FORMER CARVER High School and U.S. Olympic track and field star BernardWilliams apologized Thursday about his posing, preening and flexing during the400-meter relay team's gold medal celebration in Sydney last week, and said heis ready to move on with the rest of his life.
Let me be one of the first to accept it and root for him in the 100 metersat the 2004 Summers Games in Athens, which could earn him the title as thefastest man in the world.
In case you missed it, Williams and three other members of the sprint team- Jon Drummond, Brian Lewis and Maurice Greene - put on a 20-minutecelebration that might have been a hit at the Apollo Theater in New York or atany NFL stadium in America, but was deemed socially unacceptable in front of105,448 fans at Olympic Stadium and a worldwide television audience.
Actually, the first minute was pretty funny. Admit it, we all laughed. Butthen it turned into a bad scene, with the American flag used as a head wrapand the constant eyebrow raising and mugging for the cameras.
It was embarrassing, at times deplorable, but a forgivable act for a22-year-old caught up in emotions after the race of his life. But Williams hitthe hurdle and now seems to have recovered for what could be a strong finishat the end of his career.
After spending a second day at his mother's townhouse in West Baltimoreyesterday, he has seen the impact he can have on young people. He hasn'treceived any hate mail or nasty phone calls, just congratulations andadulation from neighbors, friends and families.
He has been the guest speaker at a neighborhood nursing home, a boys andgirls club, and today will speak at his former high school.
Williams said he sees a light in others' eyes that he has never seenbefore.
"I've sat back and realized that other people don't understand certainpeople, and not everybody is going to like what you do or understand what youdo," said Williams. "I apologize to anyone that was offended because I meantno harm. None of us meant any harm. We were just four guys out therecelebrating, having a good time and getting a gold medal.
"To be honest, I would do it again, because it was something I couldn'tcontrol. But I wouldn't take it to the extreme," said Williams. "I would cutit off because I know now to stop it. It was a tough lesson to learn. I neverknew how many people were inspired by me until I got home. I found that outimmediately after I got off the plane."
An elderly lady greeted Williams, and said he was her inspiration.Strangers on the street have walked up and shaken his hand. He rolled down thewindow and held conversations with neighbors as he rode to the barbershop.
The phone keeps ringing.
"This is a new experience," said Williams, who hinted there were somenegotiations under way for possible endorsement deals. "I've had family andfriends, people who grew up with me, congratulate me, but now it's people Idon't even know. People are telling me that I'm an inspiration in their life,and I didn't realize I could inspire people just by doing my job.
"I thought people would be down on me," he said. "But I think winning thegold medal is sending out a positive message that Baltimore City is not allbad, that any of us can shine the light to the outside world. It shows that wehave decent people in our neighborhoods as opposed to the stereotypes theyshow on TV all the time of inner-city kids."
It's hard to boo Williams. Let's take a walk in his shoes. Be careful.
He remembers growing up near problem areas such as Lexington Terrace,Murphy Homes and drug-infested corners on Fulton Avenue and Monroe Street, andCarey Street and Edmondson Avenue.
"I have a lot of friends, cousins and family members incarcerated," saidWilliams. "That happened later in life when I would call home and ask my momhow certain people were doing and she said he's in jail. I'm like, darn,another one. Me, I stayed clean."
That's because father figures such as Anthony Watkins, Eric Howard and JohnTabor latched onto Williams and kept him focused on sports.
But let's fast-forward to the present. As Williams sat in his living roomyesterday morning around noon, two young men of similar age sat on a parkbench at Wellington and Carrollton Streets drinking out of a brown bag. Cityemployees worked to clean up bags of trash in the alley, and cut grass andweeds that were knee high.
There are more package goods stores in the area than grocery stores, and alot of adult males walk the street who are either unemployed or simply don'twant to work. Across the street from Williams' home, several rowhouses areboarded up.
Williams has already put his gold medal in a safe deposit box.
"You would like to show it off, but you can't show it to everybody," hesaid.
Williams has an associate's degree in sports management and is threesemesters short of earning a bachelor's degree in sociology. Next week heplans to fly to the University of Florida to see if he can transfer hiscredits to UCLA so he can work under new coach John Smith, considered by manyto be the best sprinting technician on the planet.
Williams is already one of the favorites to win gold in the 100 in the nextSummer Games, and showed the strong work ethic needed this summer by spendingseven weeks in Europe proving he deserved to be on the relay team.
He should be in his prime for the next Olympics and the 2000 celebration athing of the past.
The kid deserves a break.
"The crowd kept cheering us," said Williams, "so we kept giving them more.If they had booed us, we would have stopped. One hundred and ten thousandpeople booing you gets your attention, but they didn't boo. We even grabbedthe Australian flag and ran 50 meters and they cheered wildly. But that wholeepisode brought us a lot of unwanted attention.
"I wished I would have stopped," said Williams. "There's a professional wayto behave and a time for everything. I'm glad I learned this early in mycareer, because if I learned it later, it might have been too much to recoverfrom.
"As you get a little older, you gain a certain maturity, a certain wisdom.Then those questions come up, why did I do that? I know why. At the time, itjust seemed the thing to do. But it shouldn't have lasted that long."