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NO PLACE TO RUN : Ex-Ram Travis Williams, Once Homeless, Facing Toughest Return

Times Staff Writer

Travis Williams, who couldn’t remember when life held more promise, washed down his french fries at the local bowling alley diner and continued a shaking intestinal war against alcohol detoxification, all the while plotting a delicate strategy of weaning spare change from a visitor.

“You should have seen me six months ago,” he says, reassuring that his condition has improved.

Later, Williams would return to a sparse, single-room flat in the collapsing heart of this wrought-iron-windowed East Bay community, parts of which even the lifelong resident doesn’t venture into after dark. Williams defines the dimensions of his $175-a-month room as such:

“It’s eight by nine by 10,” Williams says wryly. “You have eight dollars by the ninth or you’ll be out by the 10th. That’s sort of a joke there.”

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Shelter used to be the back seat of a 1964 Plymouth at night--decent enough protection, really, until police hooked home to a hitch one day and towed it away.

Times have been worse for Travis Williams, though it’s difficult to imagine upon first inspection. Life here has been stripped to bare essentials: “All I need is a roof, a bed and a hot plate,” insists Williams, who has braved long stretches with none of the above.

Williams’ smile is surprisingly bright, given his plight and the gape of missing teeth from both upper and lower plates. His 42-year-old body is street-worn but firm, and only a gray-flecked beard and slight mid-section paunch suggest glory days have long passed.

Williams’ longest journey, from gutter to feet, began with a wobbly first step. But he is bathing and shaving regularly these days, no small triumphs. Putting down the bottle has been a more complicated and painful struggle, though he is trying, even as Williams slips away into another room during an interview to secretively sip from a cup.

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“You can ease down, if you feel like you need easing down,” Williams says of his problem. “Cold turkey’s cold turkey. I guess I’m chicken trying to do it that way. So I just do a little at a time until I can get my ticket out of here and start working on plan two of this life of mine. It’s about time.”

Plan one, at the early years, flashed to fame like a rocket, only to reverse course toward a human crash-and-burn.

Travis Williams was once fast as the wind, a kickoff-return star for the Green Bay Packers and the Rams. On his 22nd birthday in 1968, Williams appeared in Green Bay’s 33-14 win over Oakland in Super Bowl II at Miami--Coach Vince Lombardi’s farewell gift to the Packers.

As a rookie in 1967, Williams set kick-return records that still stand--most touchdowns in a season (four) and highest average return for one season (41.06 yards). He won the National Football League’s return title twice, in 1967 and 1971. Both trophies, which resemble Oscar statuettes, are collecting dust in a cluttered corner of memorabilia at his mother’s house. Though he played only five seasons, Williams still owns or shares seven NFL records and can recite each in detail on request.

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But the one-time world-class sprinter who raced so fast at Arizona State that he earned the nickname Roadrunner, somehow ended up on the wrong side of the track. There he would know a more dubious moniker: Streetwalker.

“I must have thought I’d be 60 years old and still running tailback,” Williams says.

In fact, Williams’ career ended at age 26 with the Rams in 1972 after his left knee buckled in an exhibition game. Williams didn’t leave the NFL quietly, raging into the night that he was denied a fair chance to prove the surgeons wrong.

“You start running 9.7 and you’re gone,” says Williams, once timed at 9.3 seconds in the 100-yard dash. “It’s like, ‘We’ve done used him up. Time for him to go do something else. Thanks for the championship, thanks for the Super Bowl, but right now we got a first-round choice coming up and you’re in the way. Thanks for using your body for five years. You all come back now, ya hear?’ ”

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Williams made $35,000 with the Rams in 1971, his last full season, and left the game ill-trained for any profession that couldn’t squeeze his once-precious commodity of speed. He left also with a wife, Arie, seven children, a mortgage and a bleak future. Williams bounced from job to job--hauling garbage in his truck at one point--but when the money finally ran out in 1976, Williams lost his three-bedroom Richmond home to foreclosure.

