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Reggie Williams : Super Bowls Are Nothing Compared to the Challenge of the Inner Cities

February 07, 1993|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox News and contributor to National Public Radio. He interviewed Reggie williams at the NFL Super Bowl offices at the Century Plaza Hotel

Four years ago, the National Football League choose Miami as the site of its annual mega-ritual, the Super Bowl. Just days before the game was played, a Miami policeman shot and killed an African-American motorcyclist, and the Overtown section of the city exploded in flames. The NFL was widely criticized for simply going on with the proceedings and doing next to nothing to help cool the tensions in the city.

Fast-forward to 1993. This time, the Super Bowl site is Los Angeles. The city is still trying to recover from its own bout with civil unrest. But this time the NFL has a plan.

It's called Youth Education Town, and it's an ambitious project--a multi-purpose education and recreation center to be built in South-Central Los Angeles. The league has earned the support of a wide variety of civic leaders, major corporations and educators for its proposal. Country singer Garth Brooks held a concert last week to raise money for it. Behind the effort is a man named Reggie Williams, 38, a one-time Cincinnati city councilman, Dartmouth graduate and, for 14 years, starting linebacker for the NFL Cincinnati Bengals.

Williams played in the 1989 Super Bowl in Miami--his team was defeated by the San Francisco 49ers. But what he remembers most about that time is not the pain of the loss, but the ache of seeing a community go up in flames. Williams was recruited by the NFL last fall to develop a philanthropic project for Los Angeles, and while it took him a while to figure out what form it should take, from the beginning he knew it would be targeted to children, and focus on education.

Education is important to Williams. He grew up hearing-impaired and credits an elementary-school teacher with introducing him to the joy of reading--"You didn't have to hear, you didn't have to speak, it was the perfect conduit for me to become very academically inspired." So inspired was he that he eventually went to Dartmouth, not on a football scholarship, but on an academic one.

Williams was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the Cincinnati City Council in 1988. The next year, he successfully stood for election. Since taking on this latest challenge for the NFL, Williams has spent most of his time in Los Angeles, developing the plans for Youth Education Town, a place he envisions as an island a tranquillity for kids growing up in often-troubled South-Central.

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Question: Tell me about your experience during the 1989 Super Bowl. Was that memory--of the riots in Miami--instrumental in your decision to take on this NFL program in Los Angeles?

Answer: Miami. It's difficult to reflect on it in a singular fashion because there were so many things going on. My team was in the Super Bowl, following a losing season the year before. I had been appointed to a City Council member's position in Cincinnati. We were coming from the gray of Cincinnati into the blue, balmy skies of Miami and everything just seemed to be wonderful.

We were in our hotel for a couple of days and--boom. Riots. Outside our hotel windows we could see the fires raging in Overtown. I grew up in Flint, and I remember Detroit burning after Martin Luther King was killed. That type of frustration erupting on the streets, from a single catalyst, was an all-too vivid memory. And here I was: More than just a player, I was also an elected official. I called the mayor's office there, asking if there was something I could do, something the team could do. But I never got a call back. I remember thinking that we could have done something--anything--even if it was only symbolic, to help calm the situation.

Q: How did the NFL approach you about doing something for Los Angeles, and what Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox News and contributor to National Public Radio. He interviewed Reggie Williams at the NFL Super Bowl offices at the Century Plaza Hotel.made them interested in getting involved in a charitable project in South-Central?

A: Officials at the NFL had been discussing a philanthropic effort in connection with the Super Bowl even before the outburst in April. But nothing had really been done to propel it along. Last October, the league asked me to prepare a comprehensive strategy for the NFL community presence in Los Angeles. That gave me just three months to do the job. My acceptance was contingent on doing something that really had some meaning. It wasn't going to be a panacea of any nature. It wasn't intended to solve all the problems of the city. But it was an opportunity to spearhead a positive social effort on behalf of a game that I am really passionate about.

Q: Tell me what you've accomplished in those three months. What have you put into motion?

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