Willie...or won't he? That is the WW question these days for Willie Gault, wide receiver out of Tennessee and a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears in April. That puts Gault in line for a contract package in the million-dollar range. But he's also a world-class sprinter—and is ranked third internationally as a high hurdler. He thus has the potential to win the gold in either event at the '84 Olympics. His dilemma is, should he take the money, or run?
Gault is one of a handful of athletes who have recently faced a choice between two sports. But his situation is not like John Elway's. All Elway had to decide was whether to take big money from baseball or bigger money from football. Nor is Gault like Herschel Walker, who mumbled something about the Olympics before signing with the USFL for $3.9 million. The difference is that Walker's best in the 100 meters was 10.23 seconds, which didn't make the Top 20 in 1982. Gault has run the event in 10.10, fourth fastest in the world last year.
A big (6'1�"), solid (180 pounds), affable guy, Gault is garrulous and gung-ho off the football field—and explosive on it. At Tennessee he is known as Orange Lightnin'. As a sophomore he tied an NCAA record by returning three kickoffs for touchdowns; last season he caught 50 passes. Which is what got him into his sweet predicament.
Gault doesn't plan to announce his decision until sometime after this week's NCAA outdoor track championships in Houston. For now all he'll say is "I've always dreamed of seeing my face on the front of a box of Wheaties."
His reticence doesn't extend to discussions about his athletic ability. "I'm not selfish," he says, "but I love myself." And there's a lot of self to love in Gault: self-assurance, self-promotion, self-esteem—everything but self-doubt. Asked for an estimate of his talents, he says, "I can do anything I want to. 'I can't' isn't in my vocabulary. I'm a great athlete. I've got the potential to be the best in any sport I play. When the pressure's on, there's no one better." That's his short estimate. Don't ask for the long one.
Gault's self-assessment isn't altogether unrealistic. He does have enormous natural talent, bolstered by his born-again Christianity. He will rhapsodize on goodness and the Lord as smoothly as those modern evangelists who wear Bill Blass coordinates while preaching the oldtime religion. "I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me," he declares. "That's Philippians 4:13."
That sort of comment is typical of Gault's style. "Willie could be the President of the United States if he wanted to," says Stan Huntsman, Tennessee's track coach. "He says the right things, thinks the right things, does the right things."
Gault has a handshake that could pull down a barn, and a wide smile that reveals braces. "It takes less muscles to smile than it does to frown," he says. Appearances are important to him. Hampered by a groin strain at the Penn Relays in April, he wore tights for warmth and support. Not any old tights but bright scarlet ones. "Willie's always loved attention," says Dainnese Mathis, his bride-to-be.
Gault admits he got into track partly for the medals, and he's a little disappointed that he doesn't receive an award every time he wins in a college meet. "I miss getting trophies," he says. "They're something you can feel and touch. And they look so good in my room."
At the end of his ninth-grade year at Griffin (Ga.) High, Gault's track coach gave him a hurdle to take home over the summer. "When you come back in September," he told Gault, "know how to jump over it." By his senior year he knew how to jump so well that he caught the attention of Huntsman. This winter he became the first athlete ever to win both the 60-yard hurdles and the 60 dash at the NCAA indoor championships. He'll try to repeat the dash-high hurdles double at the outdoors.