Reggie Williams stands next to one of the pieces in his art collection, a sculpture of a rugby player, in his downtown Sarasota condo.
Image: Joe Lipstein
Reggie Williams likes to talk about destiny. In his autobiography, Resilient by Nature, released by Post Hill Press this month, Williams, who was an NFL linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1976 to 1989, recounts many moments of providence in his life. It was destiny that plucked him from the working-class life his father had in the auto plants of Flint, Michigan. Destiny that sent him to Dartmouth on an academic scholarship. Destiny that he played in two Super Bowls. But after reading the book, I have a hunch that readers won’t see Williams’ life as an inevitable course of events as much as they do his lifelong drive to control his fate.
Williams has been in the news recently for more than his book. The NBA playoffs started in July in what’s being called “the bubble”—an isolation zone where players undergo frequent testing and have limits on outside interaction in order to stay Covid-19 free. Williams was instrumental in developing the facility—the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, a 220-acre facility in Orlando with 10 venues, considered one of the best multipurpose sports facilities in the world—in the ’90s. He was Walt Disney World’s first Black vice president and the project was a big dream for him, something he conceived of that could accommodate multiple youth and professional competitions at once.
“It took years of convincing and many rejections, but it was finally approved,” Williams says, and he’s proud that it’s being used to bring sports-starved fans a place to escape and have fun during the pandemic.
Williams’ wall of memorabilia.
Image: Joe Lipstein
Williams, 65, now lives in downtown Sarasota. Kismet introduced me to him a few years ago when I was working as a server at a local restaurant. He had recently moved to Sarasota from Punta Gorda. The first thing I saw was that he had his right leg propped up on a chair with his shoe off. I heard some snowbirds grumbling about it. He called me over and asked for a favor. He needed cash from the center console of his car to pay his bill.
“You look like a trustworthy guy,” Williams told me. “Save me the trouble of having to walk all the way out there.” He handed me his keys. I brought back a wad of 20s. We talked sports and exchanged numbers. Over the next couple of years, he’d take me out for drinks at bars that served his favorite bourbon, Booker’s. Williams always had stories—facing down a pack of wild dogs on the outskirts of Mexico City, convincing his colleagues to allow the hip hop group N.W.A. to perform when he was a councilman for the city of Cincinnati, a position he held while he was still playing with the Bengals.
When Williams and I talked about playing football, he’d get a twinkle in his eye. He can still vividly recall his first touchdown when he was a 16-year-old high school junior. “It’s like it happened last night,” he says. “The quarterback threw the ball and it ricocheted off a helmet and got wedged into my face mask. I ran 30 yards for the touch, and we won the game. My father was so happy. It’s a moment that made me endure a whole bunch of injuries trying to recreate it.”
Old NFL highlight reels show a man in the absolute present. He plays each snap like it might be his last. He catapults his body at his opponent like his life depended on it. He still holds records for most interceptions and fumble recoveries for the Bengals.
This ability to be in the present separates good athletes from the great ones. It also sacrifices the future—or at least, I think—a less painful future.
Williams has had 25 knee operations and keeps up a fierce battle with doctors who want to amputate his right leg, which has been mangled by the sport. He’s had a stroke (Archbishop Desmond Tutu sent him a “get well” letter for that health crisis), a broken hip, four known concussions, CTE and countless other injuries from throwing his body at opponents with total abandon. I asked Williams if all the injuries were worth the award-winning career.
If he could save his leg from amputation, it would make all the pain, suffering and Super Bowl losses worth it, he says. But then he adds, “I expect to answer that it’s always worth it. I’ve already lived a full and happy life. I have no regrets.”
Williams is retired now, but until the pandemic, he had speaking engagements across the country. I ask him about the theme of destiny that runs through his book. Does he really see destiny in a life that took him out of Flint to an Ivy League school to the NFL to Cincinnati politics and to corporate America?
Destiny, he says to me, is “a desire to self-actualize the future through your own sweat and labor. You are controlling the narrative of your destiny by what you do.”
Williams recounts a story about being in the hospital after his stroke, unable to speak. Over and over he would repeat lines from a favorite poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, written in 1873 when Henley was in an infirmary trying to save his leg: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”