“I told everyone I sold it,” Williams says now. “But I lost it.”

And down came the world. By 1979, Williams and his wife were in jail; Travis for breaking a man’s jaw in two places during a fight, Arie for a manslaughter driving conviction. Both were drinking heavily at the time, often hiding the bottle from each other.

The 1980s dealt a series of staggering blows to Williams, who roamed the streets for months at a time after house-clearing arguments with Arie. The jobs, as usual, came and went. Mostly went.

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Travis Williams sank deeper and deeper, hitting bottom in 1985 when, in a span of one year beginning April 9, he lost Arie to a drug overdose, his mother, Cleaster, to colon cancer, and sister Dolores and best friend Harold Ervin to deaths accelerated by alcoholism.

The children were divided in the aftermath and left to relatives. Williams dropped out.

“I was just out there,” he says of life on the streets of Richmond. “I thought ‘It’s time to make it on your own, Travis,’ but, Jesus Christ, it’s rough. It still is.

“It’s like this: Ever since I was 18, everything was prearranged for me. I went to college on a scholarship, so I didn’t have to do anything. If you go to a basketball game, they’re going to feed you. They make sure you’re going to get back home, all tucked in safe and sound. They’re going to have your transcript all set for you. All you had to do was play ball and stay healthy. Then in the pros, everything was three times better.”

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Williams remembers roaming the streets at night, looking for shelter. In a pinch, he could stay with relatives, or at his mother’s home. Others weren’t so fortunate.

“I mean some of these people are going from house to house, saying, ‘Can I stretch out for the night,’ ” he says, “and can my baby stay too?”’

Williams doesn’t know what power or spirit resurrected him from the bench at Richmond’s Fifth-Street Park last August, where he was sharing a bottle of cheap wine with a friend on an otherwise ordinary, bleary-eyed day. He remembers scanning the park and remarking how many more residents it was housing these days, men and women like himself who curled up in cars at night.

“I had dragged myself down for so long in self-pity,” he recalls. “You know, through all the deaths. I just got to looking around me and said ‘Ain’t this a . . . “

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Next day he found his way to the local soup kitchen and re-introduced himself to Susan Prather, a feisty, free-lancing advocate for the homeless regularly found head-deep in the ghetto mess, often dropping off food and clothes to the needy. She and Williams had often seen each other in the streets, though Prather had no idea he was a former Packer; or what a Packer was, for that matter.

“He had had a hard few years,” Prather remembers. “But what struck me was that he was a nice man. He still had those qualities. I was surprised the street hadn’t beat that out of him.”

Williams claims Prather, who is white, could walk the dangerous streets of Richmond at night in furs and jewels. On two occasions when her car was robbed, the merchandise was returned after the crooks discovered it was Prather’s.

“Nobody would touch her,” Williams says, “because she’s helped so many.”

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Williams joined her list, and was shocked himself to awaken clean-shaven one morning last October in Washington D.C., a picket-sign in hand and purpose in his life.

Williams joined Prather and two others in a rally at California Senator Alan Cranston’s office to protest $35 billion in federal housing cuts since 1981.

When the group refused to leave Cranston’s office, the members were arrested, handcuffed and escorted to jail. Williams had been incarcerated before, but for all the wrong reasons. Never had prison felt so right.

Williams pleaded guilty to unlawful entry and expected the worst, but Judge George H. Goodrich, making special note of their cause, sentenced the four to time already served and relieved them of court costs.

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More invigorated by the experience, Williams returned to Richmond in rarefied air, a bona fide political advocate; albeit an impoverished one. But when he took to the pulpit at rallies to hail his cause, he spoke with the conviction of experience, often on an empty stomach.

“He brought the press,” Prather says. “Travis offered his name and his body and soul.”

Reciting the homeless story was more than fist-pounding rhetoric from your average retired football player. In many ways, it was Williams’ own story.

“Let’s face it,” he says. “If you don’t have a house, how are you going to have the energy to go look for work--if you have to worry about the rain tonight?

