Ah, linebackers. The original two-headed monsters. Those guys who make Jekyll/Hyde look like a together fellow. Off the field they are wallflowers; on it, Venus's-flytraps. "Linebackers are a different breed all the way around," says the Detroit Lions' veteran backup quarterback, Joe Ferguson. He should know. After throwing a pass during the 1985 season, he was nailed so hard by reticent Chicago Bears linebacker Wilber Marshall that Ferguson was rendered unconscious even before hitting the ground. No flag was thrown, but Marshall was fined $2,000 by the league for flagrant roughness.
"Linebackers have to cover receivers, take on linemen, rush, tackle—they're just...different," says Ferguson. He thinks about his teammate, left outside linebacker Jimmy Williams, one of the best and one of the least-known players in the NFC. When Ferguson joined the Lions in 1985, he screened Williams on a reverse during a half-speed drill. Williams, a quiet, reserved man off field, went nuts.
He grabbed Ferguson and screamed, "Don't you ever grab my——jersey again!" Coaches rushed in to prevent violence, but Ferguson got the message. "I didn't expect that in a drill," he says, "but Jimmy is Jimmy. He's aggressive. He's a linebacker."
Indeed, at 6'3", 230 pounds, with 4.49 speed, Williams is the epitome of an NFL outside linebacker: low-key to the point of taciturnity away from the action but frenzied from the snap. "I'm an intense and competitive player," says Williams. "I need to win every down. I have to win every down." He considers this statement, realizing its essential conflict. "Of course, 99 percent of my opponents have the same attitude. So there are confrontations."
September 8, 1987
This means fights. And Williams, a six-year veteran who was Detroit's defensive MVP in 1985 but had a subpar '86 season (54 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions) attributable to a preseason contract holdout and to a knee injury that forced him to miss the last six games, has started many fights. A random sampling of his skirmishes tells much about his pro career.
In his rookie year, 1982, he had a run-in with All-Pro teammate Billy Sims, after which defensive leader William Gay warned Williams, "Don't mess with the franchise." Then there was his 1985 skirmish with Green Bay Packer lineman Greg Koch that got them both tossed from the game. "We were down 41-3, and I said, 'What the hell,' and got in a fight," says Williams. Last season against Houston he fought Oilers tight end Jamie Williams, who, besides having a similar name, was also his good friend and teammate at Nebraska. "Jamie is a very good tight end, and I'm a very good linebacker," says Jimmy. "But he's never beaten me. Please print that."
Then there was Williams's fracas with running back Tony Dollinger in camp last month. "I was on a route and knocked his arm away and told him to get his hands off me," says Dollinger. Williams attacked Dollinger, slugging wildly at his body and helmet. Coaches and players pulled Williams off for fear he would break his hands on Dollinger's face mask. When practice ended Williams made a beeline for Dollinger and started pummeling him again. Defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes finally dragged the linebacker away.
At a later practice, rookie wide receiver Bret Wiechmann bumped Williams, after which Williams shadowed the 5'10", 178-pound player across the field, glaring at him as Wiechmann returned to the huddle. "Jimmie was waiting, but Wiechmann would not look at him," says Tom Kowalski, a sportswriter for The Oakland Press in Pontiac.
Even Kowalski has experienced Williams's wrath. After Williams was thrown out of the Green Bay game in 1985, Kowalski asked him to explain the incident. Williams threw his coat on the locker room floor and told Kowalski, "I'll kick your butt right here!"
"I'm no sissy," says the 6'7", 240-pound Kowalski. "But this was suicide. I just turned and left."
The postscript to these stories is that the combatants, or victims, do not hold grudges against Williams. His outbursts are part of the game, everybody says. He plays to win. He never backs down. "He just does things right," says Ferguson. "He's a great guy," says Dollinger.
"He apologized to me an hour afterward on the plane," says Kowalski. "He's a complex person. He's mean, but he's nice."
Quite simply Williams is a linebacker, a tightly strung bundle of intensity fighting the rules of proper society. "He's like Hugh Green, whom I coached in Tampa," says Fontes. "He hates to lose, to get blocked, even in practice. He takes it personally. Sometimes we have to calm him down in things like our 'Thud Drill,' which is for the offense. He's supposed to take on a block and give ground. But he wants to stuff it. He can't stand getting beat mano a mano, big man on big man. He hopes the other team always runs at him. 'Please, come at me.'
"We play him on the strong side, over the tight end, so he can kill the run. And he does. The only thing he doesn't do that Lawrence Taylor or Andre Tippett does is get sacks, and he's working on that. But the run—in 1985 it was noticeable the way teams ran away from his side. If we were in the Super Bowl, he'd definitely be in the Pro Bowl."
