April 5–12, 2001
Highs and Lows, part 2
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
Shortly before training camp opened in the summer of 1994, Williams’ name was in headlines in Philadelphia and Memphis, though not for anything related to football. During a visit to his mother’s house in early July — she’d recently been diagnosed with breast cancer — Williams discovered several police officers searching his Lexus, which was parked in the driveway.
The police had been searching for an identical car that had eluded one of them a short time earlier. Williams explained that he’d been at his mother’s house for much longer than that, a fact to which his family could attest, but the officers "didn’t want to hear it from me," as he told the Daily News. "They wanted a body, period, and it was me."
Williams said he finally slammed the trunk shut and told the officers to leave. But he then was pepper-sprayed, he said, forced into a patrol car, and when he asked that a door or window be opened because he was claustrophobic, he was sprayed again.
He was later acquitted on disorderly conduct charges, and two of the officers involved were disciplined. In the meantime, however, Williams managed to have a solid camp, and to shine in the Eagles’ first preseason game, a loss to the Chicago Bears. The rookie did not disappoint head coach Rich Kotite, who’d inserted him into the starting lineup; Williams looked like a veteran against some formidable defensive ends, Alonzo Spellman and the Bears’ first-rounder, John Thierry. The only Eagle to play the entire game, Williams was called for holding just once and didn’t give up any sacks.
"I think we’ve got something good over there at left tackle," said Kotite after the game, according to the Inquirer. "One of the things I like about him — and that’s why we drafted him — is he has tremendous poise and doesn’t panic. He was a workhorse."
Through the season, Muir, the Eagles’ line coach, was generally impressed with Williams’ skill and determination. After getting worked over by Cincinnati’s Alfred Williams early in the third preseason game, Williams talked endlessly about getting another shot at him when the Eagles played the Bengals near the end of the regular season.
Still, Muir knew all was not well.
"There were little telltale signs, in retrospect," says Muir, the former Eagles offensive line coach. Williams sometimes was late for meetings, Muir says, and once fell asleep during one, earning him the nickname "Nod." And there were whispers around the locker room, he says, about Williams’ "entourage" — the company he was keeping on his own time.
What Muir didn’t know then was that Williams had been failing drug tests for some time. Williams says no more than a couple of players probably knew about his habit, but he has no idea how many team officials were aware early on.
"The only person [with the team] that ever said anything to me was our trainer, Otho Davis," Williams recalls. "The thing was, there was no drug policy in place, so he couldn’t tell me exactly what was going to happen."
Even as Williams was failing test after test — at least 15, by his own count — the NFL and the players’ association were hammering out the details of what would be described as the most comprehensive drug policy in pro sports. The NFL and the NFL Players Association announced their agreement on a new policy, which included suspensions for those who refused treatment and repeat offenders, late in the 1994 season.
Williams says Davis, who died in 2000, convinced him to see a "shrink," as a way to address his problem and, possibly, to avoid being suspended by the NFL. Williams complied, reluctantly, and was surprised to find that the sessions helped.
"Definitely," he says, without hesitation. "That’s when I first started to deal with my feelings about my father, and about my mother being sick. That was the first person I opened up to besides people I was related to and people I grew up with.
"I never really mourned my father’s passing.… I didn’t know my dad as well as I did my mom. I was a mama’s boy, I stayed close to my mom all the time.… I loved my dad, I probably had a better relationship [with him] than 99 percent of young men, especially young black men, have with their fathers. But there still was something missing, compared to the relationship I had with my mother. And I think that was the thing that really pissed me off, that I missed that opportunity. And that’s what really what, all that time, was eating at me, but I could never just say it."
And that, he says, played a major role in his drug use. "Pretty much all that was, was trying to put things out of my mind at the time."
But the sessions with the shrink weren’t enough to get him to quit smoking. Then, in July 1995, the day before the opening of Williams’ second training camp, the Daily News broke the story of his having tested positive for marijuana use. Two days later, he addressed the issue at a press conference.
"I have already said that I made a mistake," he said, reading from a prepared statement, according to the Daily News. "It’s something I regret and it’s something I’m not proud of… I am a professional and a man and I will deal with the situation like a man."
Within a week, the NFL announced Williams’ punishment: a six-game suspension, without pay, to begin at the start of the regular season.
"Kind of stiff, isn’t it?" said defensive tackle Andy Harmon to the Daily News. "I think he’ll learn from that. He’ll definitely learn from that."
The rest of the story came out later, in bits and pieces. Williams had been informed of his failed tests and of the likelihood of punishment by the league in March 1995, several months before the news became public. The six-game suspension — unusual for a first offense — resulted from Williams’ refusal to stick with a rehab program.
