The Last Return

After running back kicks in the NFL, Travis Williams ran into homelessness and a tragic ending
March 11, 1991

Travis Williams could usually be found standing along Macdonald Avenue—you could just never be sure where. He might be in front of Noah's Ark Gospel Chateau smoking a cigarette, or the Pentecostal Prayer and Deliverance Center sipping from a bottle, or outside the Richmond Rescue Mission lining up for a hot meal.

This was the many-fingered hand of God, in whose palmy grip lay the blighted remains of downtown Richmond, Calif., a procession of storefront churches and gutted buildings arrayed along a once grand boulevard that now leads nowhere.

The many-fingered hand often beckoned Williams to come inside, but he preferred to remain on the street, standing in the need of prayer. Williams was the perpetual outsider, often because of circumstances he could never seem to control. Following a five-year NFL career during which he helped lead the Green Bay Packers to victory in Super Bowl II and twice led the league in kick returns, Williams got caught in a downward spiral of financial setbacks and personal tragedies that caused him to become homeless for nearly three years. Even after his children persuaded him in 1988 to move back into the house in which he had grown up, Williams said he never felt more than a step or two away from the street. "I don't feel that's all behind me yet," he said one day in December while sitting in the small, dilapidated wood-frame house.

On Jan. 14 he turned 45 and became eligible for a $300 monthly stipend from the NFL Players Association pension fund. Williams had not had a regular income since 1989; he earned pocket money by hauling trash, collecting cans for the nickel deposits and helping people move. In the last year he had suffered from gout, which caused his ankles to swell so badly that even walking was difficult. When the NFL pension became available, Williams took it, even though he would have gotten as much as $580 a month if he had waited another 10 years. "I ain't waiting until 55," he once said, "not the way we're dropping off these days."

He was referring to his friends among the homeless, 17 of whom had died within the past year. Williams often allowed his homeless friends to sleep on one of the broken-springed sofas in his living room whenever the weather in the Bay Area turned cold, perhaps because homelessness is not a condition you can leave behind simply by finding a roof. "People either make it out of homelessness, or they die trying," says Susan Prather, an advocate for the homeless who had befriended Williams. "Travis had come a long way."

A month after Williams filed for his pension, his body began to shut down, one organ after another. On Feb. 15 he was admitted to Merrithew Memorial Hospital, and two days later he died. "He was terrified of the hospital," says Prather. He saw no point in taking chances.

"It ain't much of a hospital," Williams would say, "and I'm not in the best of health." Williams did not have a casual attitude about death. He couldn't afford to; it was what had driven him to the streets. In many ways the death he had chosen for himself was a direct result of the life he had not chosen.

Six years ago his wife had died of a drug overdose in a hospital emergency room, and six months after that his mother died during colon-cancer surgery, which Travis had persuaded her to have. Two deaths in one year, and it was not over. "Then my sister moved here from San Bernardino to help me out with the kids," said Williams, "and she wasn't here a year when she died. She was my baby sister, and her whole insides just collapsed. She drinked a lot. Then my best friend, Harold, he died six months after that.

"It seemed like it was a curse, like I was plagued with some kind of bad luck. Every time I told one of them to go to the hospital for some simple operation, they never came back. Not a one. Last summer I had a girlfriend, and she developed spinal cancer. She said, 'Travis, you know how your record is taking people to the hospital, so I believe I'll just take myself.' But she never came back either."

Like most homeless people, Williams did not simply walk out of his house one day and take up a life in the streets because he enjoyed being outdoors. His descent from foreclosure to flophouse was the result of a long, agonizing run of misfortune and bad judgment. "It's bad breaks, bad deals, and one day you wake up sleeping in your car," he said.

Other than a dollar bill that was found in his shoe, Williams was penniless when he died. He had spent some time living in the backseat of a car—perhaps as much as two years; it was a subject about which he was understandably vague—and he never cared much for it. "Living in a car is uncomfortable, embarrassing and depressing," he said, "but you learn how to deal with it."

His children tried to get him to move in with them when they found him in 1985, but Williams refused to consider their offer. "I didn't want my family to see me like that," he said, "down and out. Besides, I'm supposed to be the one to take care of them. They aren't supposed to take care of me."

When his bouts of depression became bottomless, so did his drinking. "A six-pack of beer turned into a case," he said. "A bottle of wine became two bottles, then more. I was out on the streets, acting a fool. In the morning I'd be to the liquor store and meet the man when he opened up at 6 a.m., then I'd drink to ease the pain. I wanted to pass out as fast as I could."

