Miami The voice is weak and wavering on the other end of the phone.
Until the question is posed.
Butch, if you were still a sports writer today, would you ask Tony Dungy or Lovie Smith anything about being a black coach?
"No!" the tired voice of Butch John suddenly booms. "Are you kidding me? I've already been branded an idiot once."
Race again is a major topic at the Super Bowl, with two black men coaching in the big game for the first time. And, so, what better occasion to liberate a retired white reporter who has been unfairly shackled with a dubious distinction for all these years.
Free Butch John.
You probably don't know his name, but you know his question - or his alleged question. He's the former sports writer from the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger who is purported to have posed the dumbest query in Super Bowl history in the week Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins prepared to become the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl.
"So, Doug, how long have you been a black quarterback?"
That's what Butch supposedly asked. Except it didn't happen that way at all. Not even close. But it didn't matter because the myth of the question became much more interesting than the truth of it.
The truth of it is this: John was standing with about 20 reporters on that January night 19 years ago when the Redskins arrived in San Diego for Super Bowl XXII. For about 20 minutes, reporters pelted Williams with questions about the historical significance of being the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl.
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?"
"I was standing two feet away from Butch," says Bob Kravitz, now a columnist for the Indianapolis Star. "It never happened the way it's been portrayed for all these years. Butch never asked the dumb question he is accused of asking. In fact, the question he asked was a really good one."
But according to John, the misquoted version of his question appeared the next day in a blurb in the San Diego Union-Tribune and suddenly became the stuff of urban legend. The question made it onto ABC's Nightline and became No. 100 on the ESPN list of "Greatest Super Bowl Moments."
In subsequent years, John would be sitting on Super Bowl media buses and hear other writers talking about how they were there when "that moron from Mississippi asked Doug Williams, 'How long have you been a black quarterback?'"
John never responded to the misinformation. He knew it was no use.
"When something gets thrown into the Super Bowl hype machine, it's over," John says now.
He's right. Williams talks about that dumb question as if it really happened. I guess if a lie is perpetuated enough times it becomes the truth - even to those who were there.
John, who eventually moved out of the sports department and became a feature writer for the Clarion-Ledger and Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal, is disabled now and out of the newspaper business.
He's 53 and has a degenerative spine condition. He has had five back surgeries and has a pain pump sewn into his abdomen that shoots medication directly into his vertebrae.
I knew Butch many years ago when he was an aggressive reporter and a splendid wordsmith. These days, he can barely walk and rarely leaves the house.
"It's a pretty humbling existence," he says in a mild, medicated voice. "I miss being a newspaper man."
He's done important, award-winning stories on civil rights, poverty in the Mississippi Delta and the national epidemic of child welfare. Good work done by a good writer.
But, sadly, all he is known for is the stupid question he never asked.
Maybe Butch hasn't lived through the historical injustice black coaches and quarterbacks have had to endure in the NFL, but he has suffered an injustice nonetheless. It's time to bury the myth once and for all and ask a more accurate, honest question:
How long has Butch John been a misquoted journalist?
For too long.
Far too long.