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“So what do you do? You go to the bottle, beat up the wife, and now you got a broken family. The wife goes to the street, probably sells her body, she’s probably already started on crack. And he’s full of alcohol all the time, and the kids are in a shelter. That makes them homeless. If you’ve got a good warm bath, a bed, and something to eat, at least you can think.

“If you ain’t got a roof over you, brother, and you’ve been up all night, up in the alley, you think I’m going to find a job? I’m going to find some more covers to put over me tonight. That’s what makes homeless to me. And I’ve seen it time and time again. And I’ve thought about it, and thought about it, and said: ‘How did this happen?’ ”

As he finished, Williams stabbed at his steak and prawns with the hunger of one who rarely ate so well.

Thanks to Prather, Williams is working again--barely--as floor manager of Richmond’s Souper Center, a relief kitchen operated by donations from Volunteers of America. The pay is adequate, $7 per hour, but the hours aren’t. Williams works only two hours a day, six days a week--some weeks less. Rent absorbs most of his wages, leaving little to spare.

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Williams smiles when asked how he manages on such a salary. The smile suggests he doesn’t.

“The rest I have to hustle on my own,” he says uneasily, not willing to share the secrets of a panhandler. “But I can do that with a smile, too.”

He says welfare is not an option because the paperwork, long lines and frequent appointments necessary to remain qualified for relief is time better spent helping the homeless.

“And this homeless thing,” Williams says, “is probably the only thing I’ve wanted to do in 15 years.”

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Williams can take his NFL pension early at age 45, though at a much-reduced rate. According to the NFL Players Assn., Williams can expect to collect about $300 per month when he qualifies in three years, compared to $580 per month if he waits until 55.

No special case can be made for getting Williams his money sooner, the NFLPA says, unless he qualified under the terms of a mental disability, such as schizophrenia.

“I ain’t waiting until 55,” Williams says, “not the way we’re dropping off these days. I’ve got about 20 years on that field right now.”

Still a local hero to many, Williams carries considerable clout in the soup kitchen, which serves about 300 lunches each day. Unafraid to roll up his sleeves and show off his biceps, Williams’ primary job is to keep lines moving and customers in line.

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“Some of them like to sit there from 11:30 to 2:30 and do nothing, taking up space while other people are waiting outside to eat,” he explains. “Someone’s gotta say: ‘Hey, you’ve been there a little long, ain’t you? We need your seat, would you mind moving, sir?’ ”

Williams is also in charge of handing out food tickets.

“I have a personal interest in this,” he says. “I’m a guy who’s been through this and that. (They wonder), so how the hell did I end up homeless? Then they see me coming out of it. That’s inspirational. I’m hoping I give that image to ones that have given up--all the way. They can say, ‘Hell, here’s somebody that’s had it all and then was down on the ground, and it picked him up. It might work for me.’ ”

Williams’ life has new meaning, yes, but meaning hasn’t written a rent check yet.

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“I’m smiling, but I’m broke,” he says. “Before, I was broke and not smiling. There’s a difference. . . . Hey, I’m looking for a job. Let me carry your luggage for you, your pencils and pens. Take me back to L.A. with you.”

Williams wished he never returned to Richmond when his career ended in 1974 after one last failed tryout with the Jacksonville Sharks of the World Football League. And while a hometown may share in your glories, so does it revel in your failures, as Williams soon discovered. So it puzzles the man who escaped the ghetto that he would return to the scene of its crimes.

“I’m still a hero back east,” Williams says proudly, recalling four mostly memorable seasons in Green Bay. “But out here, with the people I grew up with, it’s always ‘Yeah, he waaaaas good, but look at him now.”’

So he tolerates the behind-the-back-snipes from drug dealers and pimps who once envied his success.

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“Oh sure, I see them grinning,” Williams says. “Here in the ghetto, it’s always good to have a great big Cadillac and give a guy a ride that used to have five Cadillacs. That gives them a chance to be on top of somebody that’s been there.

