Reggie Williams was in third grade before anyone knew he was partially deaf. He was slow to learn, his speech was funny, and from his seat at the back of the classroom, among the W's, he often misunderstood directions. Taunted by other children, scolded by teachers, cut off from routes to self-esteem, he teetered on the edge of one of the thousands of cracks through which children can fall when no one is there to rescue them.
Today Williams, 33, a Dartmouth graduate who majored in psychology, a 12-year veteran linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, is a one-man rescue squad, a catcher in the rye for the 1980s, filling old cracks, looking for new ones, all the while urging bystanders to get involved.
"There's always time to demonstrate to other people that you care," says Williams. "And one moment of caring can set in motion a whole series of events that can have a positive impact on someone's life."
Williams knows. When he was eight and a student in Flint, Mich., a routine test revealed his hearing handicap, and he was referred to the Michigan School for the Deaf, where speech professionals recommended therapy. For the next three years he began each school day relearning the mechanics of speech. By the sixth grade he was judged ready to reenter the mainstream. "I still have a slight lisp," he says, "and I really have to concentrate on my p's and th's and breathing and correct tongue placement."
Several sparks lit the fire of Williams's activity, for which, among other honors, he was named NFL Man of the Year for 1986 and winner of the NFL Players Association's Byron R. (Whizzer) White Humanitarian Award in 1985. "One was the professionalism and caring of those speech therapists," he says. "They created a way for me to develop my potential. Another was my third-grade teacher, who introduced me to the love of reading. And then my mom encouraged me. With reading I didn't have to hear and I didn't have to speak. Through reading I was able to compete academically with students who didn't have the same struggles."
Last month on a cold, wet Tuesday, the Bengals' weekly day off during the season, Williams shared a kiddie-sized table at the Cincinnati Speech and Hearing Center with two three-year-olds, Brittany and Phillip. The task for the day was gluing sparkles to pine cones; the goal was oral communication and language development. On the viewing side of a one-way window, Brittany's and Phillip's mothers watched and listened intently for the sounds of progress. The children, both white, were wary at first of the very large, dark stranger, but before long they were passing him the glue and inspecting his tattooed forearm; eventually, Phillip, a solemn child, even sat in Williams's lap.
Behind the glass, Sandy Jones explained that her daughter, Brittany, although not deaf, had a "serious delay in language development" as a result of ear infections and three operations. "She'll say the same thing over and over again, the same way every time, so you know she knows what she means, but you can't understand her. She gets so frustrated she's bitten herself."
Williams is a member of the center's board of trustees, and aside from his periodic sessions with the children, his self-defined tasks are to use his prominence in Cincinnati to increase the public's awareness of communication problems and the center's programs. He also works to try to close its annual budget gap. "He finds ways." says Dr. Carol Leslie, the center's director. "He's such an excellent public speaker, and invariably he talks about his own experience with hearing impairment."
The next stop on Williams's Tuesday schedule was a Ponderosa Steak House, where 87 seventh-and eighth-graders from Lafayette Bloom Middle School in Cincinnati's tough West End neighborhood were being rewarded for perfect attendance. In the two years since the program was started by Partners in Education, an alliance of the business community and the public school system, the number with perfect attendance has increased significantly. "The idea is simple," says Williams, whose involvement in the program stems from his work with Cincinnati Bell. "The kids can't learn if they aren't there."
As Williams strolled among the tables, he fielded students' questions, some of them tougher than he might have expected. "Why did you cross the picket line?" asked a small boy in a blue windbreaker. Williams, the son of a Flint factory worker, grinned and said, "The reason I crossed the picket line is because I felt very strongly about how the players were going about the strike. There were things being done that shouldn't have been. Sure, there was a lot of peer pressure, but sometimes you have to do what's right for you."
Before Williams left the restaurant he handed out NFL caps to all the kids and a dozen or so records and tapes of The Cincinnati Bengals Just Say No Song. At Williams's urging last Sept. 15, some 30 Bengals recorded the antidrug song, with wide receiver Mike Martin as lead vocalist. Proceeds from the sale of tapes and videos of the recording session go to the Just Say No Foundation, a national organization aimed at 7- to 14-year-olds.
Reggie and his wife, Marianna, have two sons, Julien, 5, and Jarren, 3½. "Sometimes when I'm talking to teenagers, I say, 'Be a role model to my kids,' " says Williams. "As a child I had very few heroes who let me down. Willie Lanier [of the Kansas City Chiefs] was one of my idols. He was the first black middle linebacker, 'the quarterback of the defense,' when I was just starting to play high school football. I wasn't very good. Academics were my forte. But in the college-prep curriculum at my high school there were very few black teachers, so I was looking for role models." Lanier, too, was named NFL Man of the Year, in 1972.
Williams's last stop of the day was at suburban Princeton High School. He arrived just as a long line of yellow buses was pulling out of the driveway. A dozen Princeton students were staying after school to join Williams in the filming of a 30-second public-service message for WCPO-TV in Cincinnati. Again the message was Just Say No, but this time Williams's objective was twofold. While the Reggie Williams Scholarship Fund has raised $100,000 since 1983 to help inner-Cincinnati high school kids get to college, lately Williams has become interested in promoting responsible leadership as a way of life to youths such as those at Princeton High. "The biggest reward is hands-on experience in meeting a need," he says. "It can be addictive."
When the filming was finished and his 10-hour day off was over, Williams sat for a moment at the wheel of his Mercedes. "I'm not St. Francis of Assisi," he said. "What I'm doing is an intense labor, but I have rewards, I have luxuries. I still get embarrassed when attention is paid to what I do, but that makes every recognition a stronger mandate for future commitment. I'm committed for life."