Our Steelers Rivals interview series continues with former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams. Williams played for the Bengals from 1976-89, winning the Whizzer White NFL Man of the Year Award in 1985, the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 1986 and the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Award in 1987.
First, can you walk me through your post-NFL time? What have you been doing since you retired?
I’m in the middle of writing a book now so I can only tell you so much! I played 14 years for the Bengals and made it to two Super Bowls and lost both to the same team. When I retired, I became a Cincinnati City Councilman. I continues on that ride until I became the GM for the World League of American Football’s New Jersey Knights team. That league set the seed for football in London, but it folded after two years,
But then Tom Steague, the head of the Super Bowl, reached out to me after Super Bowl XXVII. That was right after the Rodney King riots. They hired me as the Director of Community Relations to help insulate the NFL from the criticism of the the white NFL owners coming in to the city leaving nothing behind when the game was over. I had the idea of creating the NFL Youth Education Trust, which was a safe place for at-risk kids in Compton. It was going to be in the same corner where the riots actually started, I went with Jim Brown and to negotiate the idea with the Bloods and Crips there,
We had success raising money for the venture when I was in a room and Michael Eisner from Disney came up to me and asked what I would do with all of that land Disney had to create a sports business with Disney. This is when they just bought the Mighty Ducks. That’s when I became the Director of Sports Development for Disney and we launched Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, the Walt Disney World Speedway, and Walt Disney World Golf.
I also read you’e had a number of physical issues you are dealing with?
Well, I’m on my fourth knee replacement. With all that good news is the other realities as well. I’ve had over 28 operations – including an aorta dissection and embolization.
What are some of the rivalry memories of your playing time that stand out most to you?
Well, let me start by telling you this. Earl Campbell in an interview said that the toughest guy he faced – the hardest hitter – was me. The announcer asked him if the toughest guys were the Steel Curtain, and said it was me. That was the greatest compliment I’ve had.
That was someone who played against all of those Hall of Fame Steelers, someone on the field who knew what it was like. Guys like me and Ken Riley, we were so underrated. I had more sacks and interceptions than Robert Brazille but he’s the one voted into the Hall of Fame.
As for stories, I think it starts with this. When I was a rookie in 1976, Three Rivers Stadium was the hallmark of stadiums. This was before the Terrible Towel was official, but everybody had their own homemade towels and brought in their own banners, a different club for different players all throughout the stands. The roars when players were announce and the banners whipping in the wind, making those snapping sounds like a whip. This was the home of world champions.
That was my first game in Pittsburgh. As a rookie I had one of my all-time plays. I blitzed Terry Bradshaw and Rocky Bleier was there standing, waiting to block me. But he never faced me before. I was much bigger and taller than he was. I had all the respect in the world for Rocky — a Vietnam vet who had those huge injuries in the war. I just couldn’t put my elbow to his chest and run trough him, So, I jumped over him. I did a 360 degree jump over him and landed on my leg as my teammate Bo Harris was closing in on Bradshaw. I helped cement the sack. People were shocked. No one had seen that before. I’ve never seen it before or since then.
How did the coaches get along?
Oh one good story — this was the year Noll broke his arm right the day before the game against us. This was in 1977. It was the coldest game in Bengals’ history at the time.
When Noll got off the bus the day before the game, he slipped on the ice and fell and broke his arm. They had to rush him to the hospital. This was the night before the game. The next day was game day, and that morning our head coach, Bill “Tiger” Johnson did something he had never done before. The stadium was shaped in such a way that the sunlight warmed one side of the stadium and the shade hit the other side — normally our side. But he decided to switch sides so we had the sunlight. It was like a 20 degree difference.
Well when Noll came onto the field before the game and found out he was pissed – he was cursing up a storm. I was out on the field running laps counter-clockwise, like I usually do. Then I see Bill come out and Noll starts running up to him, screaming at him. Then George Perles steps between them and starts yelling too, and all of the Steel Curtain guys are right behind him. So Tiger is surrounded by all of these guys – it looked like he was going to get the crap beat out of him! So I ran into the group and just yelled in Perles’ face: “Let’s just play the game now!”
