Thursday, Oct. 7, the College of William and Mary’s English Department kicked off the 2021 Hayes Writers Series by welcoming former National Football League star Reggie Williams.
Williams spoke to the audience of students, staff, alumni and community members to promote his book Resilient by Nature, a memoir recounting the struggles and triumphs of his storied career. While Williams is best known for his accomplishments in football — three-time all-Ivy League selections at Dartmouth, 14 years in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals where he started in the 1982 Super Bowl XVI and 1989 Super Bowl XXIII, a 1986 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and induction into the College Football Hall of Fame — his story of resilience has not solely been confined to the football world. His story begins in Flint, Michigan.
“I was born bow-legged, not in a high-income family. … I was born hearing-impaired, and if you don’t hear sounds, it’s impossible for you to repeat sounds, so I developed a speech impediment,” Williams said. “I spent my childhood doing everything I could, academically and socially, so that I could fulfill the dream of going to the University of Michigan.”
Williams was inspired by the doctors and speech therapists who helped build up his confidence as a shy and insecure kid to study hard to become a doctor so that he could help do the same for others.
“I’d go to the library all weekend,” Williams said. “By the time I was a senior in high school, I had a full academic ride to the University of Michigan.”
This was one of many triumphs in Williams’ career, but the triumph was short-lived, cut short by then Michigan Wolverines Head Coach Bo Schembechler.
“He was my hero,” Williams said. “I just wanted to run out on the field in a Wolverine uniform one time. I would have been satisfied with my collegiate career. But Bo Schembechler told me to my face that I wasn’t good enough. That if I could do him a favor, and not come to the University of Michigan.”
With his dreams of playing for the Michigan Wolverines crushed, Williams decided to take his talents to Hanover, New Hampshire and Dartmouth College. Because Dartmouth did not offer athletic scholarships, his father took on a third job to put both him and his brother through college. Williams excelled both athletically and academically and earned himself an academic scholarship.
“Learn from the mistakes of others,” Williams said, recounting the advice his father gave him.
That he did, proving Coach Schembechler wrong as Williams was selected to the All-Ivy League team three times, and earned recognition as a consensus All-American for his senior season in 1975.
When Williams was drafted to the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round of the 1976 NFL Draft, he had one goal in mind — to win a Super Bowl.
“We had to play in the coldest game in NFL history called ‘The Freezer Bowl’ … it was 59 degrees below zero wind chill,” Williams said. “That game, three fans died from hypothermia.”
The unexpected tragedies of this event reinforced Williams’ commitment to winning, not just for himself, but for the fans as well.
“The most devastating thing you can have is for someone to go out to enjoy a sporting event, and then to have tragedy intercede,” Williams said. “We needed to win this game for our fans.”
The Bengals lost Super Bowl XVI to the San Francisco 49ers 26-21. The loss devastated Williams, who, after the loss, dedicated his time to community service. By the time of Super Bowl XXIII, Williams would win the NFL’s top honor for volunteer and charity work — the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Alongside this honor, William also received Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year award and a Byron “Whizzer” White Award for Humanitarian Service. His immense dedication to service led to his appointment to the Cincinnati City Council in 1988.
“I did have to make a decision going to the Super Bowl versus going to a city council meeting,” Williams said. Williams ultimately made the decision to play in the 1989 Super Bowl.
Waiting on the sidelines for the defense to take the field, Williams said he heard a voice.
“This voice says, ‘You’re old, you’re slow, you’re the weak link. They’re coming after you on the first play,’” Williams said.
When Williams looked down, he saw a friend from NFL Films, who told him that the 49ers, having seen him in action in his first Super Bowl seven years ago, believed he was the defense’s weak link, and that they would target him on their first play of Super Bowl XXIII.
On their first play, the San Francisco 49ers handed the ball off to running back Roger Craig, who was coming off a Pro-Bowl season.
“I’m waiting, and as they snap the ball, they’re running away from me,” Williams said. “I’m just frozen, and I’m saying to myself, ‘Where are you? You’re supposed to be coming at me.’”
Craig took three steps to the side opposite Williams before handing the ball off once again to Jerry Rice on a “reverse” play, sending the future Hall-of-Famer right toward Williams.
The “old, slow weak link” found himself one-on-one with Jerry Rice. In that moment, Williams proved the 49ers wrong and tackled Jerry Rice to prevent the first down. While the game represented a personal triumph for Williams in what he calls one of the best games of his career, the Bengals lost once more to the 49ers in what would be Williams’ last chance at winning the championship.
While his playing career ended with that final loss in Super Bowl XXIII, Williams continued to stay involved with the NFL, helping to develop the NFL Youth Education Town.
“Jim Steeg, who was head of the Super Bowl, had a problem,” Williams said. “The Super Bowl that year, Super Bowl XXVII, was going to be in Pasadena. It was in 1993, and that was the year of the Rodney King riots.”
The league hired Williams to be the Head of Community Relations for that year’s Super Bowl.
Williams created the Youth Education Town, where Los Angeles youths could be supported academically and athletically. To do this, however, Williams needed to negotiate peace between two rival gangs.
“I talked to them about what was important for their sons, daughters, little brothers and little sisters,” Williams said. “That they could have a different future for the most loved members of their family, and that’s why they agreed to do this truce.”
Through seeking sponsorships for the Youth Education Town, Williams came into contact with Michael Eisner, former chairman of The Walt Disney Company.
“He said, ‘What would you do if you had all the land we have at Walt Disney World?’” Williams said. “And I told him what I would do … build a great place where everyone could compete for championships, winning their favorite sports against all of the best competition. … If it was a sports complex at Walt Disney World and you lost, you’re still okay because you’re at the happiest place on Earth.”
Williams’ idea became reality with the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The sports complex became the biggest youth complex in the world and eventually hosted part of the NBA’s 2019–2020 playoffs and season, though it was commonly referred to as the “bubble.”
Williams says the idea that his sports complex could bring so much joy to kids and competitors from around the world helped to alleviate his anxieties and “nightmares” over losing the Super Bowls.
The scars from his NFL career were not only mental, but physical. Fourteen years in the league led to surgery after surgery on his right knee, leaving his right leg shorter than his left. Pain in his knees caused him to retire from Disney.
“The people who were working for me were more concerned for my health than the health of the business,” Williams said.
Today, Williams lives by finding a way to turn negatives into positives. Resiliency, for him, is not a choice, but a necessity. Williams read from “Invictus” by William Ernest Henly, the poem Williams credits with getting him through his recovery from a stroke.
“It matters not how strait the gate,/ How charged with punishments the scroll,/ I am the master of my fate,/ I am the captain of my soul,” Williams recited.
To put it simply, “He did so many things,” Alexander Soto ’24 said. “I thought it was a very insightful talk.”
As for his message to the College’s student body, Williams emphasized pushing your limits.
“It’s about turning any negatives you have into positives,” Williams said. “Stretch yourselves. I took courses that I had very little familiarity with, but they benefitted me for the rest of my life. I learned ‘Invictus’ in a class, I learned ballet in a class, and both those have been miracles in my life. I would challenge all students to challenge themselves.”