By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
In 1973 when Doug Williams was preparing to graduate from high school in the small town of Zachary, Louisiana outside of Baton Rouge, there weren’t a lot of black quarterbacks at major universities, especially in the south. Williams didn’t feel he was athletic enough to be converted to another position. That’s when the legendary head coach Eddie Robinson of Grambling State University, one of the premiere historically black colleges and universities, offered Williams the opportunity to play for him.
“My mom made the decision,” Williams said with a laugh. “It was 15 minutes from my house. She woke me up to tell me I was going to Grambling.”
In those early days, they had no idea of what was to come, including the ground-breaking NFL career Williams, currently a personnel executive with the Washington Redskins, would go on to have.
“We didn’t think about it,” Williams said. “Coach Rob was Coach Rob. We didn’t know the world was watching. He told my mama that I was going to class, and church every Sunday, and get a degree, and that’s all she wanted to hear.”
And so, it was. During his years at Grambling, Williams set records on the field and managed to not only earn his undergraduate degree in four years, but started work on a graduate degree. By that time, Williams had caught the attention of the NFL and in 1978 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him with the 17th overall pick, making him just the second black quarterback in history to be drafted in the first round. (Eldridge Dickey was the first in 1968 for the Oakland Raiders, but the team converted him to wide receiver.)
While he didn’t come from a program at one of the larger football schools, Williams credits his experience at Grambling as providing him with the solid foundation he needed for a successful life in every aspect.
“[HBCUs] offer [learning about] survival,” Williams said. “On the football field, we didn’t have the best of facilities, but we had damn good players. Coach Rob used to tell us we had done so much with so little, we could do anything with almost nothing.”
And Williams made a lot out of that bare bones beginning. In his four years in Tampa Bay, Williams led the team to the playoffs three times, including in 1979, the team’s first trip to the NFC Championship game. After two years in the USFL playing for the Oklahoma/Arizona Outlaws, Williams then signed with Washington in 1986. In 1987 he became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl when Washington defeated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. Williams was also named the game’s MVP.
Although society has come a long way in the 40 years since Williams arrived at Grambling, he remains a staunch supporter of what HBCUs still offer for many black students and student-athletes.
“If you’ve never been the minority it’s tough being the minority,” Williams said. “That’s part of our problem now. There are a lot of African-Americans at a lot of other schools that would do better being at an HBCU. They’d probably feel more comfortable in a place where culturally [they feel like they fit in better] and where they can ascribe to be a better person.”
Williams went on to a career in coaching and personnel, including serving as the head coach at his alma mater, Grambling. It was during one of his years in personnel that Williams recalled being especially struck by the differences between HBCUs and other colleges and universities when, in 1996, he was on a scouting trip for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I went to Storrs, CT (to the University of Connecticut),” Williams said. “I passed a building that said African American studies. I thought, ‘Why would I want to be on a campus that’s only got one building that I can hang out?’”
And Williams points out, it’s not about being racially segregated, it’s about providing the best environment for students to get the best education for them. He pointed out that while white students are the minority, they are welcomed.
“There’s no discrimination. We welcome the white students if they want to come,” he said. “You’d be surprised how inclusive it is, and how they would love to see more white kids on their campus.”
He was pleased when the NFL chose to highlight the Pro Football Hall of Fame players who attended HBCUs at this year’s Super Bowl. He emphasized that the education offered at the HBCUs is often more comprehensive, to help prepare students not only academically, but focus on teaching life skills as well.
“I think people have a preconceived idea that going to an HBCU, that you’re being taught about racism,” he said. “But, [especially older guys], we all had similar stories. You didn’t have a choice. You went there because that’s where you could go. I was fortunate enough to play for Eddie Robinson. Coach Rob was instrumental in a lot of guys growing up as men, not just as football players. Every guy who’s made it to the Hall of Fame would have made it in life anyway. Because of all the people who were pushing you.”
For Williams, the most important thing is for everyone to have a place where they can further their education and give them the best chance for success in life. For many students coming from predominantly black grade schools and high schools, the comfort level of being at an HBCU can provide that launching pad.
“You’ve got a degree,” he said. “It can’t be taken away, and you have something to fight with.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.