Willie Gault stood in the half-light that came just before dawn and looked at himself, staring for several long seconds into the doe eyes that looked back at him. Gault had often stood before mirrors and basked in the warm glow of his own reflection, pleased with the way he looked and the way others looked at him. But reflections lacked blood and breath, and anyway they disappeared in the dark. This was no reflection. Gault remembers standing and staring a moment longer, then slowly bringing the gun that was in his hands up to his shoulder and bracing himself for the recoil.
Through the rifle's high-powered scope he caught sight of himself one more time, but he couldn't shoot. As he lowered the gun, the deer that had been in his sights picked up the movement and went bounding into the woods. "I could have shot it," Gault says, recalling the moment of recognition uneasily now. "I could have shot it. But I said, 'No way I can kill this thing. He looks like me.' "
Gault's speed and agility as a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears are so distinctively fawnlike that they set him clearly apart, even from the most graceful members of the NFL herd. A former world-class sprinter at Tennessee, Gault, now in his fourth NFL season, has become one of the most feared men in football on the strength of the threat he prizes most—that on any play of any game he can simply outrun everybody to the ball. "Just Willie go long," he says.
After Gault caught seven passes for 174 yards this season in a 44-7 victory over Cincinnati, backup quarterback Steve Fuller as much as said that Gault was football's perfect offensive weapon. "I think if you threw to him 20 times a game, it wouldn't be a crazy thing to do," Fuller said. Curiously though, Fuller and the rest of the Bears quarterbacks seemed to forget about Gault after that performance. If Gault becomes any less visible than he has been in Chicago's offense for most of the past seven weeks, the Bears will have to start putting his picture on the sides of milk cartons.
November 24, 1986
Even when Gault himself is keeping a relatively low profile, the image he has so carefully cultivated seems to keep growing, as if the real Willie were being reflected in a fun-house mirror. Just one night after that Cincinnati game he danced with the Chicago City Ballet, deftly performing several difficult maneuvers with ballerina Maria Terezia Balogh. "It took a lot of guts for me to do that," Gault says. "I second-guessed myself so many times. But I wanted to show that ballet wasn't a sissy sport, that a big football player could get up there in tights and not make a fool of himself." Gault's performance was received quite favorably by the dance critics who attended, and even his partner seemed impressed. "You have to have a certain sensitivity to the woman's center, and he has it," said Balogh.
Gault never doubted he would be a smash. "There are very few things that I can't do," he says. "I feel I can do anything within my perimeters, per se, and my perimeters just happen to be really, really wide."
Gault's self-confidence has always been a particularly wide load; when he did his ballet, for instance, it helped that he wasn't exactly a stranger to the world of dance. Last season he was largely responsible for transforming George Halas's once-dreaded Monsters of the Midway into a chorus line of dancing Bears. He persuaded two dozen players to perform in the video version of a funk tune called Super Bowl Shuffle, with a share of the profits to go to local charities. A Chicago record company executive named Dick Meyer, who had employed Gault to dance for him in the video of Linda Clifford's song, The Heat In Me, wanted to make the Shuffle. But first he needed Bears, and Gault got them.
The success of the video stunned a lot of the players because it was the first real indication they had that their popularity with the fans could be exploited for enormous profits. Many of the Bears have been snuffling contentedly at the trough ever since. Gault, whose wife, Dainnese, had been telling him for years that he was completely without rhythm, suddenly found himself being compared to Michael Jackson after an undulating dance and rap solo, which he dubbed "as smooth as a Chocolate Swirl."
There are still some players who think Gault's best song and dance may have been the one he did to get them to Shuffle along at a net of only about $6,000 a man, after their donations. After the Illinois attorney general's office launched an inquiry last January, Meyer registered the project as a charitable endeavor under state law. Some of the Bears accused Gault of getting them involved in a slick hustle, and worse, of lining his own pockets at their expense. "The guys were saying Willie was just doing it because he was getting money under the table," says Dainnese Gault. "That hurt him. That was a job, getting all those guys together with all those egos. He had to literally drive the Fridge, Walter Payton and Jim McMahon down to that studio. I told Willie he should lake more money than the rest of them for all the work he did."
Gault says he didn't, but others weren't so sure. "They sold almost a million records and 170,000 videos, and we got $6,000," said Bears linebacker Otis Wilson. "Wouldn't you feel screwed?"
The attorney general's office found no improprieties, and $332,000 is currently in escrow, ready to be disbursed to charities as soon as the necessary paperwork is completed. Meyer says it took so long for the money to reach the charities because the players didn't sign their contracts for nine months, partly because they were trying to negotiate a bigger cut for themselves. He points out that while 50% of both his profits and the players' royalties were to go to charity, to date he has donated $182,000 and the Bears players $60,000. "It concerns me that some people aren't being as charitable as they intended to be," he says.
