October 7, 2000
FORMER CARVER High School and U.S. Olympic track and field star Bernard
Williams apologized Thursday about his posing, preening and flexing during the
400-meter relay team's gold medal celebration in Sydney last week, and said he
is 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 meters at the 2004 Summers Games in Athens, which could earn him the title as the fastest 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-minute celebration that might have been a hit at the Apollo Theater in New York or at any NFL stadium in America, but was deemed socially unacceptable in front of 105,448 fans at Olympic Stadium and a worldwide television audience.
Actually, the first minute was pretty funny. Admit it, we all laughed. But then it turned into a bad scene, with the American flag used as a head wrap and the constant eyebrow raising and mugging for the cameras.
It was embarrassing, at times deplorable, but a forgivable act for a 22-year-old caught up in emotions after the race of his life. But Williams hit the hurdle and now seems to have recovered for what could be a strong finish at the end of his career.
After spending a second day at his mother's townhouse in West Baltimore yesterday, he has seen the impact he can have on young people. He hasn't received any hate mail or nasty phone calls, just congratulations and adulation from neighbors, friends and families.
He has been the guest speaker at a neighborhood nursing home, a boys and girls club, and today will speak at his former high school.
Williams said he sees a light in others' eyes that he has never seen before.
"I've sat back and realized that other people don't understand certain people, and not everybody is going to like what you do or understand what you do," said Williams. "I apologize to anyone that was offended because I meant no harm. None of us meant any harm. We were just four guys out there celebrating, having a good time and getting a gold medal.
"To be honest, I would do it again, because it was something I couldn't control. But I wouldn't take it to the extreme," said Williams. "I would cut it off because I know now to stop it. It was a tough lesson to learn. I never knew how many people were inspired by me until I got home. I found that out immediately 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 the window 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 some negotiations under way for possible endorsement deals. "I've had family and friends, people who grew up with me, congratulate me, but now it's people I don'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 the gold medal is sending out a positive message that Baltimore City is not all bad, that any of us can shine the light to the outside world. It shows that we have decent people in our neighborhoods as opposed to the stereotypes they show 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, and Carey Street and Edmondson Avenue.
"I have a lot of friends, cousins and family members incarcerated," said Williams. "That happened later in life when I would call home and ask my mom how 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 John Tabor latched onto Williams and kept him focused on sports.
But let's fast-forward to the present. As Williams sat in his living room yesterday morning around noon, two young men of similar age sat on a park bench at Wellington and Carrollton Streets drinking out of a brown bag. City employees worked to clean up bags of trash in the alley, and cut grass and weeds that were knee high.
There are more package goods stores in the area than grocery stores, and a lot of adult males walk the street who are either unemployed or simply don't want to work. Across the street from Williams' home, several rowhouses are boarded 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," he said.
Williams has an associate's degree in sports management and is three semesters short of earning a bachelor's degree in sociology. Next week he plans to fly to the University of Florida to see if he can transfer his credits to UCLA so he can work under new coach John Smith, considered by many to be the best sprinting technician on the planet.
Williams is already one of the favorites to win gold in the 100 in the next Summer Games, and showed the strong work ethic needed this summer by spending seven 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 a thing 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 thousand people booing you gets your attention, but they didn't boo. We even grabbed the Australian flag and ran 50 meters and they cheered wildly. But that whole episode brought us a lot of unwanted attention.
"I wished I would have stopped," said Williams. "There's a professional way to behave and a time for everything. I'm glad I learned this early in my career, because if I learned it later, it might have been too much to recover from.
"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, it just seemed the thing to do. But it shouldn't have lasted that long."
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