The origins of Gregg Williams
His former players loved to hit, were uber-competitive and brash like him
He did not have any known hobbies. A former colleague thought it was strange that Gregg Williams had no release from all the pressures of the NFL. Oh, he did occasionally catch a movie. In an interview with a New Orleans magazine, Williams once said that one of his favorite films was "A Few Good Men." It made sense. Williams was, at his core, a drill sergeant in sweats.
In one of his first jobs coaching a high school football team in Belton, Mo., Williams once wrote a note to some of his seniors giving explicit instructions on when and where to get a yearbook photo taken. Let me know if you have any conflicts, Williams wrote, and below it, he added, DO NOT HAVE ANY CONFLICTS.
For years, fathers would tell their sons about how Williams changed them, how he challenged them to run faster and hit harder. There was the game against Excelsior Springs, Williams' alma mater and the school that passed on hiring him as head coach. Now, Belton was not blessed with a wealth of talent back then -- "It was scary-bad," said Jeff Davis, a former assistant under Williams -- but on the night they played Williams' former team, the Pirates were possessed. A defensive lineman sprinted 40 yards downfield and caught an Excelsior Springs running back, then hit him so hard he drove him on to the track.
That's the right stuff, Davis recalled Williams saying whenever his guys made a hustle play. That's the way the game is meant to be played. For years, he'd talk about that play and that game, which Belton somehow won.
"Before he left Belton, I knew someday he would end up at the Super Bowl, and someday, he'd win it," said Norman Larkey, a former lineman for Belton High in the mid-1980s. "It was just a gut feeling I had.
"He was so goal-oriented, so driven. He wanted the best out of each player he had."
In the high school ranks, Williams' intensity bordered on the extreme. If practice started at 3 p.m., a player had to arrive at 2:50 or he was considered late. And then he was in trouble. Williams' 8-by-8 office was meticulous and perfectly organized. But when a young man gained the coach's trust, Williams rewarded him. Larkey drove a beat-up AMC Hornet back in high school, so Williams lent the kid his car for the senior prom.
Late last week, Larkey, a battalion chief for the Kansas City fire department, was on the road when he got an email from his dad. It said that Williams, one of the master motivators of the NFL, had gone too far. After a lengthy investigation, the NFL found that Williams administered a bounty program in New Orleans that gave payouts to players who inflicted injury upon opponents.
Williams apologized, and the St. Louis Rams, his current employer, say he is cooperating with the NFL's investigation into the bounty system used by the Saints. (New Orleans coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis apologized this week, too, and took blame for the violations that "happened under our watch.")
People close to Williams, 53, describe a brash, hard-core yet likable man deeply rooted in another time. In that world, inflicting pain was a major part of the job description, and men played with broken bones and were called warriors. But in this time of concussions and brain injuries, the NFL is changing, and Williams must know that he has to change, too.
Saints Bounty Scandal
An NFL investigation found the New Orleans Saints operated a bounty system that rewarded 22 to 27 players for hard hits and for injuring opposing players. Profile »
People who talk about Williams frequently use the word "passion." He had this saying that you'd better be smart or you'd better be tough, but it was generally known on his defenses that if you weren't tough, you probably weren't going to last. His players are uber-competitive and often boastful, so it's probably no coincidence that media reports of bounties have surfaced in at least two other cities where Williams has worked, and that the NFL has broadened its investigation to Buffalo and Washington.
"You've got guys in the locker room throwing tape balls halfway across the locker room, betting $100 a tape ball," said Shawn Springs, who played under Williams in Washington. "Why do we do it? I don't know. Because we've got too much testosterone.
"The bottom line is, how do you become the best defense? You've got to play fast and physical. And the only way we knew how to play was to get the ball out, to knock people around and play football how it should be played."
Had this story been written before March 2, before the NFL investigation was released, perhaps the people of Excelsior Springs would've been more willing to talk about the native son who comes home every year for a charity golf tournament and has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for his community.
In the couple of minutes that Sam Brown will talk, he says Williams was so smart that he could've been a doctor or just about anything he wanted. Brown was only 24 years old when he coached Williams in football at Excelsior Springs, but he knew right away that Williams was special. Every position Williams played was the prominent one on the team -- point guard in basketball, pitcher in baseball, quarterback in football.
Williams married his high school sweetheart, played football and baseball at Northeast Missouri State, and was way ahead of his time when he became a high school coach. He used to enter heights, weights and conditioning numbers into a computer -- this was the mid-1980s -- to determine his best athletes. In 1987, he reached a crossroads when his wife, Leigh Ann, was offered a job in Houston. "It was one of those high-paying jobs that were nonexistent back then," Davis said. "It was the point where he didn't have to work because she had such a good job."
So the family moved to Houston, where Cougars coach Jack Pardee gave him a chance to break into college coaching as a graduate assistant. Pardee, who's a rancher in Texas now, was a tough man. He was one of the "Junction Boys" who survived Bear Bryant's grueling summer training camp at Texas A&M. Pardee once said in an interview that it wasn't unusual to lose 10 percent of his body weight in sweat after a day of workouts.
"Jack was a pretty strict person," said Craig Veasey, a former defensive tackle for the Cougars who went on to play in the NFL. "If he'd tell you to do something, you knew it could be done. So it took a special person to be around Jack.
"That goes with Gregg, too. Maybe it's learned or something. I think you really had to be a tough person mentally and physically to play around him."
Pardee moved on to the NFL in 1990 and coached the Houston Oilers, and he took Williams with him. He met Jeff Fisher and Buddy Ryan, the coach behind the infamous Bounty Bowl games between Philadelphia and Dallas in 1989. He immersed himself in film study.
"He was a guy who was eager to learn, and he learned quite a bit from Jeff Fisher," said former Titans assistant George Henshaw.
