Twenty-nine years ago, Washington quarterback Doug Williams, fresh off one of the most historic performances in Super Bowl lore, stood next to President Ronald Reagan, leaned in and said, "This is a long way from Zachary, Louisiana."
Williams recalled that moment last week when we discussed the evolution of the state of African-Americans in the NFL. I am friends with Williams, and each year, I co-host the induction ceremony for the Black College Football Hall of Fame, which Williams co-founded with fellow Grambling State product James "Shack" Harris.
Several players from the reigning Super Bowl-champion Patriots -- including Chris Long, Martellus Bennett, LeGarrette Blount and Devin McCourty -- have said they won't be leaning in to say anything to President Donald Trump, or even setting foot in the White House, for that matter. Their teammate, quarterback Tom Brady, and other NFL players and pro athletes have declined White House visits in the past, be it for political reasons -- like those some of the Patriots players cited -- or because of other personal conflicts.
Williams' story is one of the reasons players today feel empowered enough to stand up and act for what they believe.
As the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl, Williams erased a stigma placed on players with his melanin who played the position. Sure, Marlin Briscoe, Joe Gilliam and Harris came before him as black quarterbacks to actually take a snap from under center, but they didn't win a Super Bowl. They didn't get the chance.
Williams did, and he delivered.
Williams proved that others would follow a black quarterback's lead. He proved that a black quarterback could handle everything a white quarterback could. He did it all with grace. He did it for the franchise that was the last in the NFL to sign a black player.
Nobody was a bigger figure in Washington, D.C., then. Not Reagan, not anyone. In 1988, D.C. was still "Chocolate City." The crime rate there was high, but so were the levels of black wealth and college graduates. There were the ills and blight of many urban centers, but there also were success stories and pride.
I was a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., then, and I did not like the Redskins. Hated 'em. I grew up in Minneapolis and then St. Louis, and the teams I rooted for were not friendly with Washington.
Plus, my grandfather despised the fact that the team's former owner, George Preston Marshall, was the last holdout in signing a minority to his football club.
The feelings temporarily changed when Williams won the Super Bowl -- and the game's MVP award. His performance pulled so many of us together. It was our generation's Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson moment, where a person of color showed what so many of us knew: Opportunity could lead to history.
"Today, it's funny when guys come into my office and say things like, 'My uncle or my grandmamma loved you,' " said Williams, a senior personnel executive with the Redskins. " 'My daddy, all he used to do was talk about you.' When they meet me, they want to know more or why."
There really is little if any discussion about black quarterbacks anymore. Today's generation has grown up with the presence of black quarterbacks being normal. They've lived through a black president. This is their history.
Let's not forget what helped get us here, though -- specifically, Williams' Super Bowl performance after the 1987 season.
Let's put things in context. Brady just gave us one of the greatest Super Bowl performances we've seen, helping rally the Patriots from a 25-point deficit. In a dazzling fourth quarter, Brady completed 16 of 21 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. He was the MVP, and deservedly so, in winning his fifth Super Bowl.
Now, let's look at what Williams did in Super Bowl XXII, when Washington, the underdog, defeated Denver, 42-10.
First, some background. The 1987 season was impacted by a player strike. Replacement players were used for a handful of games. Williams was at the tail end of an up-and-down career spent mostly with the hapless Buccaneers. Jay Schroeder started most of the season for Washington, but Williams replaced him late in the season and coach Joe Gibbs rode Williams through the playoffs. Heading into the big game, Williams was asked daily about being the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl.
A day before the game, Williams had an emergency root canal procedure. Then, in the first quarter, he briefly came out after sustaining a knee injury. Washington fell behind John Elway and the Broncos, 10-0.
What followed was a performance that has yet to be matched. In the second quarter, Williams completed 9 of 11 passes for 228 yards and four touchdowns as the Redskins scored 35 unanswered points. Read that stat line again and compare it to Brady's line from the great fourth quarter of this season's Super Bowl (16 of 21 for 196 yards and one TD).
The comparison is not intended to take away from what Brady did. He led a comeback for the ages. Rather, I make it to highlight what Williams did. He had a historic performance. A performance that I and so many others will never forget.
Williams helped erase fears and ignorance about black quarterbacks. The aftermath slowly helped today's players feel secure enough to take some of the stands they have taken.
Here might be where there is the most room for growth:
Too often, we only think of Williams, Harris, Willie Lanier, Deacon Jones, Mel Blount, Jim Brown and so many other greats during Black History Month or when issues of race simmer into consciousness. We should think of them in the context of history. Not just Black History, when it's convenient to pay homage or when people -- especially in the media -- realize that the calendar points to a designated time to recognize black achievement.
The player didn't know.
It's not the player's fault. That's on us.
So much of Black History is NFL History. And so much of NFL History is American History.