NEW YORK - Nine years ago in Jacksonville, an African-American quarterback started for a Super Bowl team, marking only the third time that had happened in 39 Super Bowls. It was a big deal.
Doug Williams - still the only African-American QB to win the NFL championship - talked then about how he was pulling for the Eagles' Donovan McNabb, at a Super Bowl week meeting of The Field Generals, a group Williams founded to preserve the legacy of early black quarterbacks. That week, McNabb recalled being 11 years old and watching Williams win with the Redskins, McNabb realizing then that he, too, could quarterback a Super Bowl team, he said.
This Sunday, Russell Wilson, the great-great grandson of a slave, will quarterback the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, and nobody much cares, it seems, or notices.
"It will be known, if he wins," McNabb predicted yesterday from his NBC Sports seat along radio row in the Super Bowl media center. McNabb said he spoke with Wilson about that very fact a few days ago, but McNabb agreed the matter is not as relevant to society as a whole as it was in 2005, or in 2000 when the late Steve McNair quarterbacked the Tennessee Titans to the brink of Super Bowl XXXIV victory, and certainly not as relevant as in 1988, when Williams made history.
"It's not so much pressure on his shoulders as there was with me and Steve McNair," McNabb said. After all, Colin Kaepernick took the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII just a year ago. Wilson is the fifth African-American starting Super Bowl QB, the fourth in the last 15 years, so maybe it's only notable now if he becomes the second to win.
"I don't think it matters anymore," Eagles quarterback Michael Vick said yesterday during a radio-row visit. Nine years ago, Vick quarterbacked the Falcons against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, and talked beforehand about how important he thought it was that either he or McNabb would advance to the Super Bowl. But times change.
"If you go out there and win it, it's a great thing for Russell," Vick said. "I don't think anybody pays any attention" to a QB's race anymore.
"I think Russell just sees himself as a great quarterback," said Bills QB E.J. Manuel, yet another visitor to radio row yesterday (yes, it was crowded). "Obviously, we have a chip on our shoulder as black quarterbacks . . . years back, there weren't a whole lot. I'm so proud of Russell. I've known him a long time; he's a Virginia guy [attending high school in Richmond, while Manuel grew up in Virginia Beach]. I hope he goes out there on Sunday and has a great game."
It does matter to Wilson, the Seahawks' second-year QB said yesterday.
"I don't know if people notice it as much anymore or not. It is something that's real, though," said Wilson, who also is of Native American ancestry. "I used to hear so many stories from my grandfather - my grandfather was president of [historically black] Norfolk State for a long time, which was rare. My dad graduated from Dartmouth, went to [University of Virginia] law school, graduated as president of his class. During those times, being African-American, that was hard to do. That was rare.
"It's becoming less rare to be an African-American quarterback in the National Football League, which is changing the game in a way, which is awesome. I want to be one of the African-American quarterbacks to win. That's a real thing, that's a good thing - to let different ethnicities know that it doesn't matter what you look like, as long as you believe in yourself and put the work in, most of all, and take advantage of your opportunity."
Wilson's teammates pretty much reacted as if his race had never occurred to them, when asked about it yesterday.
"I don't know why that would even be talked about," wideout Doug Baldwin said. "He's got the personality that everybody likes, the brand that everybody likes, the whole combination. He's a good guy . . . What you see on TV is what you get in the locker room. Always positive, always upbeat, focused on the now."
Another receiver, Golden Tate, said: "You've got RGIII, you've got Russell Wilson, E.J. Manuel - there's a lot of African-American quarterbacks. I don't think it's a huge surprise" when one makes the Super Bowl.
You might be familiar with the outlines of Wilson's story. He's 25, played at North Carolina State, but also played minor league baseball after being drafted in the fourth round by the Colorado Rockies. The Wolfpack didn't like Wilson attending spring training instead of spring practice in 2011, after he had graduated in 3 years with a degree in communications, so it released him from his scholarship and he played his final year of college football at Wisconsin, leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, where they lost to Chip Kelly and Oregon.
In the 2012 draft, the Eagles were eyeing two quarterbacks they thought would be available in the third round, Wilson and Nick Foles. The Seahawks took Wilson 75th overall, and the Eagles ended up with Foles, 88th overall. Seattle had traded for Matt Flynn to be its starting QB, but Wilson won the job as a rookie.
Tate recalled noting how Wilson "showed up early and stayed late," but said: "A lot of guys just thought that was because he was a rookie, new to this. He's still been that same guy, this entire time. Same routine, same work ethic. He wants to be the greatest."
Wilson was asked yesterday what he meant earlier this week when said he felt he'd been put on earth for this moment. His answer made reference to the other minority group he represents - shorter quarterbacks.
"My faith is so strong that I believe that God made me 5-11 for a reason. For all the kids that have been told, no, that they can't do it, or all the kids that will be told no. That's one of the reasons that I left playing baseball, to be honest with you. I had this urge to play the game of football, because so many people - I shouldn't say so many, a handful of people - said I couldn't do it," Wilson said.
"I want to change the game because, if you think about it, there's a difference between being good and being great and changing the game. I think guys like [Denver QB] Peyton Manning have changed the game in terms of the way he thinks, in terms of the way he processes things . . . [New England QB] Tom Brady is the same way. He's so clutch; people fear him when he steps on the field. [New Orleans QB] Drew Brees is a guy like that. And one day I want to evolve to that. It's a daily process. You respect the journey, you respect the process . . . to be here in the second year is a good thing. I just have to keep going."