The most intriguing free agent in pro football has 333 career receptions for 6,635 yards (19.9 yards per catch) and 44 touchdowns. He is one of the elite kick returners to ever play the game, and boasts the sort of athleticism that evokes names like Bo and Herschel and Thorpe (and makes Terrell Owens look like Kurt Sohn). Most important, he is as smooth as a chocolate swirl, and word has it he dances a little funky.
Yet despite all the accomplishments and accolades, the man has yet to receive a single contract offer from an NFL franchise in 17 years.
Paging Al Davis
Mr. Al Davis, please report to the nearest telephone
"Can I make a comeback?" asks Willie Gault. "Absolutely. Will I? If someone calls, I'd be very open to the idea."
According to Gault, Gault's family, Gault's friends, old media guides, the Pro Football Reference Web site, Nexis/Lexis and official hospital records, Gault was born Sept. 5, 1960, which means he turns 50 in six months.
Yet according to reality, visual analysis and all possible rules of physicality, Gault is 25. Thirty, tops. His face appears virtually unchanged from his mid-1980s heyday with the Chicago Bears, when he was a key part of the Super Bowl XX champions. His skin is natural and unwrinkled, his hair thick and well groomed, his teeth straight and white as fresh whipped cream. There is no gut or double chin; no love handles or cankle cheese.
The former Olympic-qualifying sprinter from the University of Tennessee (circa 1983) runs a 4.4 40 ("At my best I ran 4.2," he says.), and in 2006 set a world record of 10.72 seconds in the master's 100 meters for athletes aged 45 to 49 (Two years later, Gault set a new 200-meter world record of 21.80 seconds in the 45-49 age group). In January he competed in the Millrose Games, running a special-edition 60-yard dash against five other NFL veterans all at least 13 years his junior. Despite a dreadful start from the blocks, Gault placed third in a blistering 7.07 seconds. In other words, were he to join an NFL team, he would immediately be one of the leagues burners. "Chris Johnson is faster," he acknowledges. "Reggie Bush, too. But save for those two and maybe two or three others, I'm right there."
Gault last played professionally in 1993, when he appeared in 15 games for the Los Angeles Raiders. At the time, UB40 was damning the airwaves with "Can't Help Falling in Love," Home Improvement was ABC's smash hit, John Oates had a mustache and Monica Lewinski was a 19-year-old psychology student at Lewis & Clark College. He retired to pursue a career in Hollywood, and experienced some success, appearing in four episodes of The West Wing and 17 episodes of The Pretender. (He is also credited for his gripping portrayal of "black man in airport" in the epic, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.) During his retirement Gault founded Athletes for Life, a non-profit organization that focuses on education and physical fitness. "I've had a great post-football life," he says. "But I'd love to give it another shot."
So, eons later, could a 50-year-old return to glory?
"Honestly, I think Willie can still play," says Ken Valdiserri, general manager of the Chicago Rush of the Arena Football League and the Bears' media relations director during Gault's five years with the team. "I saw Willie recently for the first time in years, and he didn't appear to age one day. He has incredible athletic ability and he keeps himself in remarkable shape. I don't care how old he is -- a defensive back would have to be worried about him."
Gault's secret isn't so much a secret as it is a difficult lifestyle choice. As the majority of his one-time NFL peers filled their retirement hours with golf, cookies, cigars, beer and a soft spot on the softest couch, Gault continued to live as if the next big game were always around the corner. He refuses to eat chicken or red meat, sticking to a diet of fish (twice per week), vegetables and soy. "I might have an oatmeal raisin cookie once in a while," he says. "But I don't live to eat. I eat to live." He can be found four or five days per week at the Gold's Gym on Venice Beach, completing an exhaustive circuit of upper- and lower-body weight workouts. Afterward, he usually retreats to a nearby track, where he completes a dizzying buffet of 200s, 300s and 400s. "I treat my body like a temple," he says, "because it's the only one I have, and I want to use it as long as possible."
"I know the idea of a 50-year-old in the NFL is crazy," he says. "I know it's improbable. But speed is speed."
And all these years later Willie Gault still has speed.