"The thing was, people there knew me, they knew who I was, and that kind of made treatment for me impossible," he says of the Philadelphia-area facility he entered. "It was supposed to be under wraps, what I did; at the facility people weren’t supposed to know that I played football…"
But he says that at one point early on, the Eagles sent a representative to the facility. "When the guy got there, he had on a bunch of NFL stuff — it was like a dead giveaway, the football people are coming to talk to the football guy about his situation.… If I went to a real facility the first time, maybe I would have stayed there and gave it a chance."
An Eagles spokesman said the team would have no comment on Williams’ past, present or future.
Williams left rehab, just four or five days into what was supposed to be a 30-day stay. He’d been warned that he’d be suspended, he admits, but says he thought it might be a bluff. Within 24 hours, he was smoking again.
When the six-game suspension had been served and Williams was again eligible to play, the Eagles were in the midst of turning around a bad start to the season and stood at 3-3. New head coach Ray Rhodes opted not to activate Williams for the seventh game (which the Eagles won), saying he wasn’t quite in shape, but the entire club was looking forward to his return for a possible playoff run. A rookie, Barrett Brooks (apparently drafted in anticipation of Williams’ suspension), had been struggling at left tackle.
But the day after the game-seven win came word that Williams had been suspended for the remainder of the season. And this time, he’d have to meet certain requirements — like getting professional help and submitting to random tests indefinitely — before being allowed to play ever again.
Williams’ agent at the time, Kevin Scanlon, blasted the Eagles for their handling of the situation, suggesting that the team had violated Williams’ right to privacy under the players’ collective bargaining agreement, among other things. He didn’t elaborate at the time, and recently declined to be interviewed by City Paper.
Rhodes was said to be extremely disappointed by the second suspension, but said little publicly. He could not be reached for comment for this article; a spokeswoman for the Denver Broncos, where Rhodes now serves as defensive coordinator, says Rhodes has refused to do any interviews.
Today, Williams admits he just wasn’t seeing the big picture.
"I still didn’t think they were that serious," he recalls "At that point, I really hadn’t taken a look at my addiction to marijuana, I really didn’t know how addicted I was. So I thought I could stop. But every time things were bothering me, every time things got heavy on my shoulders I would smoke. And after that first suspension was one of those times.
"They had told me, maybe the day before I took that [next] test that if I failed another test I’d be suspended [again]. And honestly… they had told me that so many times and I’d never gotten in trouble and I really didn’t care. I never thought I’d get in any trouble. And I always wondered, Why are they picking on me, why are they bothering me about this, I just smoke weed, I don’t do anything else.… I definitely felt like I was being singled out. Because, I mean, I didn’t have any priors, I really had never gotten in any trouble, in football, in my social life, anything… and now I’m suspended from football for smoking marijuana, which I really still to this point don’t get because it’s not like it’s anything that enhances my ability to play football. If anything it hinders it, and I mean, I don’t think it does that. Or did that. But I lost a lot, from smoking marijuana. I lost a lot."
Over the next couple of years, Williams stayed in the Philadelphia area, trying out various treatment programs and seeing various counselors, and playing a lot of basketball, a passion he’d never outgrown, despite his coaches’ insistence that he keep his weight up. He says he even spoke informally with the Sixers about playing for them, but nothing came of it. "I didn’t pursue it," he explains. "I pretty much was just kind of waiting around for somebody to say something to me."
He also continued to smoke on occasion. May 24, 1996, the date on which he became eligible to apply for reinstatement, came and went without a letter to the NFL.
"I was in the [NFL’s] drug program for a while, but I was always kind of told what I was doing wasn’t really enough, or my tests hadn’t been clean for long enough or I hadn’t been to enough meetings, or — it was always something where they were like, Well, you might not want to apply for reinstatement at this point. And I never did."
He returned to Memphis in 1997, when his mother’s health worsened — a situation that made it even harder to focus on football.
"I hadn’t really given up on it but after my mom passed I was like, If it happens, it happens, but I had some other stuff to deal with at that point. The loss of my mother — I didn’t want things to happen like they happened with my father, me not dealing with it, me not understanding the loss."
According to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, Williams has never applied for reinstatement. "He’d be welcome to do so," Aiello says. League medical personnel would determine whether he’d be eligible to return.
After he’d been out of football two or three years, living on the bonuses and what salary he had collected from the Eagles before the suspensions and watching as other tackles — many of them lesser players, in his opinion — signed two- and three- and four-million-dollar-per-year contracts, Williams finally admitted to himself that he’d have to stop smoking pot if he was to have any chance of getting his life back on track.
