Sunday, January 31, 1988. Super Bowl XXII. Doug Williams, Gary Clary, Timmy Smith, Art Monk and the Redskins beat down the Denver Broncos that glorious evening, 42-10. I remember it pretty well. Although I’ve never been a Redskins fan, I was a Doug Williams fan, and more importantly, a fan of underdogs. Williams was the ultimate underdog for this game, because of his career and race, and because John Elway, was, as then NBC announcer Dick Enberg put it, “the man with a golden arm.” Just as important was the fact that I was living down my underdogness vicariously through Williams’ play in this game of games. His performance was part of a series of events that set the tone for my second semester at Pitt, and led to me finally beginning to find myself twenty-two years ago.
That Super Bowl was the same month as the start of semester #2 in po-dunk Pittsburgh. I came back angry but with a sense of sober clarity, like I had been on a drinking binge for the previous six or seven months. The day I had left Mount Vernon to get back to Pitt, my first semester grades had come in. I had earned an easy A in Astronomy, a B- in Pascal, and a C in Honors Calc. All three of those grade I expected. The C in East Asian History was completely unexpected. My grade point average for the semester gave me a 2.63 to start my postsecondary career. That might’ve been good enough for most folks. But of course not for me. My Challenge Scholarship absolutely depended on me maintaining a minimum 3.0 average at the end of every school year in order for me to stay eligible.
That was my wake up call to what I’d allowed Crush #2, and my thoughts of her and me — and of her with me — to do to me. I didn’t even give my mother the chance to see my grades. I said my good-byes, which was easier to do the third time around, took the cab to 241st, the Subway to midtown, and the Carey Bus to Newark.
Once I registered for classes and dumped my first-semester drinking buddies (see blog post “Resolve” from January 2008 on that), I channeled my anger by putting everyone in my life in two categories. All guys were “assholes” and all women were “bitches” until they proved otherwise. I didn’t call anyone that, anyone except for Crush #2, of course. It was my way to begin channeling my anger in a way that I could laugh at myself and concentrate on the task at hand. I needed to laugh, because there wasn’t much funny to me about my life in early ’88.
What carried me through that first month — besides a reservoir of anger about the size of all five Great Lakes combined — was a battery of new music that helped focus my anger and reinvigorate my imagination. Richard Marx’s “Should’ve Known Better” and Paul Carrack’s “Don’t Shed a Tear” were two songs that were close enough in lyrics, meaning and emotion to my situation with Phyllis that I smiled a silly smile every time I heard or played them both. Silly, even not quite applicable, I realized even at the time. But they fit my mood just fine. I “should’ve known better than to fall in love with” Crush #2. Yet, as the refrain from Carrack “Don’t Shed A Tear” goes, “all that I saw in you, now I see through.” If there had been an actual relationship with my second crush, I probably would’ve played Alexander O’Neal’s “Fake” that month instead.
That semester, I eventually added Michael Bolton, Brenda Russell, Sting’s latest album Nothing Like The Sun, and Michael Jackson’s Bad to my collection. But for the first time in two years, I started paying attention to rap again. Rob Base, Salt ’n Pepa, Big Daddy Kane, and Public Enemy all began to seep into my consciousness that winter and spring. Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” would’ve been nice to hear six or eight months before when I was waist-deep in obsession over Ms. Triflin’ Ass.
One other thing I decided to do that semester was to be as much of myself as I felt comfortable being, which was a step up from hiding myself altogether. So, for the first time since I had left for Pittsburgh back in August ’87, I decided to cook dinner as part of my Super Bowl Sunday. I spent the day looking for quality spaghetti (you couldn’t find Ronzoni in the ‘Burgh back then) and Ragu, as well as cheap pots and skillets for the meat sauce and broccoli.
By the time I reached the tenth-floor lounge of Lothrop Hall, there were four guys in there watching the last minutes of the pregame. The adjacent kitchen didn’t provide a good look for the game, but I heard the boos of my fellow dormmates during the first quarter, as the Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead. A couple of them even wanted Joe Gibbs to pull Williams from the game. I rushed through the cooking routine so that I could watch by the end of the first quarter.
Once I sat down, Williams, Clark, Smith and the Redskins offensive line completely lit up the Broncos from that point on. Williams tossed four touchdown passes as if he were Dan Marino and Joe Montana combined. Smith might as well have been Marcus Allen, and Denver looked like the team that was too old.
Besides having Carrack’s “Don’t Shed A Tear” in my head throughout the evening — not to mention second and third helpings of my cooking — I thought about how much Williams must’ve had to overcome to get on the field to play in the Super Bowl, much less win the game. I thought about all of the media hype and hyperbole in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl, and how little Williams and the Redskins were part of that wave.
Williams’ performance confirmed for me that what others deem impossible isn’t not only possible. It also showed how small-minded naysayers can be whenever they believe that your reach exceeds your grasp. Like me, not a whole lot of folks gave Williams — an allegedly washed-up quarterback whose best days had already passed — a shot at performing like a Super Bowl MVP. I knew then and I know now that it doesn’t really matter much what other people think. It only matters what I imagine, as well as what I do to make the imagined real in my life.