The football comes down out of the sky to the little man who waits, alone and vulnerable while a tidal wave of angry humanity flows toward him. In the world of games men play for pay, there may be no position that requires more courage than that of football’s punt returner. And nobody on either side of the 49th parallel has ever done it better than Henry (The Gizmo) Williams. But if you equate what he does for a living with pressure, then you don’t know where Gizmo Williams has been or, even more terrifying, where he is going.
Pressure is waking up in the morning and in those first few moments after your eyes flutter open, taking stock, listening to your body. Any tingling? Any numbness? Vision clear? Not dizzy? “To this point I have no symptoms, none.” See, Williams comes from a family that has been virtually wiped out by multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system. It took his mother first, back in 1969, then started in on the kids. Since then it has claimed seven of his 10 brothers and sisters. One brother was shot to death in Memphis, the Williams family’s hometown. Another sister died of a drug overdose in California. “There are certain stages that you watch for,” he said. “Loss of balance and dizziness, blurred vision, then comes the wheelchair, next comes the loss of your voice and then you are confined to your bed. “Nobody in my family has lived beyond the age of 35.” Gizmo is 58. There is not an ounce of self-pity or `Why me?’ in his voice as he recounts this tragic saga. “People ask me if I worry about it,” he said. “I never worry about something I can’t control. I believe in God. I was scared for my kids (Marcus, 7; Henry, Jr., 12), but they’ve both tested negative for the muscle disease. “It’s still wiping out people in my family. I had two nieces die from it a couple of weeks ago.” Henry was six that Christmas of 1969 when his mom died. A year later, again at Christmas, his father was killed in a house fire. An older brother, Edgar, kept the family together after the parents were gone, earning Henry’s everlasting admiration. “People ask me about heroes and they’re thinking I’m going to say Tony Dorsett or Herschel Walker. My brother Edgar was my hero.” But M.S. claimed Edgar in due time and the kids went on to live with a favored aunt who stepped in to keep what was left of the Williams family together and out of the welfare system. “When you’re a kid, you don’t realize you’re poor,” marveled Williams. “You’ve got some food and a place to sleep, you don’t really think about the rest. Now I go back there and see other kids in such poor conditions and I have a hard time with it. “I just wish the people in my family could have been around to realize my dream which was to live in a house where everybody had their own room, their own space. Sometimes I walk around my own house and just thinking about that brings tears to my eyes.”
Football was Henry’s way out. It was in his first year as a professional, back in 1983 with the Memphis Showboats, that an imaginative lineman named Reggie White — yes, that Reggie White — sized Henry Williams up, watched him play a little and dubbed him `Gizmo.’ “When somebody that big wants to give me a name, hey, he can call me anything he likes,” said Williams. The name stuck. Given all he has been through and all he might face one day, Gizmo Williams could be forgiven if he was cynical and sullen. He is none of that. Exactly the opposite.
Williams has returned 1,002 punts for 11,134 yards and 26 touchdowns and 333 kickoffs for 7,291-yards and two TDs. Both are CFL records. The five-foot-eight, 185-pound dynamo has also returned 58 missed field goals for 1,612 yards and three touchdowns. Williams has amassed 23,787 all-purpose yards, second only to Mike (Pinball) Clemons’ 25,438 in CFL history. Williams has also caught 199 career passes for 3,644 yards and 21 touchdowns. Williams played on two Grey Cup-championship teams in Edmonton (1987-’93) and was a five-time league all-star. Williams has also been very active in the community, receiving the 1988-89 Eskimo Community Service awards for those efforts. Renowned as one of pro football’s most electrifying players, Edmonton Eskimos kick returner Henry “The Gizmo” Williams is the most prolific kick returner in CFL history. However, it is his exceptional character, in addition to his outstanding athletic ability, which have made him the remarkable fan favorite he is throughout Canada. Twenty-four times in his 10 years in the CFL, he has gathered in a punt, faced that wall of humanity and somehow found the door that leads to the end zone. It’s a gift. An art, really. Performed by a man with the broadest shoulders I can imagine.