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Monday, August 15, 2005
Cracked Code

By Alan Grant

The jury sees the play. Hell, they see it at least 17 times. It's called Exhibit 1. Rich Gannon is under center, fullback Zack Crockett lines up behind the left guard, Ronney Jenkins is at tailback and the tight end, Marcus Williams, is in motion. At the snap, Williams releases upfield and heads for the linebacker, Bill Romanowski. Williams engages Romanowski and drives him toward the sideline as Jenkins cuts inside the block and runs downfield.

What happens next isn't on tape, but no one disputes how the scene played out. It's why the jury is here, two years later, in California Superior Court, on the third floor of Oakland's administration building.

What happened next? Williams blocked Romanowski; Romanowski grabbed Williams by the neck of his jersey; Williams disengaged, and then, Williams says, he raised his arms as if to say, It's over. But it wasn't. Romanowski stepped toward Williams and grabbed his face mask. Williams grabbed back before quickly letting go. But Romanowski continued pushing on Williams' helmet, so violently that his head jerked back. As Williams' helmet flew off and his head recoiled forward, Romanowski's right fist smashed into his face. The 6'4", 250-pound Williams fell to the ground unconscious, his left eye socket shattered, a tooth chipped. He came to within seconds, felt blood on his cheek and saw Romanowski standing over him, shouting, "Don't ever f—in' hold me!"

That's why Marcus Williams sits before 12 jurors who have been forced to pass judgment on a world from which they are excluded. The play and its bloody aftermath took place behind a 10-foot chain-link fence draped by a heavy green tarp. What happens on this side of the fence is what separates people who play football for a living from people who don't. Inside that fence, men fight and there are no laws against it. Tempers flare and people get hit, especially during the hot, secluded month of monotony known as training camp. For the veterans, camp is just a formality. But for rookies and unproven players, it's a chance to define yourself, find a niche, launch a legend—or at least land a job. Tension and insecurity run so high that the occasional violent eruption is inevitable.

Ask anyone in the game. Bruce Allen, director of pro personnel for the Bucs, held the same position with the Raiders in 2003 and said as much in his deposition. "I've observed thousands of fights in training camp," Allen said. "I've seen a lot of stitches." But when asked if he'd seen anything like what happened to Williams, Allen replied that he had not. This time, a man was seriously injured, his career thrown into jeopardy. On that afternoon, the rules changed, even inside the fence. When Marcus Williams took the stand and addressed the jurors, he told them just that. "I'm a grown man," he said. "If this was just a fight, we wouldn't be here."

ALMOST TWO years after the fight, Williams is living at his grandmother's house in east Oakland. It's an eggshell-colored bungalow with dark green trim off of Martin Luther King Parkway. By day, the house doubles as a day-care center, the sign posted in the window. It's a little after 3 on a sunny and crisp Wednesday afternoon in April, and a young mother arrives to pick up her daughter just as another visitor shows up to see Williams.

Williams comes to the door, dressed in baggy Air Jordan shorts—gray, white and maroon. He wears a plain white T-shirt and a white wave cap. His beard is light and nappy underneath his chin. His eyes, when he's not smiling, are dark and squinted and make him look older than 27. He invites the young mother in, and after she passes through the living room to find her daughter, he sits down at an oval wood table. Behind him are a dozen clay figurines, all an inch high, some painted in blackface. Williams leans back in the chair and places his large hands on the table.

Before the incident he had an easygoing, open personality. Now he's more reserved. He's tired of talking about the case, but he knows that it won't go away until he does something to make it go away. "I just want to go back to sleep and start dreaming all over again," he says.

The dream was a little kid's dream: to play pro football someday, maybe even for the Raiders, the team on his side of the bay. It began at Berkeley High School and grew at Washington State. Williams, a 228-pound wideout, finished his senior season at WSU with 33 catches for 643 yards and four touchdowns. Despite his size and decent speed—4.5 in the 40—Williams was considered a tweener by pro scouts, and thus wasn't selected in the 2001 draft. The Colts signed him as a free agent. But he was released in the final week of training camp.

Oakland gave him new life, signing him to its practice squad near the end of 2001 and converting him to tight end. The following season, he became a consistent special-teams contributor, playing in 14 regular-season and two playoff games and earning an AFC championship ring. As he slogged through Oakland's 2003 camp, the dream was very much intact.

