Travis Williams could usually be found standing along Macdonald Avenue—you could just never be sure where. He might be in front of Noah's Ark Gospel Chateau smoking a cigarette, or the Pentecostal Prayer and Deliverance Center sipping from a bottle, or outside the Richmond Rescue Mission lining up for a hot meal.
This was the many-fingered hand of God, in whose palmy grip lay the blighted remains of downtown Richmond, Calif., a procession of storefront churches and gutted buildings arrayed along a once grand boulevard that now leads nowhere.
The many-fingered hand often beckoned Williams to come inside, but he preferred to remain on the street, standing in the need of prayer. Williams was the perpetual outsider, often because of circumstances he could never seem to control. Following a five-year NFL career during which he helped lead the Green Bay Packers to victory in Super Bowl II and twice led the league in kick returns, Williams got caught in a downward spiral of financial setbacks and personal tragedies that caused him to become homeless for nearly three years. Even after his children persuaded him in 1988 to move back into the house in which he had grown up, Williams said he never felt more than a step or two away from the street. "I don't feel that's all behind me yet," he said one day in December while sitting in the small, dilapidated wood-frame house.
On Jan. 14 he turned 45 and became eligible for a $300 monthly stipend from the NFL Players Association pension fund. Williams had not had a regular income since 1989; he earned pocket money by hauling trash, collecting cans for the nickel deposits and helping people move. In the last year he had suffered from gout, which caused his ankles to swell so badly that even walking was difficult. When the NFL pension became available, Williams took it, even though he would have gotten as much as $580 a month if he had waited another 10 years. "I ain't waiting until 55," he once said, "not the way we're dropping off these days."
He was referring to his friends among the homeless, 17 of whom had died within the past year. Williams often allowed his homeless friends to sleep on one of the broken-springed sofas in his living room whenever the weather in the Bay Area turned cold, perhaps because homelessness is not a condition you can leave behind simply by finding a roof. "People either make it out of homelessness, or they die trying," says Susan Prather, an advocate for the homeless who had befriended Williams. "Travis had come a long way."
A month after Williams filed for his pension, his body began to shut down, one organ after another. On Feb. 15 he was admitted to Merrithew Memorial Hospital, and two days later he died. "He was terrified of the hospital," says Prather. He saw no point in taking chances.
"It ain't much of a hospital," Williams would say, "and I'm not in the best of health." Williams did not have a casual attitude about death. He couldn't afford to; it was what had driven him to the streets. In many ways the death he had chosen for himself was a direct result of the life he had not chosen.
Six years ago his wife had died of a drug overdose in a hospital emergency room, and six months after that his mother died during colon-cancer surgery, which Travis had persuaded her to have. Two deaths in one year, and it was not over. "Then my sister moved here from San Bernardino to help me out with the kids," said Williams, "and she wasn't here a year when she died. She was my baby sister, and her whole insides just collapsed. She drinked a lot. Then my best friend, Harold, he died six months after that.
"It seemed like it was a curse, like I was plagued with some kind of bad luck. Every time I told one of them to go to the hospital for some simple operation, they never came back. Not a one. Last summer I had a girlfriend, and she developed spinal cancer. She said, 'Travis, you know how your record is taking people to the hospital, so I believe I'll just take myself.' But she never came back either."
Like most homeless people, Williams did not simply walk out of his house one day and take up a life in the streets because he enjoyed being outdoors. His descent from foreclosure to flophouse was the result of a long, agonizing run of misfortune and bad judgment. "It's bad breaks, bad deals, and one day you wake up sleeping in your car," he said.