Everyone was shocked! It was such a ludicrous moment. Tiger just walked away and that was that.
What happened afterwards?
Well, the first series for our defense, I recovered a fumble in the bottom of a huge pileup. It took a long time for everyone to get off of the pile. and by the time everyone did the Steelers’ defense was on the field. I got up and tossed the ball nonchalantly to Joe Greene and took off to the sideline. Well, he wound up and fired the ball at me – it was a perfect throw that hit me in the back of the helmet and bounced in the air – probably 20 yards away! He got flagged for it. I’m surprised I didn’t get a concussion!
And you tossed the ball to him because?
Oh I admit it – I did it to taunt him. We won the game by seven points and scored a touchdown that drive – so that seven points was a deciding factor in the game.
It’s funny because at Super Bowl LII, I had a chance to really speak with and get to know Joe. All of the Walter Payton Man of the Year winners were invited and he and I talked for a while. He was really concerned about my knee – very friendly and respectful.
Any guys you faced on those Steelers teams that were the biggest personal rivals for you?
Franco Harris was the person for me. He was taller on the field than he looks. One Monday Night game at Three Rivers. Franco ran through a gaping hole on a draw play up the middle. I had dropped into a zone and saw him running, so I ran at him like a missile and thought I had him dead to rights. But he did a little twist and turn and I missed him but ran into Jim LeClair who was running behind him. We were both knocked out.
When I came to I thought Franco had run me over. I was laying on the field and half of my body wouldn’t move and the other as in pain. But all I kept thinking was that I would never have the chance to hit Franco again! The doctor then told me had to check on the other player. Soon after I was able to get up. But it was funny that all I thought of was not being able to hit Franco again. Jimmy told me that was the hardest he was ever hit.
Was that the hardest you were hit?
The second hardest.
When we played we had this stupid vet rule that said you could never let a rookie score standing up. I’m not sure where this rule started from. Well, we were playing Houston and they were on our one yard line and Alonzo Highsmith was carrying the ball and had a big fullback blocking for him. We knew there was no way we could stop them from scoring but I at least wanted to get him on the ground. I had to drive the fullback into Highsmith. I did it but ended up breaking my orbital bone an had to get rushed to the hospital.
What do you think made the rivalry so great between the Bengals and Steelers then?
It was such a good rivalry. We used to say that when it was Steelers week, nothing before it mattered any more. I think it all came from Paul Brown and his rivalry with the Steelers when he was in Cleveland. He was angry when he was fired from Cleveland and brought that anger to Cincinnati. He looked at that Steelers game as one that we had to boost up our intensity to prove ourselves.
I spoke to Tony McGee who said you were one of the most intense Bengals on those teams. What made you such an intense player?
I was a psych major at Dartmouth. My senior essay was on what it would take for me to make it in the NFL as an Ivy League linebacker. I knew it wasn’t just about physical size. I wasn’t as big as many guys. It was about psychological issues, too. The reality is, a lot of the teams I faced had players who were on steroids. As an opponent, I took umbrage against those guys. I tried to match up to those guys psychologically to match their strength.
This was the era when you could clothesline people, hit them low or high. You had to be a warrior. When I got there as a rookie, the strength coach I ended up having with me throughout my career gave me a book instead of having me work out on my first day. That book was The Book of Five Rings – the Way of the Warrior. I approached the game that way, as a Samurai warrior.
Lastly – what do you think of the rivalry between the two teams today?
It’s gotten nasty, unfortunately. I think a lot of the blame is on the Bengals, but I also think the hit on Carson Palmer was dirty. I think [Kimo von Oelhoffen] could have let up and made the play without having to make that kind of hit. It’s unfortunate when you have your star quarterback hurt like that, and he was never the same after that.
I think during my time it was a good rivalry. It was clean but intense. Not what it’s become lately. I think now you have a dwindling fan base that is trying to find satisfaction by being antagonistic to rivals. If it were me I’d get rid of the “Who Dey.” Who dey now is everybody on the Bengals! The reality is, you have to win. And that’s something the Bengals haven’t done lately. That’s all there is to it.