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MIKE DOWNEY

It Took Gall and Guile to Do That to Gault

January 20, 1986|MIKE DOWNEY

Picture a cheetah chasing a jag. Picture Speedy Gonzales chasing the Roadrunner. Picture Houston McTear trying to catch Carl Lewis.

Think of Steve McQueen's Mustang tailing that Dodge Charger in "Bullitt." Imagine Tarzan trying to outswim Mark Spitz. Or Chuck Yeager taking evasive action from a Blue Angel. Or Superman trying to read a book faster than Evelyn Wood.

That was what it was like watching the Chicago kickoff team's "last line of defense" against the Rams.

Willie Gault, waiting for Ron Brown.

"I expected to do a lot of things in professional football but not be used as a tackler," Gault said.

The Bears have shown a lot of different looks on defense in their drive to the Super Bowl. They have had Richard Dent, to dent you; Wilber Marshall, to deck you; Dan Hampton, to sack you; Mike Singletary, to samurai-sword you; William Perry, to squash you; Otis Wilson, to outshout you, and Gary Fencik, to outsmart you.

What they needed was somebody to outrun you.

So, they were taking no chances when they met the Rams in the National Football Conference championship game Jan. 12 at Soldier Field. The Bears were very familiar with Brown, the world-class sprinter whose kick returns had been the best part of the Ram offense. They knew that once Brown got by, it was bye-bye.

Let's face it, the Refrigerator couldn't catch Ron Brown with a Harley-Davidson.

Gault found himself consulted by the coaches during practice sessions in Suwanee, Ga., before the game. "They told me they had a special situation on their hands, that ordinarily they would never waste an important offensive player on special-team duty, but that Ron Brown was sort of an exceptional circumstance.

"The last thing we needed was for Brown to grab the opening kickoff and run about 102 yards with it. You've got enough pressure in a playoff game without falling behind 7-0 in the first 10 seconds, which is about how long it would take Ron to go 102 yards," Gault said.

The Rams won the coin toss and elected to receive. Brown dropped back, rockets ready. Kevin Butler kicked off for Chicago and sort of tip-toed forward, just in case he could help. Nine other Bears took off at full speed, hoping to knock Brown downtown.

The 11th Bear, a slim, fairly tentative wide receiver, held his ground near midfield and watched the play develop. He and Brown were so far out of the action, they looked as though they were dropping back to field a punt.

"I was ready," Gault said. "It might not have looked like it, but I was ready."

The Rams threw blocks at Gault a couple of times, and he and a couple of these opponents stared daggers at one another. But that was all the excitement there would be. Never was there the scene Soldier Field was braced for--Brown, in high gear, peeling down the sidelines with Gault, the former superstar hurdler, in hot pursuit.

"That was our 'Just in Case' defense," Bear Coach Mike Ditka said.

Gault does not expect to be needed on defense when Chicago plays New England in Sunday's Super Bowl in New Orleans. What he does want is to be a part of things on offense. "To catch a couple of passes in the big game would be a real highlight for me," he said. "But to catch a couple of touchdown passes would be, well, the sort of thing they'd be writing up in the history books."

Ever since Gault gave up track and field and a shot at the 1984 Olympics to enter the world of pro football--he tried to do both, but track officials forbade it--he has developed steadily as an NFL receiver. Not yet has he become All-Pro material, but no longer does he drop the simplest balls or run the wrong routes.

He also is capable of the circus catch now and then. More than once Gault has made diving grabs this season, and he nearly came back to catch one, a wind-held one, while sprawled on his back against the Rams.

The presence of Jim McMahon at quarterback puts spring in Gault's step. "He's capable of throwing the unusual pass," Gault said. "Like when he came into that Thursday night game at Minnesota and hit me with the bomb on his first play. Nobody was looking for that. They figured he was hurt and needed a couple of handoffs to warm up. Let me tell you something: Jim McMahon was born warmed up."

Gault has had a good time with the Bears. He misses competitive track and field, but not enough to give up his chosen field. "I don't run for a living any more," he said. "I run and catch for a living."

He does wish McMahon would throw a bit less to his running backs and tight ends and give the wide receivers, he and Dennis McKinnon, more work. McKinnon has complained about this more loudly than Gault has. Yet, as usual, winning overrides all gripes, and Gault is just glad to be part of Chicago's success.

All that remains now is the Super Bowl and the hype that accompanies it. At Bear practices in Champaign, Ill., last week, Gault got approached by a professor from the University of Illinois agronomy department who wanted to make sure that Willie fortified himself with lots of Illinois-grown corn before the big game. Gault said absolutely, you bet.

Privately, he figured corn could make you healthy and strong. He just doubted that it would make you fast.

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