"The study of football was really his life; it's what he did all the time. I don't know that he thought about much else besides that."
Well, Williams did talk about his daughter and two sons a lot. They were his only passion outside of football. (His son, Blake, was a coaching assistant with him for three years in New Orleans). Gregg Williams' rise in the NFL was fast, and he became the Titans' defensive coordinator in 1997, and helped lead them to the Super Bowl in 1999.
In 2001, he landed his first head-coaching job with the Buffalo Bills and quickly let his team know that he meant business. At training camp that summer, Williams had his equipment manager wake the team up at 6 o'clock every morning by blasting an air-horn.
But Williams was a player's coach, even if some of the guys didn't get him. The ones who didn't were usually gone. The ones who did knew that Williams had their backs as long as they worked hard. He started to collect the kind of like personalities upon which he could build his defense. His memory was uncanny. He knew exactly what he wanted. In the spring of 2003, he brought in Denver safety Izell Reese for a free-agency visit.
"I like your toughness," Reese recalled Williams telling him. "I remember when we played you. A receiver came across the middle, you hit him, and knocked the ball loose."
Of course Reese was hooked. Under Williams, Buffalo's defense was aggressive and hard-nosed. They had Lawyer Milloy and Sam Adams and London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes. They had Pat Williams and Antoine Winfield.
By 2003, Williams had chilled out somewhat and laid off the air horn. He trusted these guys. One day, after a road game against the Jets, Reese asked Williams if a couple of guys could stay behind with their wives and spend their day off in New York. It was something the Bills never did, and they assumed he'd say no.
But Williams said yes, and that meant a lot to Reese. The Bills were one of the top defenses in the NFL that year, but all that unity couldn't help the offense, which finished 30th in the league. And after a 6-10 season, Williams was fired.
But from that job forward, he became such a sought-after coordinator that it afforded him a sort of autonomy. When he went to Washington in 2004, it was clear that the defense was his show. The Redskins' first draft pick that spring was used on Sean Taylor, a ferocious-hitting free safety from Miami who carried the nickname "Meast" -- half man, half beast.
Taylor grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Miami and was labeled a troubled kid, but Williams never saw it. He loved Taylor, who quickly became the coach's favorite player.
In a game after Taylor was murdered in 2007, Williams called a defensive play with only 10 men on the field as a tribute to him.
"Gregg just loved him because Sean was passionate," said former Redskins defensive back Shawn Springs. "He played hard and stood for everything Gregg believed in -- toughness, work ethic, intelligence."
Springs was also extremely tight with Williams. In the fall of 2007, Springs' father Ron, a former running back for the Dallas Cowboys, was lying in a Dallas hospital in a coma. Shawn Springs will always remember how Williams supported him during that time. He let him fly back to Dallas every week for a month, then gave him the game plans on Saturday nights so he could play on Sunday.
He says Williams is like a second father to him. He is adamant that the Redskins did not use a bounty system under Williams, although a recent Washington Post article citing mainly unnamed sources suggests otherwise. Springs says Williams would never intentionally try to hurt anyone.
But Springs will acknowledge that they bet on everything from tackles to turnovers, and that Williams held the money, mainly because he was the only one they trusted. It started in the monotonous days of summer, when training camp has an impossibly never-ending feel to it. It started out of masculinity and boredom. Springs said players would lay down $500 that a teammate couldn't blow up a running back, and then others wanted in on the action.
"It started with guys egging on each other, I think," Springs said. "I'm passionate about it because people keep saying this money made guys play harder. No, no, no, no. Fifteen-hundred dollars, when a guy's making $600,000 a week, is not paying his bills. Fifteen hundred isn't going to do nothing but buy their wives a purse.
"It was us joking around, being guys. I don't even know how to explain it. It comes across that Gregg was doing something bad, but to us we were just friends having fun. I mean, it was incentive among us."
But in New Orleans, according to the NFL, it was much more. Between 22 and 27 defensive players contributed money to the bounty pool, in violation of NFL rules, during the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons, which accounts for Williams' entire stay with the Saints. The NFL says the program was administered by Williams and that players received $1,500 for a "knockout" and $1,000 for a "cart-off," with the loot doubling or tripling for a playoff game.
Reese agreed to an interview this week, essentially because he works with kids these days and wanted to clear his name. Reese preaches sportsmanship, and wanted to make it clear he was not part of any bounty program in Buffalo. But there's a part of him who wants to hold off judgment on his former coach, too. Williams commands that loyalty.
Springs still talks to his former coach, who's in sort of an awkward limbo. The findings of an NFL security department investigation have been given to commissioner Roger Goodell. Williams is expected to be penalized heavily.
When asked why Williams apologized last week if he did nothing wrong, Springs said that maybe Williams did it because he was looking out for his players.
"Maybe," Springs says, "Gregg apologized because after the league said something, he should've said, 'You guys shouldn't do that.' But at the end of the day, if [Jonathan] Vilma decides to pay Darren Sharper $10,000 for blowing up a receiver across the middle, legally, he can't stop it. It's among friends."
Larkey hasn't talked to Williams in at least a year. He said Williams was the reason he played college football. Larkey is close with his own parents -- he talks to them every day -- but Williams, he said, helped him become the man he is today.
When Williams' teams used to go to Kansas City to play the Chiefs, Larkey used to take his son. His kid, who's also named Norman, thought that was cool, that Larkey was connected to an NFL coach. But now Larkey can't wrap his brain around the bounty issue. He can't believe Williams would be a part of something like that.
"I just about fell out of my chair," Larkey said. "I thought, 'Man, that wasn't him.' I know it's a totally different ballgame in the NFL, and the pressure may get to somebody. But not him. He was too even-keeled to let the pressure get to him."
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