April 5–12, 2001
Highs and Lows
Eagles rising star Bernard Williams saw his early promise go up in a haze of marijuana smoke. Now he’s on the comeback trail — in, of all places, the XFL.
photographs by Dan Ball
part 1 | part 2
A couple dozen XFL fans are waiting outside the players’ entrance when Bernard Williams leaves the Liberty Bowl. He’s walking stiffly, and the pain of a tough loss shows on his lean, angular face. At 6 feet, 9 inches tall, he stands out even among the other players, but no one seems to pay much attention. Except one man, who is waiting with a young boy.
"You with the Rage?" the man asks Williams.
Williams’ mind is elsewhere — probably still back on the field, where his team, the Memphis Maniax, came heartbreakingly close to upsetting the league-leading Orlando Rage. He pauses when he realizes the man is talking to him, and leans over slightly, as the very tall often must do. The man asks again if Williams is with the Rage.
"Nah, man," Williams replies, mildly annoyed, his hand making the barest hint of a dismissive gesture. He resumes his awkward amble into the dark, unseasonably cold night, alone and largely unnoticed.
It wasn’t always this way. Just over seven years ago, Williams was a big fish in a big pond: In April 1994 the Philadelphia Eagles, then a regular playoff contender, drafted the unusually tall offensive tackle with their top pick. They entrusted him with a vital task: preventing twice-seriously-injured quarterback Randall Cunningham from getting blindsided quite as much as he had in the past. They signed him to a five-year contract that paid, on average, $1 million per year in salary and bonuses. (Most XFL players earn a flat $45,000.)
And for one season, Williams showed real promise. Eagles fans, who’d learned the hard way to be wary of the team’s ability to use draft picks wisely when selecting offensive linemen, had reason for optimism with Williams.
But then came the embarrassing revelation of his marijuana habit, and a suspension from pro football. And then, for all intents and purposes, he just disappeared, leaving fans and even teammates to wonder why a man with so much ability and so much to gain would set himself up to become a mere footnote in team history, another Eagles first-round wash-out.
Last year, Williams returned to football — in Canada. Today he is back in his hometown of Memphis, holding down the left tackle spot for the Maniax of the apparently not-ready-for-prime-time XFL (www.xfl.com), and dreaming of what would be an exceedingly rare comeback in the National Football League. If all goes according to his plan, he’ll begin his second NFL season at the age of 30.
And he doesn’t expect to ride the bench.
Asked if he’d consider returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and play again for the Eagles, Williams’ first thought is not of the past, but the future. "The Eagles just signed a left tackle for like six years," he says. "I mean, I’m nobody’s back-up." He chuckles at his own hubris, but subsequent comments indicate that he means every word.
"I mean, I haven’t played football in four or five years, so I know if I got signed by an NFL team at this point and they had somebody at left tackle, I’m not saying that I won’t come in and be somebody’s back-up, but I just don’t know — I’m not cocky or anything like that, but I don’t know five people that can play left tackle better than me in this world, so… And there’s 30 teams in the NFL. I know myself, I know my talent, I don’t think anybody would want me as a back-up."
Don’t misunderstand — Williams is hardly deluded. He is surprisingly blunt about his past; he knows that he screwed up royally and that he’s lucky to have any opportunity at all. But at the same time, he seems to retain the confidence of a gifted young man for whom much has come easy. He is convinced that he has more than enough time and ability to get back everything he’s lost, and then some.
He’s an easygoing, polite, genuinely likeable guy who can get on your nerves without even trying; it takes a dozen phone calls to arrange to meet, but then he gives you one of those close-male-friend kind of hugs when you part. Talk to him for a while about his past and future and you don’t know whether to wish him the best or climb up on a chair and smack him in the head.
Because underlying any discussion of Bernard Williams is one nagging question: Why didn’t the guy just stop smoking pot?
Spring 1994 was a tumultuous time for the Philadelphia Eagles. The team was faced with the possibility of a rebuilding year — sports-speak for a losing season — despite coming out of an injury-plagued 1993 season at 8-8, and despite having won 10 or more games each of the previous five years. This was the dawning of the free agency era, and the Eagles’ once-dominating defense was being hit especially hard. Future Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White had left in 1993, and in ’94, fellow lineman Clyde Simmons and linebacker Seth Joyner fled as well.
So in the weeks leading up to draft day, it was widely assumed that the Eagles would take a defensive player with their highest pick. But later it would become apparent that even more than the depleted defense, the team had been concerned with quarterback Randall Cunningham. Once an electrifying runner, Cunningham had suffered two season-ending leg injuries over the previous three years.
But unable to trade up in the draft to get highly rated quarterback Trent Dilfer, the Eagles took another tack: They’d build around Cunningham. And that decision is what led them to University of Georgia offensive tackle Bernard Williams.
At the tackle position, size matters. Tackles use their great mass to clear paths for running backs and, on pass plays, to impede the progress of defensive ends hell-bent on beheading the quarterback. They are often the largest men on the field; in the NFL today, few tackles weigh less than 300 pounds, and weights of 325 and higher are increasingly common. Not surprisingly, tackles also tend to be the slowest and least agile players.