Sometimes Williams would go to a vacant lot on a side street in Richmond and curl up under "the log," a 50-foot piece of timber used by the homeless for whatever shelter it provided. "I'd go down there and split a bottle of wine with somebody," said Williams. He would stand there for hours, hands in his pockets, except when he was trying to panhandle change for cigarettes. When night fell on this ragged encampment, you could see only the outline of figures pitching back and forth in the dark, like driftwood churning on the surface of a great sea.

Williams had to run a bureaucratic gantlet to receive the few benefits the system had to offer him. On his regular odyssey across town to fight through the red tape, he passed between the two vastly different worlds that exist side by side in Contra Costa County. It is the second-richest county in California, but until last year it didn't have a single government-subsidized shelter for the homeless. The county once insisted that to qualify for general assistance funds, Williams and other homeless people had to provide an address where they could receive their checks. When the county created a homeless hotline to find people beds, it made the number unlisted so it wouldn't be swamped with calls.

In 1988, Williams worked as a security guard at a Richmond soup kitchen sponsored by the Volunteers of America, eating there regularly and making sure none of the guests went through the line twice. Just behind the soup kitchen is a complex of 12 apartments that was designed as transitional housing for single homeless men who are working and have no drug or alcohol problems—a group so small that the apartments usually sit empty. Down the block from the center is a storefront blood bank where people sell their blood twice a week—the maximum allowed—for $6.50 a pint, just about the price of a bottle of fortified wine.

No matter where he was, though—at a soup kitchen or inside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., where he was once arrested for staging a sit-in demonstration in the office of California senator Alan Cranston to protest cuts in federal housing programs for the poor—when people heard Williams's name someone invariably smiled and asked, "Is that the Road-runner?" It was. "They still call mc that," Williams said, "the people who still remember."

No one who saw the Roadrunner in full flight in 1967, the Packers' last championship season, will forget him. On Oct. 30, in what was the first NFL game in which he had returned a kickoff, Williams went straight up the middle for 93 yards and a touchdown against the St. Louis Cardinals. When Green Bay faced the Cleveland Browns later that year, Williams ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns in the first quarter.

"All Travis needed was just a little bit of space," says Herb Adderley, the Packers' Hall of Fame cornerback, who was a teammate. "After two or three steps he was in full flight, and he had psychic peripheral vision. He would see cracks, and by the time guys coming straight down-field could turn and chase, it was already too late."

As a rookie in '67, Williams averaged 41.1 yards per return, still the NFL record for a season. "That was midfield every time I touched the ball," he said. "The funny thing about being known for those kick returns is that I only ran back 18 that year. They started kicking the ball away from me."

Williams had set the national junior college record for the 100-yard dash when he ran a 9.3 at Contra Costa College, but it wasn't until his freshman season there that he ever carried a football. He played running back for two years at Arizona State, and Green Bay took him in the fourth round of the '67 draft. While playing in front of Packer coach Vince Lombardi during preseason camp, Williams became so nervous that he began dropping the ball. "I remember Lombardi taping up the football and putting a handle on it for Travis," says Adderley.

Lombardi told Williams he wanted him to keep the ball with him at all times, even when he was sleeping. "Lombardi had a lot of hard bark on him," Williams said, "but I was his boy—his secret weapon, so to speak."

Williams returned four kicks for touchdowns that year, the first time anyone in the league had ever done that. "He turned several games around for us and was one of the factors that took us to the championship," says Jim Grabowski, a fullback on that team.

In a playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams, Williams scored two TDs from scrimmage, one a 46-yard dash off tackle. The high point of his life came a few weeks later, when he reached what for him would turn out to be middle age. On Jan. 14, 1968, the Packers beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II. It was his 22nd birthday.

Twelve years later Williams's career had ended, his money and his house were gone. Even the ring he earned playing for the Super Bowl champions had been stolen. All that remained were his five NFL records and a nickname that had become ironic. The Roadrunner could outrun everything but trouble. Green Bay traded him to Los Angeles in 1971, where he managed one last hurrah—a 105-yard return for a TD against the New Orleans Saints—before blowing out his knee the following preseason.

"In 1967 I figured the money would last forever," Williams said. "Everybody thought I was rich, and so did I."

He never made more than $28,000 a season playing for the Packers; $35,000 while playing for the Rams. Travis and his wife, Arie, spent the spring following his rookie year squiring themselves up and down the California coastline in a 1951 Jaguar he had bought. "It didn't take a lot for us to live like the president," he said. "We'd rent two adjoining rooms—great big rooms—put the kids in the other room and have a time. We'd drive up and down the freeway and stop for a few days at a hotel and just enjoy ourselves."

Williams spent two years, 1972 and '73, trying to get back into football. During that time he went through what little savings he had, attempting to support a family that now included eight children. "The money was going real fast, even though we didn't live like kings and queens," Williams said. "Maybe I was looking for something to come when I should have gone out and gotten it. I hated standing on the street corner, broke and trying to be cool."