It would take a couple more years of counseling, however, before Williams would return to football. Last year he signed with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League, but apparently neither he nor the team were satisfied with the arrangement. A Lions spokesman told City Paper that Williams was on and off the injured list, and appeared in only five games. New head coach Steve Buratto, who’d inherited Williams from the previous regime, declined to comment.
Williams, who says he played in only two games — and at tight end, of all places (though the roster lists him as a tackle) — calls the experience "a waste of time." And when he heard about wrestling impresario Vince McMahon’s plans for a new football league, Williams says he asked to be released from his two-year contract.
The XFL’s Memphis team, the Maniax, acquired Williams in the league’s supplemental draft in December. He reported to camp at a decidedly un-tackle-like 250 pounds.
"I remember Bernard from when he was at Georgia," says Maniax offensive line coach Rich McGeorge, who coached at the University of Florida at the time. "So I was looking for that big, tall person I remembered. And he’s certainly tall, but he’s kind of in a basketball frame right now." (Williams recently said he was at 265 or 270.)
"He’s played very well for us," McGeorge says. "Early on I think he was adjusting back into football, but he has a strong will… and he’s certainly a talented guy, athletically."
There are few stats by which to measure a tackle’s performance, but after eight games in the 10-game season, Memphis’ offense was second in rushing and third in passing (the league consists of eight teams). The line allowed 20 sacks, which was around the league average, and quarterback Jim Druckenmiller ranked near the middle of the pack in passing yards, completion percentage and touchdowns. Running back Rashaan Salaam finished second in the league in rushing.
Despite mauling the L.A. Xtreme on Sunday, 27-12 (Druckenmiller threw three touchdowns), the Maniax, now 4-5, were eliminated from the playoffs by San Francisco’s victory over Las Vegas. The Maniax play Vegas Saturday night.
Of greater import, however, is the future of the league. After posting impressive ratings numbers its first week, the XFL slid steadily, to the point of setting the record in week seven for lowest number of viewers for a sporting event aired during prime time on one of the Big Three networks.
Last week, however, a league spokesman said there has been no discussion of calling it quits. In fact, league officials recently visited Washington, D.C. and Detroit to explore establishing teams there. He would not say whether Philadelphia is in the XFL’s plans at this point.
Williams was engaged for a time when he was still in Philly, but he and his fiancée split up. She went on to marry someone else, but later divorced, and in February, they began dating again. "Phase one of my new life," he calls it.
"I can see us getting married in the next couple of years," he says with the same quiet confidence with which he’d earlier described himself as one of the best tackles anywhere. "I’d like to have everything rolling by the time I’m 30. I’m 28 now, with a birthday coming up in July, so I like my timetable, I think everything will work out."
The new and improved Bernard Williams is all about second chances.
So too, supposedly, is the NFL. The Eagles recently welcomed back 2000 sixth-round draft choice John Frank, who up and quit without explanation during training camp last year, just days after signing a three-year contract.
But what about a two-time drug policy offender?
Theoretically, Williams can come back, provided that he satisfies the NFL’s requirements for reinstatement. If he were reinstated, the Eagles would hold his rights, according to team spokesman Derek Boyko; he signed a five-year deal in 1994, and played only one season. The team could take him back, trade him or waive him — in the latter case, any other team could claim him — but Boyko declined to speculate on how it might be handled.
Whether he could play in the NFL, however, is another matter entirely. The average pro football career lasts about three years, and the typical rookie is about 22 years old. Williams has missed five full seasons, and played only sparingly in 2000 in the CFL. He started every game for the Maniax, but whether NFL scouts and coaches consider the XFL a proving ground remains to be seen.
Maniax line coach McGeorge, who spent six seasons with the Miami Dolphins, says Williams’ chances of returning to the NFL are "probably less than 50-50 right now," but adds that in his estimation, only Williams’ weight would hold him back. The skills and commitment are still there, he says.
Muir, Williams’ former line coach in Philadelphia, is decidedly less optimistic. Informed of Williams’ dream of a comeback, Muir pauses, then says: "Well, I want to be an astronaut, but it’s too late. It’s too late. He fucked it up. What, he’s going to be a 30-year-old rookie? I don’t think so. It’s too fucking late.
"For all intents and purposes, he’s an old man.… But hey, that’s why people buy lottery tickets."
Williams says he knows the odds, he knows that people doubt whether he can still play, whether he can get his weight up and keep it up, even whether he really has his life in order. The doubts seem to mean little to him.
"Of course I have regrets. That was an opportunity squandered. But I try not to look back on that, I try to look ahead to the things I could have done but I also still could do. I haven’t been injured, I haven’t been hurt in any kind of way, I’m as healthy as I was when I was 22, and given the opportunity I could play football for another ten years, so it’s not like it’s over for me. It’s really just starting over again."