"American Gladiators" was an instant hit with Rhonda Williams when the television series made its debut five years ago.
Lynn Williams, however, never found the show quite as intriguing as his wife.
"It looked kind of phony," said Lynn Williams, 30. "I always thought I could whup a gladiator."
Then the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Williams got his chance. He answered a casting call for a gladiator in January, 1992. The former San Pedro High football player was chosen from nearly 600 applicants to play the role of Sabre.
A month later, Williams, a 1986 sixth-round draft pick of the Rams, was traveling around the country on the "American Gladiators" live tour.
The syndicated series pits contenders, chosen from nationwide tryouts, against gladiators in athletic events. The show is aired in more than 50 countries, including Mexico, Japan, Germany and New Zealand.
Last month, Williams finished filming for the coming season, which begins Sept. 11. In the off-season, much of his time is occupied by promotional appearances.
The most common question?
"What's my favorite event?" Williams said. "I hear that one all the time."
For the record, it's "Conquer."
"It's like playing football without pads," Williams said. "To be doing something so rewarding and fun, that's the biggest thrill. I can't think of a better job."
The job sometimes does have its grueling moments.
The 26 hourlong episodes for the coming season were filmed during a 3 1/2-week period. Episodes were taped twice a day, four days a week. Williams' schedule becomes even more hectic on tour, when he meets four contenders six nights a week.
"On Monday night, it's cool," Williams said. "On Tuesday and Wednesday, it's not a drag. But by the time you get to Thursday, that's 16 dudes.
"It's mentally draining to wake up the next morning and have to face four more guys. These guys are not a bunch of clowns. Each one is fresh and wants to walk over a gladiator."
Williams said he was defeated only twice in the coming season.
For the season, he said, "I gave out 87 stitches and took only seven, so I guess I came out ahead."
Williams was banking on a football career until a string of injuries led him to revaluate the profession.
As a junior at Gardena, Williams broke an ankle playing on the junior varsity team; he missed a semester of school. He was kicked off the team in 1979 and transferred to San Pedro, where he was the 1980 Marine League weight-lifting champion, setting a running back bench-press record of 405 pounds. He played only four games before the City Section denied a hardship request for an extra season of eligibility. Despite limited action, Williams was selected to play in the West Torrance Lions' All-Star game.
"Physically, he was for real. He really was," said John Misetich, Williams' coach at San Pedro. "He was a dynamic guy. They really missed the boat at Gardena. He just didn't play enough to get the exposure he should have."
Williams played at Pasadena City College in 1981 and 1982 and set a national community college running back bench-press record of 455 pounds.
He earned a scholarship to Kansas and led the Jayhawks in rushing in 1984 and scoring in '85. He was selected to the All-Big Eight Conference second team as a junior, rushing for 776 yards and eight touchdowns. Williams, who is now able to lift 530 pounds, also set a Big Eight running back bench-press record of 477 pounds.
With the Rams in 1986, Williams competed against Eric Dickerson and Charles White for a backfield spot. He was released before the start of the season.
"I was there long enough to get my signing bonus and get paid, but I had visions of being the rookie of the year," Williams said. "I wanted to be somewhere where I was playing."
Williams signed with the Raiders in '87, but was sidelined in training camp because of a groin injury. He was signed by the San Diego Chargers in 1988 and was the top running back on the depth chart until he fractured a vertebrae in training camp.
A visit from 9-year-old son, Lynn II, led Williams to reconsider his football career.
"When I was laid up on my back, I thought how close I came to being paralyzed," said Williams, a father of three. "I couldn't even pick up my son and hold him. Football didn't matter any more. My family was more important. Growing up, I had guns touch me and I could have been killed. I had my share of close-shave hours and I felt that I had used them up. It was time to live very safe and cautious."
Williams, who has a degree in communications, worked as a marketing representative for a health maintenance organization. After 15 months, he quit and started a contracting company.
A black belt in karate, Williams worked out regularly after his retirement from football, but had only a day's notice before attending the "American Gladiators" audition.
Applicants were taken in groups of five and put through tests of physical strength and agility, including pushups, the 40-yard dash and rope climb. Williams did 55 pushups in a minute and had the fastest time in the 40-yard dash.
"If you didn't do well in an event, you were weeded out," Williams said. "I was sizing up the competition and a lot of them were bigger than me. Just looking at them scared some of the others away. After a while, everybody stared at me."
Williams was one of three finalists selected to attend a final audition several weeks later at the Coliseum. Finalists were timed in the 40-yard dash and went head-to-head in "Powerball" and the "Joust," two events from "American Gladiators."
"It was my dream to play at the Coliseum before 100,000 people and here I am battling two guys in an empty stadium with only my family and the producers," Williams said. "Having my kids there to actually see me win was the most satisfying part."
To maintain his conditioning, Williams runs several miles a day and lifts weights at Black Diamond Fitness Center near his South-Central home.
"In football, you're getting a $5,000 check every week," Williams said. "The salary as a gladiator doesn't come close. I'm probably more recognizable than 65, 70% of the players, so it's been a good trade-off. I've gotten positive vibes."