Williams, however, possessed a rare combination of great size and agility. His height, imposing even by pro football standards, lent him tremendous arm length, a terrific advantage when keeping charging defenders at bay. His height also allowed him to be simultaneously heavy — he was about 315 then — and lean. His flexibility and speed were remarkable for a tackle. In fact, until his sophomore year of college, he’d played defensive end, a position requiring speed.
Bill Muir, the Eagles’ offensive line coach in 1994, says Williams’ potential reminded him of 10-time All-Pro John Hannah, a guard whom Muir had coached in New England in the ’70s. "I thought [Williams] might be a prototype offensive left tackle," says Muir, who is now with the Jets.
Before the draft, Muir spent a day at the University of Georgia, putting Williams through the paces. "He had an excellent workout," Muir recalls. He talked to Georgia coaches about rumors that Williams wasn’t much for off-season programs and conditioning, but came away convinced that if there had been problems, they were in the past. After all, during Williams’ senior year, Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier averaged more than 322 passing yards per game. No quarterback racks up such numbers without superior protection from the offensive line.
Williams was expecting to be selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But when Dilfer slipped lower than anyone had predicted, the Bucs snapped him up — and the Eagles, their plans altered by Tampa Bay’s move, drafted Williams.
"The only thing I knew about the [Eagles] was it was a good situation for me, because Randall had been hurt the two years before. So I knew my role — my role was to come in and keep Randall from getting hurt. So that made the transition a lot easier for me."
On the field, perhaps. Off the field, he would find the jump to the pros far more jolting.
Bernard Williams is hard not to like, even when he’s blowing you off. For most of four days in early March, he successfully evaded a reporter who’d flown to Memphis, with his blessing, to shadow him and ask prying questions about where he’s been and where he’s going.
But when he did finally return calls, he was apologetic and friendly. When he did sit down for an interview, he was candid, even eager to answer questions.
Still, it seemed clear, and he later admitted, that he had mixed feelings about being interviewed. The only explanation he could offer for his reticence, however, was a wariness of the media born of the Memphis sports press’ perceived dismissal of him and his accomplishments.
"This is a basketball city, and at times it’s like nobody ever heard of me from around here," he says over a 14-ounce steak and several side dishes in one of his favorite restaurants, The Butcher Shop. "It’s like some people [in the media] just don’t want my name brought up. There’s never been another high school All-American, college all-American, first-round draft pick out of the city of Memphis… But when you get to talking about high school football, who’s the best player from the city, stuff like that, a lot of times my name doesn’t come up, just because of my situation."
The youngest of six children, Williams says he was a "mama’s boy" as a child. But this didn’t hinder a passion for sports. He gravitated toward basketball first, even before a growth spurt that would raise him to his present height by the age of 14. In high school, he decided to try football as a way of playing the odds; there are more people on a football team than a basketball team, and he was already looking ahead to a career in sports.
So intense was his focus on football that he hardly paused to deal with his father’s death, when Williams was 16.
"I just put it out of my mind," he says. "I stayed out of practice for one day for the funeral, then I started back.… I kind of just forgot about it."
He would go on to glory as Hamilton High’s stand-out defensive end, preying on smaller tackles and taking down opposing quarterbacks at least 26 times, by his own count. As a senior in 1989, Williams won a citywide award as defensive player of the year, and was named to several all-American squads.
The pot smoking began in college.
"I don’t know how it started," he says. "Just being alone at school, my freshman year, nobody being on campus. When you come [as a football player] in your freshman year, you usually get there before the rest of the older guys on the team and before all the kids get to campus. And Athens [GA] is a party town… That was my first time. I got into [smoking] and I liked it."
To his knowledge, none of his coaches and few of his fellow players knew, but he gave little thought to their finding out anyway. "I kept it under wraps pretty well in college.… I had one or two buddies I smoked with in college, but most of the guys on the team didn’t smoke. And most of the guys weren’t into my business like that, so they probably felt they didn’t have the right to tell me what to do. And it never affected my performance, and I think that was the biggest thing.
"I never really thought about [getting caught] because I’d never been in any kind of trouble at all, I really didn’t smoke during the season or anything like that.… I didn’t ride around and smoke it, I wasn’t going to put myself in a situation where I could get in trouble with marijuana, so I never really worried about it."
But over time, his smoking grew from a diversion to a way of life. In the off-season, he smoked almost daily. People who knew him well and knew about his habit, he says, could tell when he hadn’t smoked in a while, because he became moody and short-tempered.
But apparently it never hurt his focus. Entering the draft, Williams was widely regarded as the best pass-protecting tackle available, and a better-than-average run blocker. Had the Eagles not taken him with the 14th pick, he almost certainly would still have gone in the first round; at least two other teams were interested, and the Eagles also held the last pick in the first round that year.
The day after his selection, the Inquirer quoted draft guru Mel Kiper as saying, "Whether he is solid or great will depend on how badly he wants to excel."
part 1 | part 2