Wilson still seems convinced that Gault is the Baryshnikov of bunco artists. "Put it this way," says Wilson. "If I had to trust him with my life or my wife, I wouldn't trust him with either one."
Gault, however, insists he has done no wrong and seems unconcerned about all the grumbling in the Bears locker room. He thinks some of his teammates may be less concerned about the money going to charity than they are about looking after their own percentage. "A lot of people, per se, wanted to make sure they got their cut," he says.
Few people have ever wanted their cut of the Great American Dream more than Willie Gault. "One day he said to me, 'Dainnese, I have to build a dynasty for the kids and for you,' " says his wife. "And we didn't even have any kids. Willie's a hustler and he can make deals, and when you're in the limelight everybody's got a deal for you. My biggest problem is trying to slow him down a bit. Willie just can't say no. Last year I could see it growing, but since they won the Super Bowl it's gotten to the point where I think he's ready to explode."
Sitting on an apricot-colored couch in the Gault living room, Dainnese herself looks ready to explode. She is about to give birth to the couple's first child—a girl, according to the ultrasound, whom they have already named Shakari because Dainnese thinks it sounds vaguely Egyptian. She commissioned the painting of a large mural depicting herself as Cleopatra and Willie as both Caesar and Mark Antony, which serves as the centerpiece of a formal living room she is decorating with an Egyptian motif. "I think his mind is faster than his body," she says. "He just can't go fast enough. But I think he's slowing down, I really do." She stares thoughtfully off into space for a moment, and as she does, Willie's voice comes booming out from behind the door in the next room, telling his aide, "I need the number for P.M. Magazine. I want to talk to them about doing a story on me." Gault's wife just rolls her eyes.
"Willie's mother and father are busy bees," Dainnese says, "so I guess it's hereditary. And his sister, Clara, was as fast as he was when they were growing up, fast as the wind. But she got married and stayed in Griffin. Willie took his talent and ran with it."
Griffin, Ga., calls itself the textile capital of the South, and like most of the people who have spent their lives there, both of Gault's parents worked in the mills, making towels. Gault may be from Griffin, but he was never entirely of it. He is named after his mother, Willie Mae, but in high school he was better known as Country because his friends considered him such a square. If Gault happened to be riding in a car when one of his classmates lit up a joint, he would stick his head out the car window for the rest of the trip so that he would remain pure of the drug peril. "I was a very likable person," he says. "All my friends used to say I was a teacher's pet, but everybody just liked me." After the Bears won the Super Bowl last season, Griffin (pop. 21,871) had what Gault describes as a ticker-tape parade for him, although when pressed, Gault concedes that the parade was characterized by "not a lot of ticker tape."
Gault says that growing up in the South, where right next to his name on his birth certificate he was identified as "Negro," made him conscious of the economic disadvantage at which he started because of his skin color. And like any other contest he entered, black was a race he was determined not to lose. "I want our children to be able to inherit millions of dollars when they're old enough to," Gault says. "It has to start somewhere; why can't it start with me, per se? Someone has to step out, someone has to start to accomplish what I want to see done. I'm willing to be that person. If I'm sitting here living off my football contract, I'm not fulfilling my dream. You hear about dynasties and empires being built all the time. I want to build one. That's what drives me."
Before he is done he would like to pierce the Chicago skyline with Gault Tower, open a clothing store called Gault's of Chicago and fill it with his own distinctive line of clothing, to be called World Class. For the time being he has to content himself with running Gault Communications, a cellular-telephone distributorship, and with trying to get his film-acting career started. Perhaps uncertain whether to study the Stanislavskian system or the Method, Gault has confined his acting classes to one on auditions and another on acting in commercials. He did read for a role in the soap opera Ryan's Hope, and once auditioned for a guest shot on The Cosby Show but didn't get it. At the moment he is waiting for the right property. He is thinking of joining Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe. "They might let me in just because of who I am," he says. If that doesn't work out, he might take the Farrah Fawcett route to stardom. "The NFL has never done a poster of me," he says. "Can you believe it? I'm going to make one and distribute it myself, so I get to keep all the money."
In Gault's pin-up world looks are never deceiving, they are the only reality that truly matters. To see the gloss of his image is to know him the way he wants to be known. Gault once boasted, "Some people have one or two friends; I've got thousands," which is precisely how beauty queens feel about the people who adore them. When Gault saw a dog in a Kal Kan commercial that was so perfect-looking it could actually complement his own good looks, he became obsessed with the idea of owning it and contacted the sponsor to get the dog's address and phone number. As a result, Gault now owns a pure white two-year-old Samoyed named King that was one of the Kal Kan pooch's puppies. "You know Willie," says Dainnese. "He's flamboyant and he loves the camera, so naturally he had to have the most spectacular dog he could find." She looks down at King, who has several bows tied to his fur. "The dog looks good in pictures. What can I say?"
