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Reggie Williams Fighting Off his Biggest Block
Once a hard-charging Dartmouth LB, Williams now in battle just to walk.
In two days, Reggie Williams will drop his crutches and ease into the passenger seat of his Lexus, embarking on a journey as life-affirming as it will be painful. It will begin in Midtown Manhattan and end with his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind.
The former Bengals linebacker will have 707 miles over which to ride shotgun and stare down at his right leg. The limb has been so ravaged by football, surgery and infections that this might be Williams’ last road trip with it. He’ll have 707 miles to be grateful.
That’s the plan, at least.
“I’m going to get there,” Williams said of Saturday’s ceremony. “What an inspiring event. The timing couldn’t be better - to be inspired during a time of adversity.”
This isn’t the story of just another broken-down NFL player, although his physical struggles are similar. Williams, 53, isn’t disillusioned or destitute or grandstanding for the league to change its ways regarding compensation for former players. Of course, Williams never was a typical football player.
The Bengals’ media guide from 1989, his 14th and final NFL season, explains part of Williams’ persona. One-third of his team bio contained playing information; the rest listed philanthropic endeavors and honors, including the 1986 NFL Man of the Year award and the 1987 Sports Illustrated Co-Sportsman of the Year award.
“He was always such a bigger-than-football kind of guy,” said former Bengals teammate Cris Collinsworth. “… He wasn’t just going to hang in the locker room and shoot the bull. He was always on to something else - community service or a meeting of some sort. He understood, before most of us did, that there was going to be a life after football.”
A devastating ailment
That life after football has been quite a ride, taking Williams from the NFL to the Cincinnati City Council to a vice presidency with Disney and now to the College Football Hall of Fame, with myriad humanitarian endeavors in between.
But health problems care little about titles or money or humanitarian efforts.
Williams, who already had undergone double-knee replacement surgery, developed a bone infection called osteomyelitis in his right knee in early 2006. The condition occurs when bacteria in the bloodstream attack a vulnerable part of the body, and Williams’ doctors think the bacteria could have come from silver used in a dental procedure 20 years earlier, though they can’t be certain.
Williams dealt with the pain for a year, then moved to New York for treatment, which also proved painful.
At its worst, his leg looked like a boa constrictor that swallowed a boulder - and then exploded. At times Williams could look down through a fleshy crevice and see what little bone he had left in his swollen knee. Blood and infectious puss bubbled to the surface. The pictures are too gruesome to print.
Doctors eventually cleared out the infection, replaced the gaping hole with part of his calf muscle, and sewed him up. By August, they hope to re-implant his prosthetic knee so he can walk again.
That’s the best-case scenario. The worst case?
“Losing my leg,” Williams said. “That’s the whole fight. But the game hasn’t even started yet. Everything is to make it heal, to re-implant the knee. That’s when the game starts. That’s kickoff.”
Still, the clock already has started. Williams, who estimates his medical bills are nearing $500,000, has COBRA medical coverage - enacted after he left Disney to focus on his knee - through November. He has applied for disability with the NFL, but he says the Bengals have denied any responsibility for his injuries.
Bengals owner Mike Brown, in a statement, said a joint committee between the NFL and NFL Players Association made the decision to deny Williams disability, not the Bengals.
“Reggie is one of our Bengals heroes,” Brown’s statement read. “He was a great player for us for a long time, and I consider him not only a significant part of our history, but also a personal friend.”
Williams said he hasn’t heard from Brown, a fellow Dartmouth alum, throughout his ordeal.
“Unfortunately, I’m being treated like any other player that ever played for the Bengals,” he said. “… Maybe the team can walk away from that, but I can’t walk, let alone walk away.”
An NFLPA representative did not return a request for comment.
Williams says his feelings toward the Bengals and the NFL are more disappointment than bitterness. He says his fight is more about principle than money, and though he doesn’t mind voicing his opinion on the subject, he much rather would talk about his impending hall of fame induction and the possibility of an able-bodied future, sprawled out before him like 707 miles of open road.
Williams got his start as a bigger-than-football figure at Dartmouth, the Ivy League school he refers to as his “beautiful hamlet, an escape.”
“In a snapshot, I saw American society at Dartmouth,” said Williams, who grew up in the blue-collar town of Flint, Mich. “I saw the sons and daughters of the most affluent families in America, the most well-connected political families in America. And I had a chance to compete with them on equal footing and hold my own.”
And that, according to classmates, attracted students to the physical specimen of a linebacker.
“He was obviously one of the highest recruits they had ever had, but he related to others extraordinarily well,” said Dartmouth classmate and friend Grayland Crisp, who will chauffeur Williams to South Bend. “He was always admired for his natural leadership - by example and by what he had to say. He always had that presence. He was someone that others looked up to.”
In 1975, his senior season, Williams became the most recent Ivy Leaguer to earn first-team All-America status.
The Bengals selected him in the third round of the NFL Draft, and he earned a starting spot at right outside linebacker - a position he wouldn’t relinquish until his retirement in 1989.
As a pro, Williams built his reputation on toughness and intensity. He refused to tape his ankles. He played through knee injuries. He shunned air conditioning during 100-degree days at training camp.
“Before my first preseason game in Cincinnati, I remember Reggie beating up the bathroom,” said former Bengals receiver Mike Martin. “He was just beating it up - yelling, hitting things, throwing stuff. I just said, ‘Wow, this is what they do in the NFL.’ The other guys said, ‘That’s just Reggie.’ “
Major player on, off field
During his 14 seasons with the Bengals, Williams made a place for himself in the team’s record books - he ranks second in games played, third in seasons played and third in consecutive games played - and in the hearts of fans. Last season, when the Bengals held online voting for their 40th anniversary team, Williams was the top vote-getter at linebacker and the sixth-most popular choice overall.
That popularity and his sparkling off-the-field résumé interested the local Charter Party, which appointed him to City Council in 1988. He practiced in the morning and then attended Council meetings.
Williams quickly found out that both vocations required toughness.
Shortly after his appointment, news outlets reported he never had registered to vote. Later, an Enquirer story revealed he had financial interests in apartheid South Africa, a Council practice he spoke out against. Williams immediately dropped the stock he says he unknowingly owned and helped force Cincinnati to do the same.
“That became a seminal moment,” Williams said. “I was getting rocked and having to get out of the huddle and make a play.”
Williams had other contentious moments on Council. He supported the polarizing exhibit by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as the controversial rap group N.W.A when it came to town. He
introduced legislation that would have changed the name of Pete Rose Way after the Reds legend was convicted of tax evasion. He once told a fellow Councilman to “go to hell” during a debate.
Despite his lack of political polish, fellow Council members called Williams a man of principle following his 1990 resignation.
“While controversial and aggressive, no one ever questioned his integrity or his conviction and passion about what he was doing,” Councilman Nick Vehr told The Enquirer at the time.
Williams followed his political career by returning to football. He was the general manager of a World League of American Football franchise and served as the NFL’s community relations director for Super Bowl XXVII. During that time, he developed the league’s first Youth Education Town, a center for kids that’s now established in every Super Bowl host city.
Williams spent more than a decade developing Disney’s Wide World of Sports as a vice president with the company. Sports Illustrated in 2003 named him one of the 101 most influential minority figures in sports.
Now Williams is in the fight of his life to save his leg, but he’s facing the challenge the way he has faced every other challenge in his life - positively.
“This is the beginning of a new path,” Williams said. “Ever since my last surgery, I’ve forced myself to think nothing but positive thoughts. Considering everything I’ve been through, I feel fortunate.”
Fighting off his biggest block
By Ryan Ernst, The Cincinnati Enquirer