WILLIAMSBURG — When young athletes research National Football League (NFL) stars like Reggie Williams they look at how the player became successful.
In Williams’ case, researchers probably learn how he found a permanent spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. They’ll analyze his 14-season NFL career as a linebacker with the Cincinnati Bengals where he ended up going to the Super Bowl in 1982 and in 1989. They’ll also find that he’s the only elected city councilman in the history of Cincinnati to play in a Super Bowl. Williams had an NFL career that, when the final game whistle was blown, ended with 62.5 sacks, 16 interceptions, 23 fumble recoveries, and 3 touchdowns.
However, beneath that is a man who has overcome many trials and tribulations throughout his personal life and professional career. The 67-year-old 1986 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year winner continues to find time to give back to other people, no matter how tough his own life’s trials may seem.
In 2020 Williams published a memoir that offers a first-hand account of these trials and tribulations entitled, “Resilient by Nature.”
“My inspiration for the book had to do with reconciling all the adversity that I had endured. What were the lessons that possibly could be shared with others?” said Williams. “One of those lessons is the eternal power of poetry.”
Over the years, Williams always considered writing a book. However, he began seriously playing with the idea back in 2016. During that same year, the former pro linebacker suffered a severe stroke that resulted from an aortic dissection that left him unable to move the right side of his body. This tragic event also took away his ability to speak coherently.
“I was searching for anything. I was searching for something that was familiar. Whether it was my social security number, or my son’s phone number, or my phone number.” said Williams. “Something that I could articulate. Even though in my mind’s eye I could say everything that I wanted to say, but I tried to enunciate and it came out as jibberish.”
It was in these dark moments when Williams remembered a poem that he learned during his freshman year at Dartmouth College. It’s a piece written by nineteenth-century English poet William Ernest Henley, called, “Invictus.” As the verse goes:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
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.
After taking “clot busters,” the nickname for a type of heart medication given to patients in a hospital to help break up blood clots, he was able to recite this poem; miraculously regaining his ability to speak. Williams calls the poem his “saving grace.”
“I never really had to go to any speech pathology or classes as most stroke victims have to,” he said.
Beyond this harrowing chapter in his life, Williams filled his memoir with more stories of his many life-altering experiences. The memoir’s title itself is quite literally how one may describe Williams.
His early life was plagued with challenges. Williams was born with a hearing difference and had a speech impediment. Throughout his life, Williams has also endured four knee replacements and twenty-seven leg surgeries in total.
Beyond the physical trials he faced, Williams also endured a lifetime of racism. When he started playing football for Dartmouth, a couple of classmates on the freshman team did not want their lockers near him and would also refuse to share a shower with him. Jerry Berndt, the freshman football practice coach, responded by making Williams the freshman team captain.
Williams is considered by many Dartmouth alumni to be one of the best players to ever play for the school. The linebacker graduated in just three and half years with a college football performance that propelled him to the NFL.
“The first day that I learned that I made the Cincinnati Bengals team, I went and found a phone book and found a quarter, and then I dialed the number to the Cincinnati Speech and Hearing Center,” said Williams in an interview with WYDaily. “I grew up going to public schools, but I was born hearing impaired and used to have to take classes at the Michigan School for the Deaf with speech therapists so that I could eliminate the stutter that I had and mitigate as much as possible the lisp that I had developed.”
Williams was recovering from his fourth knee replacement due to Osteomyelitis in his right knee when he participated in a community conversation at a book store. He came to the bookstore using crutches; his leg still encased by a cast. Williams talked with the crowd, sharing personal stories that he would consider printing into what would become his future memoir.
By happenstance, one of the audience members represented the publishing company, Post Hill Press. She approached Williams and told him that she wanted to read the rest of his book.
“I thought she was kidding but she wasn’t,” said Williams. “Then she hooked me up with Jarrett Bell, a long-time USA Today Sports Columnist, and we collaborated. We were fortunate because Jarrett travels the NFL circuit and he was able to touch base with Russell Wilson whose father and I were best friends at Dartmouth. That’s why Russell agreed to write the forward to the book.”
Besides his new book, the NFL star stays active and continues to give back to others. A current project that Williams is involved with is as the vice president for the board of Kelly Youth Services, a non-profit that operates group homes and independent living situations.
“It’s a series of group homes run by Joe Kelly who was my Cincinnati Bengal teammate. He was a linebacker drafted in the first round. From California and was sort of my protégé. When he retired from a long NFL career he went on to play after Cincinnati with the packers and the raiders.” said Williams. “When he came back to Cincinnati and made it his home, his whole life revolved around helping at-risk kids. We’ve helped over a thousand foster kids in the time that he’s had his group homes and it’s continuing to grow. I’m very proud of what Joe Kelly is doing in the city of Cincinnati. I think he has 7 group homes right now.”
After overcoming so many obstacles in life while still being able to give back to others, Williams says the secret to this is simply, “love.”
“Adversity, while it’s one word it’s many different things when we’re all experiencing it. One of the best equalizers is love,” said Williams. “Family. Love. With your parents and with your children. It’s the one aspect that can emotionally bring the best out of us and the best out of our family members. Living life is a team sport. Love is the glue, and family love is the strongest glue.”
Williams will be visiting the William & Mary Commonwealth Auditorium in the Sadler Center on Thursday, Oct. 7 from 5:30 – 7 p.m. to read from his new memoir. He hopes that by visiting the school he is able to inspire other people who are going through challenges of their own.
“I hope they see a little bit of themselves in my life. I certainly don’t hope that anyone goes through the trials and tribulations that I have, but the necessity to communicate is even more important when you’re dealing with adversity. The worse you can do is get into a depressive mentality.” said Williams.
The reading will be free and open to the public. There will be a reception and book signing after the reading.