Though a handful of Black quarterbacks came before him, Williams laid many of the most important bricks down on the metaphorical yellow brick road I speak of. Williams was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft out of Grambling State University in 1978. Williams provided the finishing layers of dirty work that was necessary for subsequent Black quarterbacks to be truly recognized.
To many (including me), Williams’ MVP performance in Superbowl XXII (1987), was the first they heard about Doug Williams, though he had proven to be a solidly accomplished starting quarterback in the past for other teams. I can recall that the way the situation in that Superbowl was covered by the media suggested that Williams was basically a back-up quarterback who got lucky in the Superbowl. But something about the fact that Williams threw four touchdowns in that Superbowl never seemed to equate with luck. The fact of the matter was that there was still reluctance towards putting a Black quarterback on a pedestal. Williams bore that cross, but History bares his name.
Enter Randall Cunningham, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1985. Cunningham pounced on the momentum created by Williams, and by 1988 was the first Black quarterback to be viewed as an elite player in the NFL. While Williams just seemed to have the savvy necessary for football playing success, Cunningham was an undeniably great athlete with a decent amount of savvy himself. Cunningham along with Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers seemed to be the ones who fully turned the page of NFL executives and analysts, to the point where it had become obvious that Black quarterbacks could be masterful at what many consider to be the most difficult position in all of sports.
And so the yellow brick road was now laid for a Black quarterback to be celebrated as a major college prospect for the pro’s, and could be projected as a centerpiece that an NFL team could respectably build the rest of their team around (respect being the operative root word).
Enter Steve McNair, who even earned a saleable nickname (Air McNair) from the media before he even left college at Alcorn State. McNair put up prodigious numbers at the small Black college, and projected to be a muted, but successful, combination of Doug Williams’ toughness and savvy, and Cunningham’s incredible athletic prowess. To the delight of the Houston Oilers (who would subsequently be sold, moved, and renamed the Tennessee Titans), McNair became exactly what they hoped he would be and more. McNair became a strong, silent, pillar in the NFL and would become the first Black quarterback to be named Co-MVP of the entire league in 2003.
McNair’s play simply made you proud. The best way to put it is that he carried a lot of the legendary feel and aura of someone like the mythical Black character John Henry. Coming up one yard short of a potential championship in Superbowl XXXIV certainly only added to that legend. Though often hurt, McNair almost always played through the pain; limping and bleeding all over the field, but still getting the job done in masterful fashion. All the while, McNair never gave the scandalous media the fresh blood of imperfection that they so thirst for.
How ironic that in death, McNair served-up a fat, scandalous, pumpkin for the bloodthirsty media to hoist in the air like a severed head from the guillotine: Infidelity. Alas, a reminder that in the end Dorothy was not perfect either. But what a miraculous and legendary trip down the yellow brick road. My wish for McNair (and his family) is that the glorifying of his imperfections is short, and the legend of the complete road he traveled to be told as the humble and inspiring fairytale that it is (The forerunners who laid the road deserve that respect also). Oz was a place where the characters overcame their imperfections, and assumed their rightful position as legendary icons.