Henry "Gizmo" Williams - Returner - 1986-2000 - East Carolina
Esks’ Gizmo truly fits mould of big little man – By James Christie - Globe&Mail - November 1996
There is an inevitable connection in professional sports between the small man and the big heart.
When the Edmonton Eskimos come up against the Toronto Argonauts at Ivor Wynne Stadium for the Grey Cup on Sunday, people will expect pinpoint accuracy from Toronto quarterback Doug Flutie. They will expect defensive pressure from Edmonton’s standout linebacker Willie Pless, and defensive end, Leroy Blugh,
But what they will expect from kick returners Henry (Gizmo) Williams of Edmonton and Michael (Pinball) Clemons of Toronto is the competitive fire that takes the chill out of late November air – entertainment and excitement that takes the sting out of $150 top ticket price. These are the men who must run through the eye of a needle to break the game open, to thrill and enchant, to make football fans forget, for a day, they are watchin a league close to the end of the line.
Williams and Clemons, each about as big and as solid as a fire hydrant are adored in their respective cities.
In the days where the “C” of CFL could be interpreted as Carpetbaggers instead of Canadian, because of the transience of players, owners, and entire franchises, these pocket dynamos have been symbols of solidity.
This is Williams 10th season in the Canadian Football League, his 12th as a pro, counting a start with the Memphis Showboats of the old U.S.Football League in 1985 and a 1988 cup of coffee with the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League. All his CFL seasons have been with the Esks. He’s the franchise anchor in that town, the kind of marketer and good-will ambassador a club couldn’t hope to hire for a six-figure salary. He speaks at more than 300 schools a year, telling kids the importance of finishing their education and staying off drugs. He’s considered the most popular Edmonton Eskimo since the great Jackie Parker.
And the Grey Cup may be Williams’ last game. He’s in denial about that. The 33-year-old Memphis native figures he still has another season left.
But more important is that he’s hoping he’s got another year or two of good health. Williams is from a family whose members have been stricken with multiple sclerosis. Of his 10 siblings, most have died of the disorder of the central nervous system. He says one sister dies of a drug overdose, and one brother of a gunshot wound to the head. Only Williams and one sister remain, ‘and my sister has been through the stages of losing her balance, confinement to a wheelchair , loss of her voice and now she’s on bed rest. I don’t know how much longer she’s got. I don’t think any of my brothers or sisters lived past 35.”
He fights that melancholy as he had fought off tacklers since becoming a pro football player out of the University of East Carolina. Williams is known as the soul of the Eskimos team. At a recent practice in Edmonton he was seen running up the snowy steps of the stadium. Like Rocky Balboa, fists upthrust to the sky in triumph.
But there are other times when the sentiment overwhelms him. “I was so poor growing up… all I ever wanted when I became successful was to have a big house, big enough for everyone in my family to have a room. But sometimes I walk through the house and I cry. I wish I had my parents and family to enjoy it.”
Williams said his mother dies of MS when he was only 6, at Christmas. One year later, also at Christmas his father perished in a house fire.
“Seven of us were raised by my brother, Edgar, who was 22 at the time.” Williams said yesterday at a news-media gathering in Hamilton.
Williams was in grade 7 when Edgar fell ill, too.
“The welfare people came over and saw how many children were living in the house and wanted to put the seven of us in an orphan home. That’s when my aunt stepped up and took us in to keep us together.
Ask him who his heroes are and Williams immediately mentions his family, no football players.
“With all that, it’s hard to feel down about football. The way I look at it, I had the opportunity so many people never had, to play a professional sport and travel around.”
Williams missed the first part of this season with a hamstring injury and didn’t play until after Labour Day. Part of the reason was that he needed time to recuperate, but much of it was that it was getting difficult to justify a spot on the roster for a player whose specialty is running back kicks and doesn’t have a regular backfield assignment. He’s had perhaps one pass tossed to him all season, and has run the occasional reverse.
But his acceleration on a kick return is his bread and butter.
“I’m not like Michael (Clemons). I don’t have a second decision.” He said. Referring to his straight-ahead speed, rather than shifty moves.”
“the first decision I make, that’s it.”
The speed has served him well. He’s in the Grey Cup record book for having scored a 115-yard touchdown on the return of a missed field goal Nov.29, 1987, against the Toronto Argonauts.
He figures part of his legacy to football is that he’s validated the small, quick player’s spot in the game.
“A lot of kids look at their size and people say they can’t make it. But I tell them “You come to the CFL and you’ll get that opportunity if you’re good enough.’
“There’s been me, Pinball, Peewee, Earl Winfield… everytime a new little guy comes into the league, people say “Giz, you’ve got to compete against him, now’ But really I compete against myself. This isn’t a 100- or 200- metre dash. It’s a team sport.”
He has a love and loyalty to the league and the game that gave him the chance. After his brief tenure with Philadelphia in the NFL, he said, he had nibbles from the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys.
But he said there was too much politics and too much risk of not being an everyday player with the NFL option.
“I’d already made a steppingstone here. Canada was the place where I knew I’d be able to play. Besides, in Canada there’s more (governmental) politics, but there’s more killing in the States. When I retire, and I think 1997 would be my last year, this is where I’d want to be.”
He will always be known by his unique nickname, which is said to come from the devilish expression he wears, reminiscent of the the gace of Gizmo the lead Gremlin in the movie of that name.
“Nobody even knows my name is Henry. If I sign an autograph ‘Henry’, no one know who that is. I don’t even answer to Henry anymore. I sign my cheques Gizmo.
“Helluva name, ain’t it? But it’s better than what they used to call me ‘Smurf.’”
What the man really should be called is courageous.
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