From Sunday's TIMES and NEWS-STAR
Butch John, an old friend who died Tuesday, was probably quizzed with an old and dusty question by St. Peter at the gates:
“So, YOU’RE the guy who asked the dumbest Super Bowl Question of All-Time?!”
And I suppose Butch shook his head and said, “You heard it wrong too? YOU?!” Either that, or, “I thought things were supposed to be perfect here?...Sigh.”
They say if the legend is better than the fact, print the legend. I hope it doesn’t really work that way in eternity, though.
Truth is, Butch never asked Doug Williams this question: “How long have you been a black quarterback?” But since Media Day of the 1988 Super Bowl, that’s been the legend. It sounded better – or worse – than what really happened. So that’s been the story. Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi said it was “the question that plagued (Butch) throughout his journalism career.”
A long time ago when Butch covered LSU for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Bianchi covered Florida’s Gators in Gainesville and I covered LSU in New Orleans, we wound up in the same press boxes often. But at the 1988 Super Bowl in San Diego when Williams, a former first-team All-America quarterback at Grambling, was named MVP and his Washington team drilled Denver, 42-10, I wasn’t there. Butch was.
A main pregame topic was Williams being the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl. This is how The Question Fumble began, as recalled by Bianchi, who asked Butch about it in 2007 before a Super Bowl that, like the one in ’88, produced a race-related storyline: Tony Dungy of Indianapolis and Lovie Smith of Chicago’s Bears were the first head coaches to oppose each other in the title game.
“For about 20 minutes, reporters pelted Williams with questions about the historical significance of being the first black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl,” Bianchi wrote then.
“It was clear Williams was getting a bit tired of the questions, so John thought he would approach the topic another way. He recalled something Williams had said earlier in the season about how being a black quarterback hadn't even been an issue until he got to the NFL. That's when John asked his real question:
"The question I asked was this," John says now. "I said, 'Doug, it's obvious you've been a black quarterback all your life. When did it start to matter?'
“Not a dumb question at all. In fact, quite a profound one. Except Williams didn't hear it correctly, did a double-take and repeated what he thought he heard: ‘What? How long have I been a black quarterback?’
“And that was that. The misheard question was too good to not be true, at least in the memories of those who were there and those who sustained the urban legend.”
Though several reporters backed up Butch’s story, local papers printed what became an NFL and Super Bowl myth. Butch was well-schooled in hype: to fight back was futile.
But more than 25 years later, that question is still “a thing.” In an otherwise legitimate argument he recently made about prejudice, ESPN reporter Scott Van Pelt erroneously cited that 1988 “question” and said it really happened. Which would be true if it weren’t false.
Butch retired years ago and worked sparingly because of a degenerative spine condition. He had long ago left sports to write news and feature pieces, ending in Louisville, Ky., where he passed away at 60. Though “The Question” was a pest, physical issues trumped all that.
“Well, I have a brain tumor…two of them actually,” he wrote in June on his Facebook page. “The final pathology report is not in yet, but it's definitely malignant. We are still in the hospital after having the biopsy surgery yesterday. Tomorrow more doctors are supposed to come by and talk to us about the treatment…All I want to do is go home to my cats. Thanks for all the good wishes.”
The Super Bowl story is funny, even though it’s not true. But in real life, I’d rather this week it had been the myth that died, and not Butch.