by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SAN DIEGO — He sat in the stands Sunday afternoon, trying hard to choke down his excitement. That wasn’t just Doug Williams out there, the first black quarterback in a Super Bowl. That was Eddie Robinson’s life story.

“To see this happen in these late years,” says Robinson, 68, Williams’ coach at traditionally black Grambling University, and the man most responsible for his being here, “well, I can hardly describe what it means.”

How long had he waited? Here is a hint: There was a time when Robinson and his Grambling team had a breakdown with their bus. They pulled into a gas station in the Deep South. The mechanic chased them off, screaming: “Get that nigger bus out of here.”

There was a time when Eddie Robinson could not take his players into hotels. There was a time when he made sandwiches before road trips because no restaurant would let him enter. There was a time when his team had to use separate bathrooms marked for “colored” people.

Throughout the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s — and Robinson was there for all of it — there were countless incidents, little things, big things, horrible branches from the same horrible tree. His players were hated because they were black. He was hated because he was the coach.

And always, throughout it all, was the quarterback thing.

And here, Sunday, taking that first Washington snap from center, whipping completions, throwing touchdowns, playing a remarkable, record-breaking game, was Williams, the quarterback, the most valuable player, a product of Robinson’s warmth, guidance — and most of all, his perseverance.

How long do you wait for a dream? Ten years? Twenty? Thirty? Never mind that Robinson, who has been at Grambling since World War II, who, for a long time had to water his own field, paint the stripes, collect the equipment, write the newspaper stories and wake up the players with a cowbell — never mind that he turned out countless quality NFL players like Tank Younger, Willie Davis, Buck Buchanan, Charlie Joiner, Everson Walls. Receivers, linemen, defensive backs? The NFL loved them. But if they came out of Grambling throwing, they wound up sitting, switching or leaving.

“For years I wanted desperately to find out what it would take to get a Grambling player to be an NFL quarterback,” says Robinson, his hair now sprinkled with white, his smile, for all he has been through, somehow remarkably intact. “I went to every NFL scout I knew. I talked with every former player we had in the NFL. We ran our offense like certain pro teams.

“I never accepted the fact that there couldn’t be a black quarterback, just like I never accepted the fact there can’t be an black head coach or a black owner. . . .

“Anything is possible in our society if people are willing to pay the price.”

How many other young black men had believed those words, and were watching Sunday as Williams, the Redskins’ quarterback, hammered the stigma with one glorious spiral after another?

There was Matt Reed, a 6-5 Grambling quarterback who smashed all school records; the NFL tried to make him a tight end. (“It was embarrassing,” Robinson admits. “The receivers that he threw to were being drafted as receivers. But they wanted to switch him.”)

There was a guy named Frank Holmes, who had all the promise, but was cut. There was Mike Howell, a terrific quarterback, who said to Robinson: “Coach, I’ll play quarterback for you, but you have to let me play defensive back for me. I know I’m not going into the NFL as a black quarterback.”

Robinson reluctantly said OK — and Howell would play seven NFL years. As a

defensive back.

There was Eddie Robinson Jr., the coach’s son, a quarterback at Grambling whom the New York Jets shifted to defense.

Yet Robinson remained undaunted. Producing an NFL quarterback became almost an obsession — not for personal glory, but to shatter the stereotype. James Harris was recruited and told from the start that he was being groomed for the NFL. “And I told him, as I told Doug, you have to graduate. A degree was very important. There was this stigma that, you know, somehow the black quarterback wasn’t smart enough.”

Harris made it to the NFL. He was a starter for the Rams for a brief period. Personal problems clipped his career, but the door had been cracked open.

And when Robinson spotted Doug Williams, one of the Williams kids from Zachary, La., saw his long, lean frame, and the way he threw a ball “out of sight” — he believed he had found his man.

On Sunday, following a national anthem that saw thousands of red, white and blue balloons, Doug Williams began his own U.S. history. He completed a screen pass. He completed a 40-yard shot to Art Monk on a critical third down. He threw a gorgeous touch pass to a streaking Rick Sanders, 80 yards, touchdown, tying the longest-ever Super Bowl pass. Then another touchdown. Another. Another. Four in the first half. Another record. Three- hundred-forty yards, 306 in the first half. Another record. Incredible.

His performance was sterling, but his performance was hardly the only important thing. Just being out there. The effort. People around the world were watching this, in dozens of countries, in thousands of small towns. A black man not as quarterback. As a star quarterback.

And also watching, and no doubt crying from joy, as is his habit, was Robinson — who had flown out from Grambling to witness it firsthand. Some things you can’t pass up and some things you just pray won’t pass you by. There were a lot of people who had waited a long time for what took place during Super Bowl XXII. No one had waited longer than Robinson. In more than 40 years at Grambling, he never took to hating. Never turned surly or bitter. He fought like a lion and gave something more precious than all the screaming in the world — he gave his time.

So what Doug Williams did Sunday was for himself, sure, but for everybody else, too. For Robinson, for Grambling, for James Harris, for Mike Howell, for

Reed and Holmes and all the others who were held down once, but we hope, never again.

“We are all Americans,” says Robinson, which sounds so simple you wonder why we took so long to learn it. CUTLINE Denver linebacker Rick Dennison puts the pressure on Washington quarterback Doug Williams. Washington quarterback Doug Williams carries home a keepsake. He later got the MVP trophy. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 340 yards. Grambling’s Eddie Robinson.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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