Then came Exhibit 1 and its aftermath. "Next thing I know my helmet gets grabbed," Williams says. "As a reflex I grabbed his helmet. I'm trying to make the team. I didn't want to be a player who's looked at as fighting. So I let go." A few seconds later, after Williams awoke and felt blood on his face, things changed. His mind raced. "I'd been in some tussles," he says. "But that ain't what this was. I was like, goddamn. I knew I didn't do anything to deserve that. That wasn't a fight. It was an assault."

Before Williams left the Raiders' facility for the hospital, he did something players on the other side of the fence don't do: he called the Alameda police. He regretted it almost immediately and worried about what it would do to his reputation in the league. Two days later, when detectives visited his room, he told them he'd overreacted, that he shouldn't have involved them.

But after the Raiders fined Romanowski only a game check ($58,000), Williams thought some more. True, Romanowski had telephoned Williams from the Raiders' office and told him that if he needed anything, or his family needed anything, that he was in Williams' debt. "But he didn't give me any contact information," Williams says. "That wasn't sincere. So as he talked, I didn't say anything, I just listened." Then he made a decision.

He hired one of California's most respected attorneys, James Brosnahan, and filed suit against his teammate for $3.8 million in damages.

ON THE seventh day of the trial, Brosnahan called William Thomas Romanowski to the stand. In previous sessions, Brosnahan had painted Romo as a coldhearted villain. It wasn't hard; the evidence was right there in a taped deposition the linebacker gave in January 2004, two months before being released because of multiple concussions. Sitting in a small room with Williams, Brosnahan asked Romanowski, "Do you know what Marcus Williams' condition is?" Romanowski replied with a shrug: "No. Does he want to tell me?"

In person, though, the man who'd made his living in a black No. 53 jersey was wearing soft colors: a light blue T-shirt with a tan suit. He was composed. The calm in his brown eyes held none of the maniacal glow he was known to exhibit on the field. Romo, with his stare and his sneer and his eye black, was gone. This was the retired Bill Romanowski, offering the jury his humanity. He told the room how as a 5'9", 140-pound high school freshman in blue-collar Vernon, Conn., he decided that an athletic scholarship would ease his parents' financial burden. Swallowing his words, Romanowski said, "I could go into the military or get a sports scholarship." And when he saw a 1982 Sports Illustrated story on Herschel Walker's old-school approach to fitness, which included more than 100,000 push-ups and sit-ups in a year, Romanowski's path was suddenly lit. "I finally had someone who could show me the way," he said. He told them about how he adopted Walker's routine and how it eventually led to recruiting trips to Miami, Notre Dame and Boston College, where he ultimately signed.

Romanowski also offered a reason for his on-field persona, which he developed as a rookie with the 49ers in 1988. During a game against Oakland, Ethan Horton (another tight end) pushed Romanowski in the back and the young linebacker didn't retaliate. The next day at a film session, future Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott shut off the projector, turned on the lights and punked Romanowski for allowing himself to get punked. "This is a game about respect," Lott said. "If you let someone do that again, I'll come after you myself."

Romanowski ingested that advice, and for the next 15 years applied it whenever possible. The jury heard about his kicking Larry Centers in the head, breaking Kerry Collins' jaw and spitting on J.J. Stokes. And what was the explanation? That Ronnie Lott told him not to be a punk.

Of course, there might have been another reason for Romanowski's anger as a player. But the elephant in the case, steroid use, wasn't allowed to be mentioned in the courtroom. When stories about the Bay Area designer-steroid lab BALCO began flowing late in 2003, Romanowski was often named as an alleged client. And sure enough, Williams and his attorneys maintained that Romanowski's outburst had been the result of 'roid rage. But Judge Cecilia Castellanos wouldn't allow testimony about steroids or Romanowski's links to them into the case. She didn't find sufficient connection between Romanowski's steroid use and his fight with Williams. "That was a red herring," says Romanowski's lawyer, Jeff Springer, the only person from the Romanowski camp who was willing to comment. "They tried to throw in everything they could to influence the jury."

This was a major point of contention for Williams' attorneys. During one recess, while the jury was out of the room, Brosnahan reminded the judge that Romanowski had tested positive for THG. "But we aren't allowed to discuss that!" Brosnahan shouted. It was then, Williams says, that Romanowski threw what amounted to another punch: he looked across the room and winked. Then, as throughout the trial, Williams sat motionless. "I wanted to get up and throw something at him," he says.