“You have to put up with that garbage. It’s just human nature. Of course, it’s always, ‘Guess who I got in the car with me,’ or ‘Guess who’s coming over.’ It put pressure on the kids in school. I was driving some old clunker truck when I’m supposed to be in a Rolls Royce.”

But Richmond it was and Richmond it remains. His parents bought the house at 106th Fifth Street in 1953, not long after the family moved west from El Dorado, Ark.

Strangely, Williams rarely stays at the house now, claiming he’d be taking up valuable space from the many relatives--including several children and grandchildren--who bed there now. He prefers his flat less than a block away.

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Williams first raised eyebrows and stopwatches with his speed at Richmond’s Harry Ells High School. There he met Arie, and they married in 1964. The school is closed now, though the lot remains vacant while Williams, ever the pulpit-pounder, wonders why it can’t be converted into a shelter.

Williams moved on to Contra Costa Junior College, not far from the county jail where he was later housed. One look at Williams in a sprint-race was enough to send university recruiters running for his scholarship. Williams considered his choices and headed toward Tempe, where he blossomed into a fine young Arizona State Wildcat and non-graduate.

Williams was never the second-coming of Gale Sayers as a runner, but he was a great kick returner, good enough for round four in the NFL draft. Lombardi quickly slotted the rookie into his Packer puzzle, and Williams proved a valuable piece on the last Packer title team.

The Rams remembered the Williams of 1967 so well they traded for him three years later. In ’67, Williams returned a kick 104 yards for a touchdown against the Rams in the regular season and burned them twice on scoring runs--one of 46 yards--in a Western Conference title-game win.

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After he came to the Rams in 1970, he hobbled through the 1970 season on two bad ankles.

During his years with the Packers, he never shared the bond Lombardi developed with others during previous years and titles. The rookie remembered doing well to stay clear of harm’s way, avoiding all contact--especially eye--with Lombardi.

Williams never considered himself rooted in Packer tradition, and perhaps did not figure in the axiom of teammate and family being inseparable. After falling on hard times in the mid-1970s, Williams sometimes considered Packer loyalty as it pertained to him.

The team’s leading rusher and most valuable player in 1969, and, two seasons before that, a precious pawn on Green Bay’s last championship team, Williams remains distant and disconnected from his fondest memories.

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“The only thing I really feel bad about is that I had a lot of friends at the time,” he says. “And I had the sense that they were watching a tree falling in the forest and didn’t put something to block it up.

“They’d invite you to a party, and it’s like, ‘Look who I know,” and all the time you’re asking for a job. And they say, ‘Well come to the office,’ and you go to the office Monday and they’re gone on a week’s vacation.

“I got the sense of being used. Now I need some help, and it’s, ‘Sorry, we’re a little slow down at the iron company, but I’ll keep you posted . . . and close the door on the way out.’ ”

It’s not as though he never tested the job market. Williams has worked for insurance companies, beer companies, recreation centers, school districts, grocery stores, hotels, himself. He’s hauled garbage, bounced drunks from bars, worked security at liquor stores. He’s even relied heavily on the kindness of strangers. But he never really recovered after losing the house on 19th Street and Pennsylvania, a few blocks from where he lives today.

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“It took me the longest time just to go down the street after we moved out,” he says. “When you look over there and see something that is yours. And you see somebody coming out of your door . . . you know.”

After foreclosure, the family relocated to a rented house around the corner, but the slide continued. Williams, who once owned four cars, started selling them off one by one--sometimes piece by piece.

“Somebody’s got to sell something to eat,” he says.

In 1978, a friend showed Williams how to steal gas and electric meters from neighborhood houses, then re-attach them to his home. “I hooked them to the house so the kids could stay warm,” he says.