"He's so tenacious," says Detroit linebacker coach Mike Murphy. "But there is a fine line all linebackers have to walk between being aggressive and being maniacs. I've seen 'backers whose eyes get big, who are so involved in a personal battle, trying to kill someone over them, that they lose sight of the big picture, which is to win the game. Jimmy's doing very well with that."
The intensity comes from the tough road Williams had to follow to become a first-round draft choice of the Lions in 1982. Coming out of a mediocre athletic program at Woodrow Wilson High in Washington, D.C., he was a six-foot, 180-pound linebacker who ran the 40 in 4.8. He received no major-college scholarship offers, but as he puts it, "I had the audacity to think I could play big time."
He and his older brother, Toby, who had repeated 10th grade and was a classmate of Jimmy's, sent out more than 200 letters in 1977 offering their services to college football programs all over the country. "The typical response was a letter saying we had written a nice letter but 'you're small' or 'the recruiting season is over' or 'you don't fit our plans,' " says Jimmy. "But then Nebraska wrote and said, 'We're interested.' No scholarship or anything. Just that little bit. But it was enough."
Taking out loans and borrowing money from their father, James, an electrical engineer, the two boys flew to Lincoln, enrolled in school and walked on with the Cornhuskers. Says Jimmy, "My dad always told us, 'When you set a goal, shoot for the moon. If you fall, so what? You fall among the stars.' "
Where the Williams brothers fell at first was amid the slop. To make ends meet they worked summers on farms around Lincoln and then in a slaughterhouse. "That was something," recalls Toby, who is the starting nosetackle for the New England Patriots. "We'd leave our apartment at 5:30 in the morning, walk three or four miles to the slaughterhouse, finish at four and walk three miles to the stadium to work out, then walk a mile home. We never had a car the whole time we were at Nebraska. But we always had discipline."
Their Nebraska experience proved that hard work will be rewarded. By his senior year Jimmy had been voted Big Eight Defensive Player of the Year and had made first-team All-America. Workouts had helped him gain 40 pounds and increase his speed. "The only things that ever amazed me about Jimmy were his work habits, his drive, and how fast he was," says Toby, who was a 10th-round draft choice of the Patriots in 1983.
"I couldn't have made it without Toby," says Jimmy. "So much of what I am stems from me being a walk-on at Nebraska. That adversity made us both grow."
Williams majored in physical education at Nebraska but did not graduate, and he is candid about his failing to get a degree. "To be honest, football is my business," he says. "It's what I do, and I've been successful at it." He represented himself in his contract negotiations with the Lions after last season and came away with a three-year, $1.2 million deal.
Williams is at the age when he will either become a superstar or just another semianonymous, good-but-not-great player in a conference loaded with outstanding linebackers. "He could skate from here on out," says Murphy. "But I think he'll continue to improve because he has so much pride. He'd improve if he was a waiter or a chef. He'd be the guy practicing making spaghetti sauce."
To stay loose Williams has been practicing the tenor saxophone. "I go downstairs at my house and play along with John Coltrane," he says. "It's such a mellow instrument, it instantly relaxes me, gives me an inner peace and serenity. After a day of aggression, it's just what I need." There is only one element of sadness to his passion for the sax. "Sometimes when I really want to play, my fingers are just too swollen," he says.
Last year Williams wed the former Chris McGant, and they are expecting their first child in late October. "If we have a boy, Jimmy doesn't really want him to play football," says the 5'11" Chris, who played basketball at California University of Pennsylvania. "Jimmy is quiet and a little shy. He's very sweet and lovable. And, like me, he loves parks and nature. We don't talk much about football at all."
Well now, lest we forget we are examining a singular NFL linebacker, let's recall the case of free-agent tight end Bret Pearson. A Wisconsin grad, Pearson was in the Lions' camp at the beginning of preseason, trying to impress the coaches. Williams also was in camp early, testing his rehabilitated knee. On the first day of full pads, he tore into Pearson in a violent fight. "Don't you ever grab my——jersey!" yelled Williams in his time-honored refrain. Pearson left camp unexpectedly not long after that. "My back was bothering me," he says. "And, uh, that's a pretty good crew of linebackers the Lions have."
Let's listen, also, as Williams sits in the cafeteria at the Lions' training camp at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., and talks about his craft. "If it's between getting an interception and putting a hit on the receiver," he says, "I'll always hit the receiver. I like to hit a man and hear that..."
He smiles warily, afraid that maybe he's revealing too much.
"Hear that little..."
He thinks for a moment. His smile comes and goes.
"That little moan."
Ah, sweet linebackers' music.