A few of the Bears have suggested that the same could be said of Gault, and they haven't always said it in the most flattering way. In his autobiography McMahon describes Gault as "pretty," and questions both the receiver's courage and his dedication to the game. "In the past I've felt he heard footsteps, that he didn't like getting into traffic," McMahon writes. "You can't depend on a guy like that. You have to know that a guy is going to run his route even if the game isn't on national TV.... Football isn't the most important thing in Willie's life. He's...on his way to Hollywood, or so he hopes. He wants to be an actor. He's just stopping off in Chicago, playing his latest role as a football player."
McMahon seems to single out Gault almost alone among the Bears for criticism in the book. "He does seem to have something nice to say about almost everybody but Willie," says Dainnese. Gault, of course, is particularly sensitive to every nuance in his relationship with McMahon because as a receiver he is totally at the mercy of the quarterback for his livelihood. "And I think McMahon uses that to control people," says Dainnese. "He likes his receivers to run behind him in the bars, and Willie doesn't do that."
One of McMahon's closest friends on the team was Ken Margerum, a wide receiver who was released last month. "He always threw the ball to Margerum for three years, and everybody could see it," Dainnese says. "All we knew was that the ball wasn't coming Willie's way. I told Willie maybe he ought to start hanging in the bars with McMahon." Gault isn't sure he was slighted intentionally, but he does feel that in McMahon's eyes some receivers were more equal than others. "I don't think Jim lets his personal feelings get in the way during the game," Gault says. "But maybe if Margerum was open and I was open, he would get the ball. I knew that."
Once during his rookie season, when Gault felt McMahon was being conspicuous about ignoring him, he invited the quarterback to lunch to talk things out. McMahon responded, according to another Bear, by snarling, "Is he trying to get on my good side?" This preseason, after Gault caught a touchdown pass from backup quarterback Mike Tomczak, Willie approached McMahon in the stadium parking lot to say something, but, says Dainnese, McMahon ignored him. "His wife is really sweet," she says of Nancy McMahon. "I don't know how she puts up with that fool."
One of the reasons the Bears don't throw the ball to Gault more often is that he is almost always covered by two defenders because of his great speed. "He's phenomenal," says Los Angeles Rams cornerback LeRoy Irvin. "I'd vote for him for All-Pro every year." Still, when the Bears lost to the Rams 20-17 in a Monday night game on Nov. 3, Gault caught only one pass for 20 yards. With the game tied and 1:14 to play, the Bears had the ball and 80 yards to travel for a score, and they never once threw to Gault. "I was surprised they didn't go up top with him," says Irvin. "We kept trying to figure out why they didn't just throw the damn ball out there and let Willie run under it."
As things have turned out, Gault has mostly been a decoy, clearing out defenders as he sprints upfield, while the Bears quarterbacks throw the ball to somebody else. Gault's ability to stretch a defense has been one reason the Bears have led the NFL in rushing in each of the last three seasons, and it has also left Keith Ortego, Chicago's other wide receiver, open much of the time. But Gault has remained frustrated with the way the Bears have used him. "I want to be the best receiver in the league, and I can't do that by clearing out for the tight end," he says.
Even coach Mike Ditka concedes the Bears should get the ball to Gault more often, but there is still some question about his ability to get himself completely clear of the defenses that are set up for him. "Receivers with blazing speed are often used as decoys," says Chicago safety Gary Fencik. "The truly great receivers enjoy that. They look at double coverage as a challenge to their ability to get open. To a guy like James Lofton [of Green Bay], double coverage is nothing. But it seems that when Willie is double covered he's taken out of the offense. I don't know if that has to do with the design of the offense or Willie's inability to get open. I don't want to say the wrong thing, but you can read between those lines, I guess."
Gault scored six touchdowns in the space of three games during his rookie season, including three one day against New Orleans. "I caught everything my first year," he says. "I was leading the league [in TD catches], then all of a sudden everything stopped. They just stopped throwing the ball to me. I didn't know what was going on." Gault talked to Vince Evans, a Bears quarterback who was his best friend on the team and one of the few black quarterbacks in the league. "He explained to me there was a lot of bias and prejudice in the league," Gault says.
After Gault's first year with the Bears, Ditka questioned whether he was really dedicated to a football career, presumably because Gault was trying, through the courts, to regain his eligibility to run track. "That was an ignorant statement because I had done so well already in football," Gault says. "They were looking to nail that trackman label to me." But Gault continued training diligently for his interrupted track career, rising at eight every morning to run a complete regimen of sprints.