Which raises a question: why hadn't Williams sought retribution the old-fashioned way? In football, the most effective means of communication is quick and decisive violence. Why didn't Williams just retaliate, on the practice field or off it? "Of course I had all those thoughts," Williams says. "But I used the system. I thought I would get rewarded for using the system."

The system allowed Marcus Williams his day in court. A little more than a week into the trial. He offered proof that he was indeed an actual football player, not some scrub seeking a payday. Armed with a laser pointer, he narrated a football video in which he was the star. It was a series of clips from preseason games. Exhibit 145-A, a clip from a Raiders-Vikings game, shows Williams on the punt-return team. He sprints down the middle of the field, then peels back and levels an unsuspecting Vikings player, lifting him off the ground and leaving him on the dirt of the Network Associates Coliseum infield.

The jury ate it up, listening closely as Williams' voice grew animated. In a game against the Chiefs, Williams races downfield on punt coverage to make a play. "I had to beat a full-fledged-outright-superyou-can-see-it hold," he told the jurors, who laughed out loud. Then Williams described the intricacies of playing tight end, like what it takes to block 290-pound defensive ends. As he spoke, juror No. 3 solemnly nodded his head in agreement. It was clear that Williams had connected with the jury. Romanowski's good-guy act was a memory.

Shortly after Williams' testimony, Judge Castellanos called a recess and the jury left the room. While Williams' attorneys huddled at the plaintiff's table, Romo sauntered over and hovered. He stood there for about four seconds, then leaned over and glowered until Brosnahan sensed his presence. "Get away from here!" Brosnahan shouted. Then he motioned to Springer, Romanowski's attorney. "And tell him to stay over there!" The smirking Romanowski strolled back to the defense table and sat.

Thirteen days later, on March 22, the verdict was handed down. Williams was awarded a total of $340,000—$300,000 for the salary he would have made in 2003, and $40,000 for medical expenses. But for pain and emotional suffering, he got zero. A few minutes after the verdict, as Williams and Brosnahan were leaving the courtroom, juror No. 3 approached Williams in the hall. He told him that he and some others had been fighting for him. Then he gently pressed his hand to the left side of Williams' face and wished him luck.

Williams and his attorney decided to seek a new trial, but, rather than fight another battle against a third-string tight end, Romo backed down. On May 27, he agreed to pay Williams another $75,000 to settle the matter for good.

ON AN April morning in a Bally's Total Fitness in San Leandro, while a caramel-skinned woman in white biking shorts marches on the StairMaster, Williams is on his back struggling to complete a set of crunches. A man stands over him, yelling, "Come on, Marcus!"

This is Williams' life now. Three or four days a week, amid everyday folks trying to stay fit, the former pro athlete drills with his personal trainer, Joseph Keppard. Last July, Keppard was sitting in his office when he saw Williams in the weight room. "He would do a set, then drop the weight and kind of hang his head," recalls Keppard. "It told me he had a broken spirit." These days, they do double sessions starting at 5 a.m. "If he didn't have a white-hot burning desire," Keppard says, "I wouldn't work with him."

Unfortunately, it may all be exercise in futility. Williams' agent, Lee Kolligian, says the lawsuit has put a "chill" on any hopes of a comeback, that it has raised questions about his attitude, questions implied in every conversation with teams. And there's the matter of a journeyman having a twoyear layoff. He's Marcus Williams, remember, not Ricky Williams. "When you're out for that long," Kolligian says, "you may as well be in Siberia."

Still, Williams looks happy—leaner and younger than he did just four weeks earlier, during the trial. He has no regrets about what he's done. He's talking about a new start. "I'm looking for a place here in Oakland," he says. But when asked what he'll do, he shrugs. "I have some ideas," he says. And the way his eyes find the ceiling suggests that he has no idea what's next for him. For now he seems resigned, at peace even. He still wants to play, but only in one league. "The Arena League or the Canadian League aren't the dream," he says.

The settlement didn't change his mind about Romanowski. What Williams couldn't say in court, he says now. "He's a fraud. He would have never gotten where he has without steroids."

In fact, after the trial, Romanowski gave a confessional interview in the Rocky Mountain News in which he said he'd taken performance enhancers that weren't banned and that the NFL couldn't test for. He offered proof that the business of being an angry jerk can be quite lucrative. He even has a part in the movie The Longest Yard, playing a foul-tempered prison guard.

Williams saw the film—he thought it wasn't too bad, actually—but not without a small demonstration of protest. "I can't support it," says Williams. "A friend got a bootleg and I watched it."