Green: Race left Super Bowl as big deal years ago

Jerry Green
Special to Detroit News
Cam Newton

The grand scheme was that the Carolina Panthers would go into Super Bowl 50 flexing muscles and looking invincible with Cam Newton flying high before flipping a touchdown somersault. The Panthers would be the new-age team with the new-age look. The plot would be simple: Newton, newly-crowned king to the quarterbacks, would outduel doddering Peyton Manning The Overrated.

Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, had what he believed would be the perfect script for Golden Jubilee Super Bowl. He got fancy. He removed the Roman numerals that had dignified the previous Super Bowls. He inserted first-grade math numerals, 5 and 0.

Goodell’s storyline would pit Newton vs. Manning, and the still-neophyte Panthers against the craggy Denver Broncos.

Super Bowl 50 would be staged south of San Francisco, one of America’s jewel cities in a spanking new 49ers stadium.

And Goodell decreed that there would be no controversy this time – the kind of grist that makes ancient Super Bowl media warriors drool.

Well, before the combatants even could depart their North Carolina and Colorado hubs, Goodell’s edict was busted. And not by the glorified Peyton Manning, Super Bowl veteran.

Rather, the ebullient Cam Newton created a furor with a comment spoken to a gathering of sports journalists in North Carolina this past week.

“I’m an African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” Newton said.

This is called “playing the race card.” It is an issue that was, in reality, played 26 years ago.

Old news

It was Super Bowl XXII in San Diego – Washington vs. Denver, then guided by the immortalized John Elway as their quarterback.

Doug Williams was Washington’s quarterback. Doug had bounced around – Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the mostly forgotten United States Football League, back to the NFL with Washington.

He was the pioneer.

That was the storyline at the Super Bowl in January 1988: Washington would be starting a black quarterback.

And on the annual Media Day, one of my distinguished fellow sports journalists brilliantly popped the question to Williams:

“Doug, have you always been a black quarterback?”

That question, posed by a guy actually never identified, ranks high in 49 years-plus of Super Bowl lore. Not all of us are scholars.

I did not hear the question that day on 1988, eavesdropping on a different player. But the moment quickly was passed on so we could share in the wisdom.

Some seven or eight years ago, Doug Williams was in the pressbox at Ford Field, as a member of Tampa Bay’s front office.

I identified myself as one of the intrepid who had covered all the Super Bowls and asked Williams:

“Did that guy really ask the question that day?”

Williams looked down on me and nodded slowly in the affirmative.

We both broke out into laughter.

Williams' place in history

Doug Williams hit his place in history in that Super Bowl. He engineered five touchdowns in one quarter, the second. Williams threw four touchdown passes in the quarter, one for 80 yards and another for 50. He left Elway gasping.

The Redskins won, 42-10 – another Super Bowl pummeling for the Broncos.

Now, 28 years later, the race card has been trumped – to use a word now in fashion. Donald Trump was an actual, real-life pro football club owner once upon a time, with the New Jersey Generals in the vanished USFL.

Doug Williams drops back to pass in the Super Bowl against the Broncos on Jan. 31, 1988.

And now, 28 years, later there is nothing special about Cam Newton – except for his ability, leadership, histrionics, pyrotechnics and exaggerations.

It is not an issue, not any more.

Progress is slow, but inexorable.

Newton is going to be the seventh black quarterback to start for teams in Super Bowls.

The last two Super Bowls, Russell Wilson started at quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Two years ago, Wilson made Manning look like a schoolboy wanabee in the rout of the Broncos in New Jersey. Last year Wilson went down as the loser to Tom Brady because of the never-to-be-forgotten last-ditch pass-play call by Pete Carroll, the inventive alibi-master coach of the Seahawks.

After Williams, Steve McNair, brilliantly, played for Tennessee; and Donovan McNabb started for Philadelphia and Colin Kaepernick for San Francisco, in Super Bowls.

With no racial issues whatsoever.

Now – this coming week, Newton is going to be the central figure of Super Bowl 50.

He smiles, he grins, he flies, he does jumping jacks on the sidelines, he hands touchdown footballs to Carolina kids.

He is a special athlete, and the catalyst in the Panthers’ 18-1 record in qualifying for Super Bowl 50.

Last Sunday he was magnificent in Carolina’s 49-15 conquest of what supposedly was a mighty Arizona Cardinals team.

So now the Panthers head toward Super Bowl 50 favored, regarded as invincible.

Another judgment too hastily delivered.

Among the 49 Super Bowls captured as a live witness in my memory was the destruction of the Baltimore Colts – regarded as a 17-point shoo-in – by the New York Jets.

And by Joe Namath, the central storyline of Super Bowl III. For my buck, still the champion of controversy in all the Super Bowls.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports writer.