It wasn't until his second season with Chicago that Gault developed a reputation for having stone hands. He had gotten behind everybody in the first game of the year, then dropped a 50-yard pass for a sure touchdown. The Bears routed Tampa Bay 34-14 anyway that day, but nobody forgot. "Willie's problem is that, because of his speed, usually when he drops one he's wide open," says Ditka.
"From that point on I got the reputation that I couldn't catch the ball," Gault says. "I got more publicity off that one dropped pass than all the ones I caught. They were just waiting for me to make a mistake. It was a humbling experience. I was too perfect, I guess—the all-American kid who couldn't do anything wrong. Now they had found something they could criticize. Once that happened, all the players jumped on the bandwagon. I found out that year who my true friends were, and what I discovered was that I didn't have any. It opened my eyes. I spent the rest of that year fighting with the team. All the players didn't really understand me as a person, that I'm a humble and gentle guy. They didn't understand that I could have interests outside football."
What is difficult to understand is how, with all his outside interests, Gault finds any time at all to play football. For instance, the week before the Monday night Rams game, which was played in Chicago, he flew to Los Angeles after practice on Monday, met with a movie producer and had dinner at Spago that night, spent all day Tuesday talking with a Hollywood talent agency, taking lunch at Mr. Chow, flew back to Chicago on a red-eye, arriving at 6 a.m. Wednesday, and was at practice three hours later. Thursday night he and Dainnese attended a Lamaze class, he drove his horse on Saturday, and the next day he modeled furs in a fashion show during which he was named one of Chicago's 10 best-dressed men for the second year in a row.
Gault doesn't have a life story, he has a rèsumè, copies of which he carries around with him at all times, references available upon request. He and Dainnese, who models and writes a column for Sophisticated Black Hair Styles and Care Guide, are also willing and able to crank out reams of their respective clippings on the copying machine they keep set up at all times in the kitchen. Mmmmm, smells good, honey. What's cooking? "Why, it's just some copies of your tasty Ebony Man fashion spread and my hard-hitting look at the problem of combination skin...oily on the forehead, nose and chin and normal-to-dry on the cheeks. What to do?" When the Bears played a preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys in London this summer, Gault invited the entire team to a dinner party at the mansion of a Nigerian industrialist named Chief Harry Akande, who had flown from Chicago to England in his private jet for the game. The Chief, who had the players picked up in Rolls-Royce limousines, is a friend of Willie's. "Can I help it if I know these people?" Gault asks. "I know several stars that some people would feel inferior to. Marlon Jackson is a very good friend of mine." Marlon Jackson?
Between meetings with the executive director of the American Health and Beauty Aids Association and a photo session for his modeling portfolio last May, Gault finally gave in to his wife's demand that they take a vacation and took her to the island of St. Martin for 10 days. "He almost died when we got there because the telephones didn't work," says Dainnese. "By the end of the trip he was so bored he was begging me to cut the trip short."
The trip was significant if only because it was the first time in three years of marriage that the Gaults were alone together. He had chosen the 1983 track and field world championships in Helsinki—where he ran on the gold medal-winning 4 X 100 relay team—for their honeymoon. "What could I do?" says Dainnese. "I went with him, or he would've gone without me. We turned it into a honeymoon—just Willie, me and the U.S. track team."
The wedding in Griffin bore Gault's unmistakable imprimatur. Six hundred guests were invited, but 1,200 people showed up—most of them as part of the bridal party. Dainnese had 15 bridesmaids and Willie topped her with 17 groomsmen. He showed up at the altar with three best men, which at the very least is grammatically impossible, and the happy couple were joined in the holy state of matrimony by preachers from the wholly separate states of Georgia, Tennessee and Texas. Somewhere in the background a pair of caged lovebirds tried to make themselves heard over the din of "dearly beloveds."
While they were in Helsinki, Gault's attorney called to say that the Bears, who had selected him in the first round of the '83 draft, had said that if Gault didn't chose football over track by the following day he could forget about playing for Chicago. Willie and Dainnese sat in his dorm room and discussed it. "Then he got up and tied his track shoes together and hung them out the window," recalls Dainnese. "And he cried. It was as if part of his life was over."
Now, because the International Amateur Athletic Federation has relaxed its eligibility rules to allow professionals in other sports to compete in track and field events, Gault will be able to return to the track circuit next spring. And if all goes well he may even compete in the '88 Olympic Games, assuming the Bears don't mind his missing part of the season or that he hasn't taken up with the ballet full-time by then. No matter what he decides, he'll make sure people notice. All he ever needed was the music and the mirror and the chance to dance.