SUPER POLL 50 | 44: Reggie Williams found purpose in the pain of NFL career

Our series on the 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 44 Reggie Williams, originally published on Jan. 11.

Reggie Williams played in two Super Bowls and is one of the most decorated players in Cincinnati Bengals history. Yet those accomplishments pale in comparison to his work outside of football and his recent personal struggles.

Williams has undergone two dozen surgeries since his football career ended, most of them since 2007. He was unable to walk for a time, the result of neglect to his battered knees. He has had three right knee replacements and one to his left knee. He has had numerous knee and bone infections.

44-Reggie-WilliamsIn October 2014, while rehabilitating from knee surgeries and working toward being able to walk and even run again, Williams suffered an aortic tear and underwent open-heart surgery.

“My scars teach me humongous passion for this gift of life we all share,” Williams was quoted in an Orlando Sentinel story in November 2014.

It’s a jarring turn for one of the most accomplished players in Bengals’ history. He was a third-round draft choice in 1976 out of Dartmouth, where he was a three-time All-Ivy League linebacker and conference heavyweight championship wrestler.

Williams finished his career with 62.5 sacks, second in franchise history, and played in 206 games from 1976-89.

He is one of six Bengals to play in both of the team’s Super Bowls. Cincy lost to San Francisco both times.

In Super Bowl XVI in the Pontiac Silverdome, the Bengals’ normally efficient offense committed four turnovers, three in the first half as they fell behind 20-0 at halftime. Cincinnati rallied in the second half, but the Niners, behind coach Bill Walsh and developing quarterback Joe Montana, kept the Bengals at arm’s length and won, 26-21.

“We didn’t know what to expect from them offensively because of Walsh, especially with two weeks to prepare for us,” Williams said in a Washington Post story. “They just ran the ball better than we anticipated.”

Super Bowl XXIII is famous for the Niners’ 92-yard game-winning drive, on which Montana hit John Taylor for a touchdown with 34 seconds left and a 20-16 win. But the game was fierce as both defenses limited the other’s powerful offense, until the end. Williams finished with nine tackles and a sack.

The Bengals also dealt with some adversity, as fullback Stanley Wilson had a cocaine relapse on the eve of the game and didn’t play, and nose tackle Tim Krumrie suffered a gruesome broken leg early in the game.

Williams recalled the Niners’ scoring drive in a Cincinnati Magazine oral history of the ’88 season in Sept. 2014: “Dick LeBeau (defensive coordinator) opted for our only defensive set that I wasn’t in. Tim Krumrie was long gone. There were now no defensive captains to reinforce the focus of every player’s role each and every huddle. The clock seemed to be taking one tick forward and two tocks back. It was a slow-motion nightmare to watch the inevitable unfold.”

Devastating as the loss was, Williams’ life wasn’t defined by football. He earned the NFL Players Association’s Byron “Whizzer” White Award for Humanitarian Service in 1985. He was named NFL Man of the Year in 1986 and Sports Illustrated Co-Sportsman of the Year in 1987, for his charitable work and public stances on social and political issues such as apartheid. He also served as a Cincinnati city councilman in the late ’80s, influencing the city to divest stock in its pension fund from companies that did business in South Africa.

After retirement, Williams worked for the NFL for a time and conceived and opened the league’s first Youth Education Town in Los Angeles. He oversaw the creation of Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, and was Vice President of Disney Sports Attractions until 2007, when he stepped down to focus on his health.

“I’ve made a quantum leap away from all the anger that was boiling inside of me,” Williams said in a July 2014 story in the Cincinnati Enquirer. “There’s a purpose for this pain. Telling the story of meeting this type of challenge helps lots of people seeking answers for their own multiple challenges.”


Above: Reggie Williams, one of the most decorated players in Cincinnati Bengals history, was a three-time All-Ivy League linebacker and conference heavyweight championship wrestler at Dartmouth. (Courtesy Dartmouth Athletics)
Dave Fairbank

Dave Fairbank

Dave Fairbank is a freelance writer based in Kill Devil Hills, N.C.