Doug Williams smiles whenever he hears the number 10; that is because it was the number of African American starting quarterbacks in the NFL during Week 1 of the 2020 season -- the most in a single week in league history.
It serves as a reminder for how far the NFL has come since Williams played for the Washington Football Team. Now, African American quarterbacks make up a third of the starting signal-callers in the league, and that is not even including the number of backups.
It speaks volumes to Williams, not just because of the number itself, but also that teams are willing to put their faith in African American quarterbacks. They are building schemes that complement the players' skillset, not the other way around, and that is a positive step as the league continues to move towards more diversity at the position.
"I think these guys, with the talent that they have coming in, they're going to demand an opportunity," Williams told senior vice president of media and content Julie Donaldson. "I think that's the bottom line. Do you want to win? Do you want to put the best player on the field? Well, let's go with them, and I think that's where we are."
During Williams' NFL career, it was difficult to find six African American quarterbacks in the NFL in a given decade, let alone 10 starters and even more backups like there are today. Aside from Williams himself, who played from 1978-89, the short list included James Harris, who was at the end of his career when Williams signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Vince Evans and eventually Warren Moon.
Even when former Washington quarterback Jason Campbell, who played for Washington from 2006-09, was growing up, African American quarterbacks were rare, and the few that played professionally and in college inspired him. He remembers seeing Williams become the first African American quarterback to start in and win a Super Bowl with Washington in Super Bowl XXII. Campbell also lived 17 minutes away, so he would travel to Alcorn State to see Steve McNair line up under center.
"Just seeing [McNair] play in person and put on a show at that level and finishing third in the Heisman Trophy. When you would go to the games the stadium would be packed," Campbell said. "And then of course watching Doug. When you were young and I was a teenager at this time and he wins the Super Bowl as the first African American quarterback, so you know there was hope. And any time you see hope, it gives you confidence."
Travelling to watch some of the best African American quarterbacks was common. Campbell played at Auburn, but Williams pointed out that Campbell likely would not have been allowed to enroll in previous decades because integration was still lagging behind in certain areas. Back then, the best places to find some of the top African American athletes were HBCUs like Tennessee State and Grambling State, where Williams was a four-year starter.
While Campbell had McNair, Williams had the likes of Tennessee State's Joe Gilliam and Mississippi Valley State's Parnell Dickinson, both of whom played in the NFL, for inspiration. Williams remembers playing against Dickinson during his freshman year at Grambling State and thinking "nobody could throw like that."
Williams also remembers legendary Grambling State head coach Eddie Robinson's message to him and his teammates: if you can play at Grambling, you can play anywhere.
"My freshman year of football, I played against Walter Payton, so the best football players were always at the HBCUs back in the day," Williams said. "There was nowhere in our mind any doubt that we couldn't play at the next level."
Despite the talent at HBCUs, there was not much exposure to NFL scouts, which played a part in creating racial stereotypes. Stigmas like a lack of intelligence to comprehend certain offensive schemes led to a lack of opportunities, which meant African American quarterbacks had to overcome even more barriers to prove they could play at a professional level.
That way of thinking has become less prevalent, especially in recent years with the rise of players like Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. That trio has produced two MVP awards and four Super Bowl appearances, and Williams and Campbell point to teams putting faith in those players as one of the reasons for their success.
Take Jackson for example; one of the criticisms about him coming out of Louisville was whether he had the arm talent to perform in the NFL. Instead of trying to turn him into a pocket passer, head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome built an offense designed around his strengths, which were using his legs and completing long strikes down the field.
"I think that's what the difference is," Campbell said. "Now they utilize the talent and adjust to the talent, rather than having the talent adjust to the offense, so I think coaches are getting smarter, they're getting better and figuring this thing out. They're understanding and saying, 'Hey, yes we can have it between the ears as well, but we also have the ability to carry the team on our back as well.'"
Campbell added African American quarterbacks "have to still do things two to three times better at the position," but the increase in opportunities has created a more level playing field. He and Williams hope that the success of Mahomes, Wilson and Jackson will be just the start of giving African American quarterbacks more chances to prove themselves.
"You've got some guys on the bench right now that can probably play at some other places if they're given the opportunity," Williams said. "Everything in life is about a chance. If you're not given a chance, there's not going to be a chance."
Rome was not built in a day, Campbell said, but there is no doubt that progress has been made for African American quarterbacks. The NFL has improved upon the days when seeing an African American quarterback was a unique occurrence, but it is merely one step on the path towards equality. Williams hopes that one day, half or even most of the league's starting quarterbacks will be African American. But it will not be simply because they are Black; hopefully, coaches will see what they can do at the position.
Regardless of what steps are taken next, Campbell hopes the league is able to do it with a unified front.
"It's all a power struggle, and once we realize we're stronger together than we are divided, then that's when we'll move forward," Campbell said. "But everyone has to take on that mindset. That's how I feel like we'll improve."