Ah, linebackers. The original two-headed monsters. Those guys who make Jekyll/Hyde look like a together fellow. Off the field they are wallflowers; on it, Venus's-flytraps. "Linebackers are a different breed all the way around," says the Detroit Lions' veteran backup quarterback, Joe Ferguson. He should know. After throwing a pass during the 1985 season, he was nailed so hard by reticent Chicago Bears linebacker Wilber Marshall that Ferguson was rendered unconscious even before hitting the ground. No flag was thrown, but Marshall was fined $2,000 by the league for flagrant roughness.
"Linebackers have to cover receivers, take on linemen, rush, tackle—they're just...different," says Ferguson. He thinks about his teammate, left outside linebacker Jimmy Williams, one of the best and one of the least-known players in the NFC. When Ferguson joined the Lions in 1985, he screened Williams on a reverse during a half-speed drill. Williams, a quiet, reserved man off field, went nuts.
He grabbed Ferguson and screamed, "Don't you ever grab my——jersey again!" Coaches rushed in to prevent violence, but Ferguson got the message. "I didn't expect that in a drill," he says, "but Jimmy is Jimmy. He's aggressive. He's a linebacker."
Indeed, at 6'3", 230 pounds, with 4.49 speed, Williams is the epitome of an NFL outside linebacker: low-key to the point of taciturnity away from the action but frenzied from the snap. "I'm an intense and competitive player," says Williams. "I need to win every down. I have to win every down." He considers this statement, realizing its essential conflict. "Of course, 99 percent of my opponents have the same attitude. So there are confrontations."
This means fights. And Williams, a six-year veteran who was Detroit's defensive MVP in 1985 but had a subpar '86 season (54 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions) attributable to a preseason contract holdout and to a knee injury that forced him to miss the last six games, has started many fights. A random sampling of his skirmishes tells much about his pro career.
In his rookie year, 1982, he had a run-in with All-Pro teammate Billy Sims, after which defensive leader William Gay warned Williams, "Don't mess with the franchise." Then there was his 1985 skirmish with Green Bay Packer lineman Greg Koch that got them both tossed from the game. "We were down 41-3, and I said, 'What the hell,' and got in a fight," says Williams. Last season against Houston he fought Oilers tight end Jamie Williams, who, besides having a similar name, was also his good friend and teammate at Nebraska. "Jamie is a very good tight end, and I'm a very good linebacker," says Jimmy. "But he's never beaten me. Please print that."
Then there was Williams's fracas with running back Tony Dollinger in camp last month. "I was on a route and knocked his arm away and told him to get his hands off me," says Dollinger. Williams attacked Dollinger, slugging wildly at his body and helmet. Coaches and players pulled Williams off for fear he would break his hands on Dollinger's face mask. When practice ended Williams made a beeline for Dollinger and started pummeling him again. Defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes finally dragged the linebacker away.
At a later practice, rookie wide receiver Bret Wiechmann bumped Williams, after which Williams shadowed the 5'10", 178-pound player across the field, glaring at him as Wiechmann returned to the huddle. "Jimmie was waiting, but Wiechmann would not look at him," says Tom Kowalski, a sportswriter for The Oakland Press in Pontiac.
Even Kowalski has experienced Williams's wrath. After Williams was thrown out of the Green Bay game in 1985, Kowalski asked him to explain the incident. Williams threw his coat on the locker room floor and told Kowalski, "I'll kick your butt right here!"
"I'm no sissy," says the 6'7", 240-pound Kowalski. "But this was suicide. I just turned and left."