Edward Bennett Williams is having fun at last. He is the president of a group that calls itself the Over The Hill Gang, and it is a joy. You would not believe the plane ride back from Dallas, says Williams. He led the gang in some wild hymn singing ("Gimme that old time religion, Gimme that old time religion...") and eavesdropped as they kidded each other about what a miserable bunch of refugees they were, how they had been brought together in desperation through the common bond of tired blood by their beloved coach, who is known as "Ice Cream," for this one last bank job. They sang a paean to their coach. It went, "Hoo-ray for Ice Cream, Hoo-ray for Ice Cream, He's a horse's - - -" Williams was delighted. Ice Cream smiled in that handsome, clenched-teeth way of his and said they could call him whatever they liked as long as they kept winning.
Winning, of course, is what it's all about. Edward Bennett Williams knows about winning. Edward Bennett Williams (the name is respectfully strung together that way, except when he's with the gang; he likes the gang to call him Ed) is the high-powered Washington attorney who was first in his class at Holy Cross, first in his class at Georgetown Law School and famous for his relentless pursuit of justice on behalf of such clients as James Hoffa, Senator Thomas Dodd, Bobby Baker and Adam Clayton Powell. His voice has rung in the chambers of the Supreme Court. Until now, he usually got a catch in it when he talked about the Washington Redskins.
"I've tried it both ways. Winning is better," said Williams last week as he awaited—as breathlessly as the rest of Washington—the game with the St. Louis Cardinals that was to be the Over The Hill Gang's fifth straight victory. The Redskins have not started a season in such grand style since 1940.
"People are tired of hearing 'building' around here," Williams said. "They haven't had a football championship since 1945. They haven't seen a World Series since 1933. When the Senators left town last month it shook people up. Now we've come along and it's like a revival meeting. Everybody's with it. You can have all kinds of cultural centers and parks, but it takes the excitement of a winning sports team to pull a city together. It's the great common denominator.
"The President sends messages [he also arranged an open-phone radio hookup to get the Dallas game to his Key Biscayne retreat]. The mayor has been out to practice to talk to the team. There was a full-page ad in all the papers—a business expressing its appreciation. REDSKINS, YOU'RE BEAUTIFUL, it said. You should have seen the crowd at the airport when we got back from beating Dallas. Eight thousand people. The cars were backed up live miles.
"Everybody wants tickets to the games. We could sell 100,000 seats if we had them. I don't have room in my box for enough people. I can't keep Ed Muskie away. Ethel and the kids were there Sunday. Chief Justice Warren was bubbling. My wife says she can't go anywhere without being stopped by people wanting to talk about the Redskins. When the man came to fix the refrigerator, he said he'd fix it if she'd give him two tickets."
Football—the Redskins—has been the one great frustration of Edward Bennett Williams' extraordinary life. At first, he said, he thought he would succeed as rapidly as he had in other areas. That was in 1965. Then he realized it would take a while. Then he began to wonder. Wonder led to desperation. Desperation earned him his nickname: "Panic Button." Before he hired Vince Lombardi, he had coaches like Otto Graham. Graham had a way with words. When the team lost to the Colts 35-0 one year, Otto was told that President Johnson was in the stands. "Next time tell him to stay home," said Otto. Edward Bennett Williams was appalled. Then, when Lombardi took over, Williams recalls, "I thought to myself, 'Nothing can stop us now.' " Lombardi died of cancer in 1970, and Williams admits he came close to "chucking it right there." A year (and one more coach) later the Rams made what Williams calls "that incredible mistake": they fired George Allen.
Panic Button first met Ice Cream on the beach at Waikiki in 1966. George Herbert Allen—no one ever stretches that one out; everybody calls him George, the players' best pal—was then in the midst of his first major reclamation project, rebuilding the Rams in the same unorthodox way he has now rebuilt the Redskins: through a lightning series of trades for veteran players, players with families, players who were not over 30 but well over 30. But players who, as Allen phrases it, are "winners" and "have character."
"We talked," said Williams, "and the more we talked the more I began to realize that we had the same convictions: the same commitment to excellence, the same impatience with anyone who gets distracted, the same total immersion in the problem at hand. When I'm on a case, I become obsessed with it. That's the way Allen is about football. I felt like I was talking to myself."
All similarities end there, of course, and neither man would pretend otherwise. Out of the office Williams is a man of the people; he rubs elbows, he has been known to bend his own. Allen is a milk drinker. At the end of practice he unwinds with a dish or two of ice cream. He also pops Gelusil. Allen is never really "out" of the office; his people are his players. He wows them with aphorisms ("The achiever is truly alive"; "Winning is being totally prepared") and inspirational messages. Almost everything he says has been, or should be, on a wall somewhere.