Willie Gault stood in the half-light that came just before dawn and looked at himself, staring for several long seconds into the doe eyes that looked back at him. Gault had often stood before mirrors and basked in the warm glow of his own reflection, pleased with the way he looked and the way others looked at him. But reflections lacked blood and breath, and anyway they disappeared in the dark. This was no reflection. Gault remembers standing and staring a moment longer, then slowly bringing the gun that was in his hands up to his shoulder and bracing himself for the recoil.
Through the rifle's high-powered scope he caught sight of himself one more time, but he couldn't shoot. As he lowered the gun, the deer that had been in his sights picked up the movement and went bounding into the woods. "I could have shot it," Gault says, recalling the moment of recognition uneasily now. "I could have shot it. But I said, 'No way I can kill this thing. He looks like me.' "
Gault's speed and agility as a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears are so distinctively fawnlike that they set him clearly apart, even from the most graceful members of the NFL herd. A former world-class sprinter at Tennessee, Gault, now in his fourth NFL season, has become one of the most feared men in football on the strength of the threat he prizes most—that on any play of any game he can simply outrun everybody to the ball. "Just Willie go long," he says.
After Gault caught seven passes for 174 yards this season in a 44-7 victory over Cincinnati, backup quarterback Steve Fuller as much as said that Gault was football's perfect offensive weapon. "I think if you threw to him 20 times a game, it wouldn't be a crazy thing to do," Fuller said. Curiously though, Fuller and the rest of the Bears quarterbacks seemed to forget about Gault after that performance. If Gault becomes any less visible than he has been in Chicago's offense for most of the past seven weeks, the Bears will have to start putting his picture on the sides of milk cartons.
Even when Gault himself is keeping a relatively low profile, the image he has so carefully cultivated seems to keep growing, as if the real Willie were being reflected in a fun-house mirror. Just one night after that Cincinnati game he danced with the Chicago City Ballet, deftly performing several difficult maneuvers with ballerina Maria Terezia Balogh. "It took a lot of guts for me to do that," Gault says. "I second-guessed myself so many times. But I wanted to show that ballet wasn't a sissy sport, that a big football player could get up there in tights and not make a fool of himself." Gault's performance was received quite favorably by the dance critics who attended, and even his partner seemed impressed. "You have to have a certain sensitivity to the woman's center, and he has it," said Balogh.
Gault never doubted he would be a smash. "There are very few things that I can't do," he says. "I feel I can do anything within my perimeters, per se, and my perimeters just happen to be really, really wide."
Gault's self-confidence has always been a particularly wide load; when he did his ballet, for instance, it helped that he wasn't exactly a stranger to the world of dance. Last season he was largely responsible for transforming George Halas's once-dreaded Monsters of the Midway into a chorus line of dancing Bears. He persuaded two dozen players to perform in the video version of a funk tune called Super Bowl Shuffle, with a share of the profits to go to local charities. A Chicago record company executive named Dick Meyer, who had employed Gault to dance for him in the video of Linda Clifford's song, The Heat In Me, wanted to make the Shuffle. But first he needed Bears, and Gault got them.
The success of the video stunned a lot of the players because it was the first real indication they had that their popularity with the fans could be exploited for enormous profits. Many of the Bears have been snuffling contentedly at the trough ever since. Gault, whose wife, Dainnese, had been telling him for years that he was completely without rhythm, suddenly found himself being compared to Michael Jackson after an undulating dance and rap solo, which he dubbed "as smooth as a Chocolate Swirl."
There are still some players who think Gault's best song and dance may have been the one he did to get them to Shuffle along at a net of only about $6,000 a man, after their donations. After the Illinois attorney general's office launched an inquiry last January, Meyer registered the project as a charitable endeavor under state law. Some of the Bears accused Gault of getting them involved in a slick hustle, and worse, of lining his own pockets at their expense. "The guys were saying Willie was just doing it because he was getting money under the table," says Dainnese Gault. "That hurt him. That was a job, getting all those guys together with all those egos. He had to literally drive the Fridge, Walter Payton and Jim McMahon down to that studio. I told Willie he should lake more money than the rest of them for all the work he did."
Gault says he didn't, but others weren't so sure. "They sold almost a million records and 170,000 videos, and we got $6,000," said Bears linebacker Otis Wilson. "Wouldn't you feel screwed?"