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COMMENTARY : The Roadrunner Had No One to Run To

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Travis Williams turned 45 on Jan. 14, the 23rd anniversary of his first and only Super Bowl appearance as a running back for Vince Lombardi’s last Green Bay Packer team. The same date, two different milestones.

In 1968, Williams earned $15,000 for beating the Oakland Raiders.

In 1991, Williams earned the right to claim a $300 monthly allowance from the NFL Players Association pension fund.

The greatest victory, Williams would tell you, was the latest, which is why he refused to wait until 2001, when he turned 55, when he would be fully vested.

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Then, he would have received $580 a month.

“I ain’t waiting until 55,” Williams said in a 1989 interview with The Times. “Not the way we’re dropping off these days.”

You got to be a football hero. If you’re like Williams, you spend five years in the league, do your time, blow out a knee and then hope you can hold on another 25 to 30 years before you collect your drop in the bucket. The NFL dares you to. The league has memorized the mortality rates of its old linemen and backs. The league knows they don’t get very old. Most stand a better chance of getting to the Super Bowl in their lifetimes than to the age of 55 -- even if you’re a Ram, which Williams was, for precisely one full season.

Williams needed the money when he was 40 and homeless and begging for change to buy a bottle that would temporarily obliterate the depression brought on by the deaths of his wife, his mother, his sister and his best friend -- all in a span of 12 months.

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As a player with scintillating 9.3-second speed in the 100-yard dash, Williams was nicknamed “The Roadrunner,” a label that would mock him as he roamed the streets of Richmond, Calif., in retirement. Ill-prepared for any job that did not entail carrying a football, Williams tried his hand at many. He was a bouncer. He hauled garbage. He worked as a security guard in a liquor store.

Sooner or later, he lost them all, followed, in short order, by:

-- His three-bedroom home in Richmond, a victim of foreclosure in 1977.

-- His freedom, after his arrest and one-year jail sentence for breaking a man’s jaw during a drunken brawl in 1979.

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-- His family, beginning with the death of his wife, Arie, to a drug overdose in April of 1985. Soon after, colon cancer claimed Williams’ mother, Cleaster, and by April of 1986, Williams’ sister Dolores and best friend, Harold Ervin, were also gone. Both deaths were footnoted as “alcohol-related.”

Williams wound up alone and on the street. He ate in soup kitchens because whatever money he happened across seldom made it out of the liquor store. On good nights, he slept in the back seats of parked cars. On not-so-good nights, maybe he found a vacant park bench.

If only Williams could have sold his NFL records. Here, Williams was a rich man.

As a Packer rookie in 1967, Williams set a league record by returning four kickoffs for touchdowns; tied a league record by running back two kicks for scores in a game against the Cleveland Browns, and set a Green Bay record by averaging a staggering 41.1 yards per kickoff return.

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Two years later, he was named Packer team MVP after rushing for a team-high 536 yards and four touchdowns.

Two years after that, Williams was traded to the Rams, where he tied Jon Arnett’s club record by returning one kickoff 105 yards against New Orleans and led the NFL with kick-return average of 29.7 yards.

That was 1971. Williams never made it to the opening kickoff of the 1972 season, dragging behind him a left knee that was hammered during an exhibition game. Although there would be tryouts with the San Diego Chargers and the Jacksonville Sharks of the World Football League, the injury effectively ended Williams’ career and he was out of football by 1974.

“You start running 9.7 and you’re gone,” Williams said in 1989. “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 draft 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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The biggest accomplishment of Williams’ football afterlife was another arrest, this time in 1988 during a sit-in at Sen. Alan Cranston’s office to protest federal housing cuts. The cause was a worthy one -- between 1981 and 1988, the Reagan Administration axed $35 billion worth of housing funds for the poor -- and Williams’ name value helped bring national attention to the protest.

Williams became a homeless-rights advocate in Northern California, giving speeches and granting interviews. He appeared on the nightly news. He brought the cameras of HBO to Richmond to examine the shelter where Williams worked as manager of the relief kitchen, earning $98 a week.

That was enough to put a roof over Williams’ head, barely. He could afford the $175-a-month rent for a one-room apartment, which represented the NFL’s comeback of the year. But he could never break completely with his past and cheap wine remained his roommate until Feb. 17, when he died of heart failure caused by liver and kidney problems.

Life, and death, could have developed so differently. Losing the house was the first crushing blow, one Williams admitted he could have easily avoided.

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“I could have paid for the house (in its entirety),” Williams once remarked. “But I thought I’d play football forever, so I put only a down payment on it.”

It can be irresistible, the big NFL lie. Williams’ epitaph would be: Don’t believe it. Careers are short. Retirement is long. You can only carry a football for so many years.

And once you’re done, it doesn’t work the other way around.


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