wanted to finish my career with the Redskins.
All that changed with one phone call. After my workout that morning, I checked my answering machine and there was a message to call Coach Gibbs. When we finally got in touch with each other that afternoon, I could tell right away something was up, because there was a strange sound to his voice.
"Douglas, I need to see you," he said in a very businesslike way. "I have to talk to you face to face."
Having been around Coach Gibbs for so many years, both at Tampa Bay and Washington, I could sense there was a problem. I suspected something was going to happen that probably wasn't what I wanted. I told him that I had to be in Washington on Friday the 30th, so we agreed to meet at Redskin Park.
Toward the end of the 1989 season, I could tell my days as the Redskins' starting quarterback were over. Coach Gibbs made it clear he was going to go with Rypien. But I had no problem with that. I had shown that I could accept being the backup, and I had proven that I could be effective coming off the bench. After all, the Redskins signed me to be the backup in 1986, and I was still the backup at the start of our Super Bowl season.
Even though I had just come off back surgery, I had played some late in the 1989 season and played well. My health was not a factor. Neither was my age. I was going to turn 35 before the season, but plenty of quarterbacks who played in the NFL have been older than that. Much older. Besides, I knew Coach Gibbs likes to have a veteran quarterback around.
I had not been surprised when the Redskins didn't protect me in February under Plan B. Here's a 35-year-old quarterback who is making $1.2 million, who has just come back off back surgery. What did surprise me was the lack of interest. My agent, Brig Owens, got calls from the Browns and Giants, but they weren't seriously interested at the time. Maybe if they lost somebody, they would have come back to talk to me. But no team was willing to make an offer.
Actually, that helped me prepare for what was to come. I really wanted to play another season for the Redskins, and I expected to get that opportunity. Yet I realized there was a chance I might not. When I went to see Coach Gibbs on Friday, I was prepared to hear that I was no longer going to be a Redskin.
He got up and made me feel welcome. Then he got to the point:
"I've been thinking about this a long time. It's been on my mind for weeks. We've had a lot of good times. Remember 1987 I sat right here and said I didn't want to trade you to the Raiders because I thought you were going to help us win the championship. We got that Super Bowl ring, didn't we? And you've overcome so many things here, I think we've made the complete cycle."
I could tell Coach Gibbs didn't want to say he was releasing me. Knowing him like I do, friends with him for so long, I knew he would have a hard time saying it was over. He wanted me to stop him and say, "Coach, I think it's best for me to go on and retire." But I wasn't going to retire; I'm still capable of playing.
Then Coach Gibbs talked about being worried about my health. I appreciated his concern for my well-being, and I believe it was genuine. I've always thought Coach Gibbs was a fair man. At least as fair as he could be in this league. But as a football player, you know you take risks, and I was willing to take them. My back felt fine. I had been working out to get ready for minicamp. I wanted to play.
"Douglas, I've decided to go with the younger guys," Coach Gibbs said. "I feel if we're going to go anywhere, it's going to be with the young guys. And I wouldn't enjoy the idea of coaching you as the backup or third-teamer. I couldn't face you in meetings. It wouldn't be fair to you after all you've done."
There didn't seem to be much point in saying anything. Finally, I told him: "I did not come in here to try to convince you that I can still play. I know you've already made up your mind. If that's the case, then just go on and release me."
All I wanted was a chance to prove myself. If I didn't make the team in training camp, fine. Then they could cut me. But as it turned out, they wouldn't even give me a shot.
Then came the clincher. Coach Gibbs told me: "We're going to sign the best available quarterback. That's Jeff Rutledge."
That really shocked me. Rutledge from the Giants. A guy who has never done anything in the league. He's hardly even played. I was hurt, embarrassed, angry. I couldn't hold back any longer.
"Coach, I'm going to tell you like it is," I said. "I don't think a healthy Jeff Rutledge could beat out a banged-up Doug Williams!"
Actually, the main reason they let me go was to save money. No doubt about it, this was a business decision. My contract called for $1.2 million for the 1990 season, and they signed Rutledge for $300,000.
They didn't even give me a choice of taking a pay cut or retiring. I guess they were afraid I wouldn't take the cut, and then they'd have a controversy.
A lot of prominent people in Washington called me and said it was a matter of the Redskins trying to avoid a quarterback controversy. Suppose Rypien and Stan Humphries, their other quarterback, weren't playing well, and I was sitting on the sidelines again. Then we'd start hearing the old chant: "We want Doug! We want Doug!" And Coach Gibbs hates that kind of controversy. He can't stand it.
I believe it was a combination of finances and avoiding controversy. Black quarterbacks are always going to be controversial in the NFL.
The thing the Redskins didn't consider is what I meant to the team. Here's an inspirational leader. Someone who has led them to the Super Bowl. Someone actively involved in the community. Someone who represents the organization well in many capacities. You can't replace those things. From that standpoint, they made a major mistake.
No question. Black quarterbacks do not get a chance to sit around and make money as backups in the NFL. It's part of the syndrome. . . . A lot of NFL coaches, general managers and owners either don't want a black man in a leadership role such as quarterback or they just don't want to buck the system. . . . The backup quarterback position is for white players only. Blacks need not apply.
I really thought the Redskins were above that.
One day after my release, a headline in The Washington Post read: "(No) Thanks for the Memories." And Michael Wilbon closed his column in The Post with this: "Doug Williams did good for the Washington Redskins. Maybe too good. Maybe they didn't deserve him."
I can't say the Redskins didn't deserve Doug Williams. But I can say Doug Williams deserved a better farewell from the Redskins.
Excerpted with permission from "Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth" by Doug Williams with Bruce Hunter, Bonus Books, Chicago.