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After his arrest, Williams was allowed to serve his sentence out on weekends. It was on a Friday night before regular Saturday morning check-in at Contra Costa County Jail when Williams met more trouble. He was at a friend’s when a fight broke out. “We were drinking a lot of alcohol at the time,” Williams remembers. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

Next morning, Williams was thrown in solitary confinement and later sentenced to a year’s term in the same prison where Arie was serving out a sentence for vehicular manslaughter.

“I’m in one part, and she’s in another,” he explains.

Finding work in the early 1980s became increasingly difficult as an ex-convict. Besides, he and Arie were fighting and drinking too much to take control of their lives.

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“I wasn’t a staggering, bumbling drunk,” Williams says. “I just maybe drank too much. My wife started drinking more and we started trying to out-drink each other, you know, and problems came from that. When you start hiding half-bottles from each other, you’re in trouble.”

The choice became obvious.

“If I would have slapped her upside the head, it would have been back to jail,” Williams claims. “So it was better to leave.

“She dumped me, because I was almost the next thing to a bum. I didn’t blame her. She had enough of it.”

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Williams has been on and off the streets since. He says he and Arie were close to patching things up in 1985. Her death has been reported as a drug overdose, though Williams snaps when hears the description.

“Maybe they might have provoked the heart attack,” he says of the drugs, “so I just say heart attack, so nobody will be asking stuff like that.”

After the deaths of his wife, mother, sister and best friend, Williams “made myself lost. That’s when I went straight down. You get over one tragedy and another one was on top of you. You started looking for who the next one would be. The only thing that pulled me out, to tell you the truth, was this homeless thing.”

Williams dreams of some day breaking free of Prather’s guiding grip and opening his own family shelter. Prather says he can do it.

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“Travis has changed the streets,” he says. “He’s brought self respect to the streets. How many people get to talk on the nightly news? Or have HBO come down to the homeless camps. They come to Richmond to see Travis.”

The work has been satisfying, perhaps life-saving. Through the lobbying of Williams and many others, the National Guard Armory in Richmond, which once stood dormant, is is now housing many of the town’s homeless. Williams estimates there are 1,000 homeless in Richmond alone. Now that he’s tasted first blood, he quenches for more. “Until the armory, there were no shelters in this county, the second richest county in California,” Williams says.

Williams’ own shelter would be different, specifically designed to keep families together during periods of homelessness. He speaks again from experience.

“If the wife goes this way and the man goes that way, then you’ve got a broken home,” he explains. “The child protective service will get your kids. And once you break up your family, it’s hard getting them back together. Foster homes are lousy, and my feeling is, if the family’s cracking up, they can come to my shelter.”

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Williams will get to his dream just as soon as can get through his days. Human comebacks play out slowly in real life. Prather recently raised donations and sent Williams to Roanock, Va., to dry out at a half-way house/retreat run by homeless advocate David Hayden.

“He has to decide there are more important things than wine,” Prather says. “Travis is going to make it, even if it kills me. . . . He’s says I’m harder on him than Lombardi ever was.”

The story, obviously, isn’t over. Williams is not beyond groveling to satisfy his needs. He’s says there’s more to it than sticking out a hand and looking pathetic. You have to case potential donors in a calculated game. “There are certain people that you ask, and certain people that you don’t ask,” Williams explains. “Some people, if they got two dollars, they’ll give you one. Some won’t you give nothing.”

Back in the rental car after lunch, the driver and Williams wind their way back through Richmond toward his flat. Williams is uneasy in the passenger’s seat, another day’s opportunity closing fast.

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He finally works up the courage and wonders if the driver might spare a few dollars for cigarettes. The driver agrees, with a promise from Williams that he’d only spend the money on cigarettes. Williams’ mind races as he nervously awaits his upcoming trip to Virginia, where hope--and fear--spring eternal.

“I want to go there with my mind clear,” he says, explaining the misery of detoxifying, “so I don’t have to sweat it out for a week, and all the pain and everything will be over with. That’s what I like about this, it takes enough of your time where you don’t even think about taking a little sock, you know what I mean? I got to get away from here, and Oakland ain’t far enough.”


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