When Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl 19 years ago, the buildup to the game between his Washington Redskins and the Denver Broncos was "all Williams all the time."
Including a question that has always been considered No. 1 on the list of wacky Super Bowl queries and has generated a controversy of its own: "How long have you been a black quarterback?"
The racial angle will be back twofold next week as close friends Tony Dungy of Indianapolis and Lovie Smith of Chicago become the first black coaches in the game. That theme overshadows all others, including Peyton Manning's pursuit of his first Super Bowl ring and Dungy's quest for validation as one of the best coaches of the past decade.
Still, it's likely the coaches will be asked more about their skin color than about football. And given the 24/7 nature of news these days, the Dungy-Smith matchup could be the biggest Super Bowl sideshow since Williams' trailblazing appearance, one in which he led the Redskins to a 42-10 victory.
"Nobody said the Washington Redskins against the Denver Broncos, which is what it really was," says Williams, who threw for 340 yards and four touchdowns and was the game's MVP. "It was me, a black quarterback, against the great John Elway."
This week will be more than a sideshow. It will be a significant event that demonstrates there is still a lot to be discussed about race relations in the NFL and, by extension, in the United States.
"This is one of the great moments in American history," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said this week. "It really is. It comes 60 years after Jackie Robinson broke through. It's an American feel-good moment."
There's more to this game, of course:
- Manning's high profile and his chase for a Super Bowl ring to add to a string of accomplishments in nine seasons, including two MVP awards and a single-season record for touchdown passes.
- The comparison between these Bears and their 1985 counterparts, the last Chicago team to make the Super Bowl.
- Any number of individual stories that for a week will turn obscure offensive linemen and special teamers into objects of worldwide scrutiny.
None of the craziness is new.
Back in the prehistoric days of Super Bowldom, when there were 300-400 media members instead of 3,000-4,000, the NFL still provided a week to fill up notebooks and tape recorders with any and every arcane detail.
The pregame frenzy remains the same, although there are more ways to speed the information overload on its way via the Internet and round-the-clock sports radio and television, including the league's own TV network.
The memorable wackiness has covered most of the game's 40 years.
There was Joe Namath's "guarantee" in 1969 that the 18-point underdog Jets would beat the Colts (they did). Jim McMahon's daily travails in 1986, the last time the Bears were in the game. And Brian Billick's blowup in defense of Ray Lewis paired with Kerry Collins' mea culpa about his drinking problems in 2001, when Billick's Ravens beat the Giants, quarterbacked by Collins.
And, of course, the "look at me" antics of Deion Sanders, Ray Buchanan, Terrell Owens and many others who took advantage of football's biggest stage to advertise themselves; although T.O. hardly needs a Super Bowl to do that.
"I guess I'll just have to be satisfied with being the MVP," Buffalo's Thurman Thomas said in 1992 when he was reminded of that fact after complaining he didn't get enough recognition.
Then there was Williams and that "how long have you ..." question.
According to Snopes.com, citing Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and Bob Kravitz, then of the Rocky Mountain News and now of the Indianapolis Star, it was actually: "Doug, obviously you've been a black quarterback all your life. When did race begin to matter to people?"
According to that account, Williams misheard and it and said "How long have I been a black quarterback?"
But Williams said this week the question was actually asked the way he heard it and the questioner later called him to explain that he had worded it poorly.
"I knew where he was coming from," he said. "There were so many questions like that that he was trying to phrase it differently and it came out the way it did."
Beyond the headliners, newly minted media stars come in all forms and colors during Super Bowl week, when questions range from the arcane details of Xs and Os to the legendary, "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?"
Buchanan, a talkative cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons, became the centerpiece in 1999 when, wearing a dog collar, he engaged in back-and-forth long-distance trash talk with Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe. Or at least he was the centerpiece until the night before the game, when his teammate Eugene Robinson was arrested on charges of soliciting sex from an undercover policewoman.
Even before the Colts beat the Patriots and the Bears beat the Saints to advance to this game, people were anticipating this week's theme.
Before the championship games, both coaches were questioned repeatedly about the significance of their potential meeting. Dungy, the most frequent spokesman for black coaches, was reticent because, like any coach, he was reluctant to look beyond the game at hand to the next one, especially with no guarantee there would be a next one for Indy.
Now that both coaches have reached the summit, Dungy is prepared to answer the questions. And perhaps, bring an end to them. As long as no one asks, "How long have you been a black coach?"