A few of the Bears have suggested that the same could be said of Gault, and they haven't always said it in the most flattering way. In his autobiography McMahon describes Gault as "pretty," and questions both the receiver's courage and his dedication to the game. "In the past I've felt he heard footsteps, that he didn't like getting into traffic," McMahon writes. "You can't depend on a guy like that. You have to know that a guy is going to run his route even if the game isn't on national TV.... Football isn't the most important thing in Willie's life. He's...on his way to Hollywood, or so he hopes. He wants to be an actor. He's just stopping off in Chicago, playing his latest role as a football player."
McMahon seems to single out Gault almost alone among the Bears for criticism in the book. "He does seem to have something nice to say about almost everybody but Willie," says Dainnese. Gault, of course, is particularly sensitive to every nuance in his relationship with McMahon because as a receiver he is totally at the mercy of the quarterback for his livelihood. "And I think McMahon uses that to control people," says Dainnese. "He likes his receivers to run behind him in the bars, and Willie doesn't do that."
One of McMahon's closest friends on the team was Ken Margerum, a wide receiver who was released last month. "He always threw the ball to Margerum for three years, and everybody could see it," Dainnese says. "All we knew was that the ball wasn't coming Willie's way. I told Willie maybe he ought to start hanging in the bars with McMahon." Gault isn't sure he was slighted intentionally, but he does feel that in McMahon's eyes some receivers were more equal than others. "I don't think Jim lets his personal feelings get in the way during the game," Gault says. "But maybe if Margerum was open and I was open, he would get the ball. I knew that."
Once during his rookie season, when Gault felt McMahon was being conspicuous about ignoring him, he invited the quarterback to lunch to talk things out. McMahon responded, according to another Bear, by snarling, "Is he trying to get on my good side?" This preseason, after Gault caught a touchdown pass from backup quarterback Mike Tomczak, Willie approached McMahon in the stadium parking lot to say something, but, says Dainnese, McMahon ignored him. "His wife is really sweet," she says of Nancy McMahon. "I don't know how she puts up with that fool."
One of the reasons the Bears don't throw the ball to Gault more often is that he is almost always covered by two defenders because of his great speed. "He's phenomenal," says Los Angeles Rams cornerback LeRoy Irvin. "I'd vote for him for All-Pro every year." Still, when the Bears lost to the Rams 20-17 in a Monday night game on Nov. 3, Gault caught only one pass for 20 yards. With the game tied and 1:14 to play, the Bears had the ball and 80 yards to travel for a score, and they never once threw to Gault. "I was surprised they didn't go up top with him," says Irvin. "We kept trying to figure out why they didn't just throw the damn ball out there and let Willie run under it."
As things have turned out, Gault has mostly been a decoy, clearing out defenders as he sprints upfield, while the Bears quarterbacks throw the ball to somebody else. Gault's ability to stretch a defense has been one reason the Bears have led the NFL in rushing in each of the last three seasons, and it has also left Keith Ortego, Chicago's other wide receiver, open much of the time. But Gault has remained frustrated with the way the Bears have used him. "I want to be the best receiver in the league, and I can't do that by clearing out for the tight end," he says.
Even coach Mike Ditka concedes the Bears should get the ball to Gault more often, but there is still some question about his ability to get himself completely clear of the defenses that are set up for him. "Receivers with blazing speed are often used as decoys," says Chicago safety Gary Fencik. "The truly great receivers enjoy that. They look at double coverage as a challenge to their ability to get open. To a guy like James Lofton [of Green Bay], double coverage is nothing. But it seems that when Willie is double covered he's taken out of the offense. I don't know if that has to do with the design of the offense or Willie's inability to get open. I don't want to say the wrong thing, but you can read between those lines, I guess."
Gault scored six touchdowns in the space of three games during his rookie season, including three one day against New Orleans. "I caught everything my first year," he says. "I was leading the league [in TD catches], then all of a sudden everything stopped. They just stopped throwing the ball to me. I didn't know what was going on." Gault talked to Vince Evans, a Bears quarterback who was his best friend on the team and one of the few black quarterbacks in the league. "He explained to me there was a lot of bias and prejudice in the league," Gault says.
After Gault's first year with the Bears, Ditka questioned whether he was really dedicated to a football career, presumably because Gault was trying, through the courts, to regain his eligibility to run track. "That was an ignorant statement because I had done so well already in football," Gault says. "They were looking to nail that trackman label to me." But Gault continued training diligently for his interrupted track career, rising at eight every morning to run a complete regimen of sprints.
It wasn't until his second season with Chicago that Gault developed a reputation for having stone hands. He had gotten behind everybody in the first game of the year, then dropped a 50-yard pass for a sure touchdown. The Bears routed Tampa Bay 34-14 anyway that day, but nobody forgot. "Willie's problem is that, because of his speed, usually when he drops one he's wide open," says Ditka.