Gizmo's a survivor

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:05 AM ET

HAMILTON -- He is 44 years old. In a career that was defined by some of the most jaw-dropping statistics the Canadian Football League has ever seen, that number -- 44 -- might be the most precious of all.

Ten years ago, during Grey Cup week in Hamilton, Henry (Gizmo) Williams talked about the curse of multiple sclerosis that has virtually wiped out his family.

"Nobody in my family has ever lived past the age of 35," he said. He was 34 at the time.

Once upon a time, Gizmo Williams was one of 11 siblings, with a mom and dad, growing up in Tunica, Miss.

MS took his mom first, when Gizmo was six. Then seven of his 10 brothers and sisters died of the disease. Another brother was shot to death. A sister died of a drug overdose. His dad died in a house fire.

Somehow, Gizmo Williams didn't just survive. He found his way to East Carolina University, then spent a year with the Memphis Showboats where he was given his nickname by none other than the late, great Reggie White.

A year later, he landed in Edmonton and became, for 14 glorious years, the greatest kick returner the CFL, or any football league, for that matter, has ever seen. In 149 regular-season games, The Giz returned 26 punts for touchdowns and punctuated each one with his trademark back flip. He ran back 1,003 punts for a record 11,177 yards and 335 kickoff returns for 7,354 yards, another record.

Last night he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame along with quarterback Matt Dunigan, defensive end Bobby Jurasin, wide receiver Allen Pitts and builder Vic Spencer.

At 5-foot-6, the tendency is to say The Giz was small. Big mistake. He was small in the way that a cruise missile is small. Even now, he maintains a physical regimen that even few professionals can match. He still has the massive upper body that made defenders feel like they'd been hit by a Hummer when Williams came their way.

B.C. Lions kicker Lui Passaglia once said the hardest he was ever hit in football was by Williams.

"We were playing Edmonton and late in the game, I punted to Gizmo," Passaglia, at the time of his retirement in 2001, said. "There was a big pileup and Gizmo hit the pile and I'm thinking there's no way he's getting through there so I slowed down to a halt. The next thing I know, he's running full speed through the pile of bodies, then I'm falling backward and he's basically running all over my chest and face. He ran right over me. I think I had cleat marks up and down the front of my jersey."

Yesterday, Williams' face lit up at the Passaglia reference.

"Me and Lui had some big moments," Williams said. "I remember about nine years ago, I ran one back for a touchdown against him and Lui hated me from that day on. But it was a good hate, it wasn't a bad hate."

That's the bottom line with a player and a person like Williams. Everybody loved him and still does. That's what makes his induction into the Hall of Fame such a popular one.

"It's just another chapter in my book," he said. "I learned that it's not about how you start, it's how you finish. I lost my mother and father when I was young. I lost four brothers to MS. Three sisters. A brother was shot. Four nieces and nephews. Another sister died of drugs."

For many of us, such catastrophic loss would have been crippling. But Gizmo Williams learned early to worry about only the things he can control in life.

"That's what made me the person that I am," he said.

"I'm a personal trainer and I try to keep myself in the best of shape because of the MS in my family. That's the main reason I like to be in the gym. I know only one way to train ... hard.

"Sometimes I forget that I'm not playing football any more. I still train like I'm getting ready for another game."

And, in a way, maybe he is. If it comes, it could be the biggest challenge of his life.

"I have no symptoms, nothing," he said. "But if it happens, I just have to go on being me."

He's a Hall of Famer at 44. We wish him 44 more.


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