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The postscript to these stories is that the combatants, or victims, do not hold grudges against Williams. His outbursts are part of the game, everybody says. He plays to win. He never backs down. "He just does things right," says Ferguson. "He's a great guy," says Dollinger.
"He apologized to me an hour afterward on the plane," says Kowalski. "He's a complex person. He's mean, but he's nice."
Quite simply Williams is a linebacker, a tightly strung bundle of intensity fighting the rules of proper society. "He's like Hugh Green, whom I coached in Tampa," says Fontes. "He hates to lose, to get blocked, even in practice. He takes it personally. Sometimes we have to calm him down in things like our 'Thud Drill,' which is for the offense. He's supposed to take on a block and give ground. But he wants to stuff it. He can't stand getting beat mano a mano, big man on big man. He hopes the other team always runs at him. 'Please, come at me.'
"We play him on the strong side, over the tight end, so he can kill the run. And he does. The only thing he doesn't do that Lawrence Taylor or Andre Tippett does is get sacks, and he's working on that. But the run—in 1985 it was noticeable the way teams ran away from his side. If we were in the Super Bowl, he'd definitely be in the Pro Bowl."
"He's so tenacious," says Detroit linebacker coach Mike Murphy. "But there is a fine line all linebackers have to walk between being aggressive and being maniacs. I've seen 'backers whose eyes get big, who are so involved in a personal battle, trying to kill someone over them, that they lose sight of the big picture, which is to win the game. Jimmy's doing very well with that."
The intensity comes from the tough road Williams had to follow to become a first-round draft choice of the Lions in 1982. Coming out of a mediocre athletic program at Woodrow Wilson High in Washington, D.C., he was a six-foot, 180-pound linebacker who ran the 40 in 4.8. He received no major-college scholarship offers, but as he puts it, "I had the audacity to think I could play big time."
He and his older brother, Toby, who had repeated 10th grade and was a classmate of Jimmy's, sent out more than 200 letters in 1977 offering their services to college football programs all over the country. "The typical response was a letter saying we had written a nice letter but 'you're small' or 'the recruiting season is over' or 'you don't fit our plans,' " says Jimmy. "But then Nebraska wrote and said, 'We're interested.' No scholarship or anything. Just that little bit. But it was enough."
Taking out loans and borrowing money from their father, James, an electrical engineer, the two boys flew to Lincoln, enrolled in school and walked on with the Cornhuskers. Says Jimmy, "My dad always told us, 'When you set a goal, shoot for the moon. If you fall, so what? You fall among the stars.' "
Where the Williams brothers fell at first was amid the slop. To make ends meet they worked summers on farms around Lincoln and then in a slaughterhouse. "That was something," recalls Toby, who is the starting nosetackle for the New England Patriots. "We'd leave our apartment at 5:30 in the morning, walk three or four miles to the slaughterhouse, finish at four and walk three miles to the stadium to work out, then walk a mile home. We never had a car the whole time we were at Nebraska. But we always had discipline."
Their Nebraska experience proved that hard work will be rewarded. By his senior year Jimmy had been voted Big Eight Defensive Player of the Year and had made first-team All-America. Workouts had helped him gain 40 pounds and increase his speed. "The only things that ever amazed me about Jimmy were his work habits, his drive, and how fast he was," says Toby, who was a 10th-round draft choice of the Patriots in 1983.