While reading the New York times three weeks ago, SI senior writer Bruce Newman came upon a familiar name in a headline in the obituary section: TRAVIS WILLIAMS, 45, GREEN BAY PACKERS STAR. The obit startled Newman because he had recently interviewed Williams for a yet-to-be-written story on how the former Packer kick returner and running back was living in a homeless shelter in Richmond, Calif. "It was one of those situations where you're shocked but you're not shocked," says Newman of Williams's death from heart failure. "His death was a product of his life. Homelessness had taken a tremendous toll on him."
Newman first contacted Williams in December after reading a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the former NFL star's plight. "I remember Travis was very excited when I told him that SI had called me about doing a story," says Susan Prather, a Bay Area advocate for the dispossessed who had befriended Williams. "He shook his head, smiled and said, 'Wow, I haven't been in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 20 years.' "
Newman later interviewed Williams several times. He found that Williams preferred to talk with the television on and the sound down. At one point during an interview, both men became silent when an NFL Films feature about Vince Lombardi's Packers came on the screen. "We watched the tape of Hornung and Starr, and it was odd how they had gone on to capitalize on their success, and Travis, another of Lombardi's stars, was sitting there as an example of how it can all go wrong," says Newman. "Still, he seemed to want to tell somebody his story once from beginning to end. It was a catharsis for him. He saw himself as a role model, a man who had overcome homelessness and was dealing with his life. That's why his death was even more tragic. He had so much more to say."
Williams's story, recounted in this issue (page 38), reminds Newman of another tragic subject, Anthony Sherrod, whom Newman never met. Last year, Newman traveled to Millen, Ga., to write an article on Sherrod, a former Georgia Tech basketball player who committed suicide (SI, May 28, 1990).
A few months ago, Newman got a call from Sherrod's mother, Johnnie Mae. She told him that she had been contacted by a troubled young hockey player in Canada who had read the Sherrod story and was put in touch with her by SI. The young man spent a long time talking with Johnnie Mae and has since written to her a couple of times a week. The two have become close friends. "Johnnie Mae called me to say, 'I just wanted you to know that your story helped somebody,' " Newman says.
This is the kind of hope that Williams had longed to inspire. "I don't know if Travis's story will help anybody, but I hope it will," Newman says. "That's why I wanted to write it. I only wish Travis could have been helped."