The Dartmouth football coaching staff discovered him in Flint, Mich., because of his academic record. But Reggie Williams built a long and distinguished career as a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals.
For Reggie Williams, it all came down to one game: the Harvard game, sophomore year. "The game was the end of a journey, and a catapult to success," says Williams. A car had hit him the previous July, damaging his knee. Recuperating, he came to a "classic fork in the road." To be successful, he realized he "needed total, maniacal focus on football," to the point of giving up the woman he loved. "I had to let her go," he says now, wistfully.
Williams rehabbed hard, but started slowly, and the Harvard game "was my first start at my [regular inside linebacker] position. Harvard was undefeated, and we were defending our [then four] straight Ivy titles," Williams remembers. "It's the only game I ever played -- high school, college, or pros -- that at the end I was totally exhausted." Dartmouth won, but more importantly for Williams, "I knew I had made it."
Yes he had. That year he helped Dartmouth to its fifth straight Ivy title and was named first team All-Ivy. He would go on to be the first African American to be named first team All-Ivy three times, and he was named first team All-American in 1975. He would also win the Jake Crouthamel Award and the Bob Blackman Trophy in successive seasons, given respectively to the junior and senior players who contributed most to the success of their teams.
The awards were fitting because they are named for long-time Dartmouth football coaches who significantly influenced Williams' collegiate career. A sophomore at Southwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, he hadn't heard of Dartmouth until a member of Blackman's staff recruited him "because of my academic record," says Williams. Crouthamel made "the best personnel decision of my athletic career" when he switched Williams from running back to linebacker freshman year.
But it was freshman coach Jerry Berndt (who in the early 1980s went on to coach Penn to three Ivy titles, including its first in 23 seasons) who might have had the greatest influence on Williams. Berndt "instilled the love of the game and the importance of having fun," he says. "He also had higher expectations for my performance" than even Williams himself, pushing him to use his talents fully.
Berndt also mentored Williams in wrestling, where he was head coach and Williams wrestled as a heavyweight, winning the Ivy championship as a junior against an undefeated Yale heavyweight who was also an offensive lineman on the football team. The match gave him extra satisfaction because "the whole Yale football team was there, including Head Coach Carm Cozza," he remembers. Williams also made first team All-Ivy as a wrestler his senior year.
Graduating with a degree in psychology in three and a half years, Williams was drafted in the third round by the Cincinnati Bengals. According to Williams it was preordained. "Mike Brown [son of legendary Bengals founder Paul Brown and now owner] went to Dartmouth, played football, class of '57," says Williams. "They give me my uniform, it's number 57. That's no coincidence."
"I felt like I was playing for the tradition of the Ivy League in the NFL," says Williams, and he served that tradition very well. Over a 14-year career, he made the NFL All-Rookie Team in 1976 and helped lead the Bengals to their only Super Bowl appearances, in 1982 and 1989. In 1987 he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as its Co-Sportsman of the Year, and Dartmouth awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1990.
Nineteen-eighty-nine also was the year that Williams ran for a seat on the Cincinnati City Council and won, having been appointed to an open seat in 1988. "I served the last two seasons I played," says Williams. "Cincinnati's a Republican city, but I ran as an independent." He began a run for Lieutenant Governor of Ohio in 1992, but "love of the game" caused him instead to join the new World League of American Football as the vice president/general manager of the New Jersey Knights.
A chance meeting in 1993 with fellow Dartmouth alum and Disney executive Mike Montgomery brought him to his current career. Through Montgomery he met then-Disney chairman Michael Eisner, who "brought me in to think about integrating sports" into Disney's recreational offerings, Williams says. The result? Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, a 200-acre cutting edge multi-sport facility that opened in 1997.
Williams says he based the project's design on Dartmouth's quads. "At Dartmouth there's an intimacy of physical space," he explains. "You had to know who you're going to school with." He wanted the same thing at Wide World of Sports -- for competitors to "develop relationships with people on other teams."
The facility has since expanded and now hosts the Atlanta Braves spring training and minor league operations, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp, and the AAU and its 30 national championships, along with a host of other athletic activities. Williams, now Vice President of Disney Sports Attractions, oversees more than 2,000 employees at the complex. He was on the cover of Black Enterprise Magazine's March 2005 issue, highlighting the "50 Most Powerful Blacks in Sports," and was also on Sports Illustrated's list of the "101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports" in May 2003.
Of the 282 Ivy Leaguers who played in the NFL, Williams and Football Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik of Penn have had -- at 14 seasons -- the longest playing careers. As a result Williams has had numerous surgeries on his knees, including total replacement, and five surgeries in the last 11 months. "I'm paying the cost for an aggressive football career," he says simply.
But, he contends, it has all been worth it.
ed. note: Bob Blackman, a College Football Hall of Famer, claimed seven Ivy titles at Dartmouth from 1956 to 1970. His 1962, 1965 and 1970 teams were undefeated. After coaching at Illinois, he returned to the Ivy League as the head coach at Cornell in 1977. His replacement, Jake Crouthamel, was an All-Ivy player for Blackman. The Big Green won three Ivy titles under Crouthamel, who was later a long-time athletic director at Syracuse University. Bengals owner Mike Brown '57 played football at Dartmouth, lettering in 1955-56. His daughter, Bengals executive Katie Blackburn '86, played ice hockey at Dartmouth.
— Stephen Eschenbach