Desperate for a way off the corner, he took what was to become the first of many jobs as a security guard, this one with the Richmond school district. One by one, Williams sold the five cars he had parked outside his three-bedroom house at the corner of 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Richmond. It was too late, however. The weight of his debts was far too crushing.

"It was like, boom, there go the cars, then boom, there went the house," he said, recalling his eviction in 1977. "That was one of the baddest things that ever happened to me. It was a long time before I could even look at that house again. The thing that took a lot out of me was that I could have paid for the house when I bought it. But I thought I'd play ball forever, so I only put a down payment on it.

"When we lost the house, we had to get out in a hurry. People were saying, 'What are you doing with all that money?' and I had nothing. I wanted the public to believe I sold the house, when in fact we lost it. So we moved to Hunter's Point in San Francisco. It was the projects, the ghetto, but it allowed me to get away from the neighborhood for about a year. It was a little bit embarrassing and a lot of stress. Being a Green Bay Packer player was supposed to make you somebody special. I couldn't bear to have people say, 'You just blew your money.' "

He dreamed of opening a restaurant "with a big Packer hat outside to get some of that sports trade," but he never had enough money to get it started. "I had real big plans," he said. "I always felt something good was going to happen, maybe tomorrow."

He drifted into work as a bouncer at a flophouse in downtown Richmond called the Bonds Hotel, where he also lived in a six-by eight-foot room for $50 a week. "If you were looking for trouble by the half pound, or the full pound retail," Williams said, "that was really the place to be."

What was it Adderley said about psychic peripheral vision? Williams never had it in real life. In 1979 he broke the jaw of a man he found with Arie. "He was someplace he shouldn't have been," said Williams, "and she was someplace she shouldn't have been." Williams was convicted of felony battery and was sentenced to a year in the county jail. Not long after he was incarcerated, Arie killed a man while driving drunk and was sent to the same jail for a year. More than the loss of his home, that marked the beginning of the dissolution of his family. The children were divided between the two sets of grandparents.

When Williams was released, the only job he could get was as a security guard at the liquor store where he was already spending most of his money. Jail didn't improve his relationship with Arie, from whom he separated a few months later, after he had moved the family frantically from apartment to apartment. "When I moved out, the devil moved in," Williams said. "She was disappearing to Oakland for two or three weeks at a time. My kids had to listen to people tell them their mama was nothing but a dopehead."

Now living alone, Williams denied himself none of the pleasure poisons the street had to offer—smoking, drinking and eating all the wrong foods. His teeth had been rotting for years, and last June one of them finally broke apart so deep below the gumline that it cut an artery. "They almost lost me on that one," he said. "I didn't want to go to the hospital, but I was spitting out blood by the mouthful. My teeth had gotten so bad over the years they were poisoning me. I'd have a toothache every other day. I was in the hospital for a week, so I said, 'As long as you're in there, take 'em all out.' " He was still waiting for the county to fit him with a set of new teeth when he died.

He had "come inside" in 1988, at last heeding his children's requests. He moved into his deceased parents' old house with his youngest sons, Dennis, 25, and Malcolm, 16. "This is the fortress here," said Travis.

He spent most of his time watching television, particularly the old NFL Films highlight shows on cable. "I like being out there on the street, not being what's happening, but close to it," he said. "Then I come home."

The cause of death was listed as heart failure. No one who knew him well really believed that. His heart was one of the few things that could never fail him. Five hundred people came to the services for Williams at the St. John Baptist Church. The NFL did send a representative, but none of the Packers he had played with attended, though the team did send former linebacker Gary Weaver.

It didn't really matter, though. Williams had found contentment in his new life working with Prather as an advocate for the homeless—he took part in several demonstrations in the Richmond area—and, for the first time since his playing days, he thought of himself as someone who had accomplished something worthwhile. Williams wanted to be a role model for homeless people, to prove that it was possible to make it off the streets. Shortly before he died, he said, "A fella called the Preacher once told me, 'People respect you, they like you, you're like a magnet.' People put their trust in me, and I help them with their problems. It's better for me now in some ways. I know what it's like to be down, so the only way for me is up." The field is all in front of him now, and the Roadrunner is just gathering speed.

PHOTOJON MCNALLY/CONTRA COSTA TIMES PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTSThe Roadrunner averaged an NFL record 41.1 yards per kick return for the Packers in 1967.
PHOTOCRAIG LEE/SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINERIn 1988 Williams took the last of his many jobs, as a security guard at a soup kitchen. PHOTOANDY FREEBERGIn December, Prather said Williams "had come a long way." PHOTOBOB SIBILIANo one from the Green Bay teams Williams played for attended his funeral last month.
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