Skip to main content
Original Issue

Will Willie go for the gold or gold?

Willie Gault, a hot NFL prospect, has hot Olympic prospects as well

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 (6'1½"), 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.

Tennessee's tradition of using track stars as wide receivers dates back to the days of Richmond Flowers in the mid-'60s. Three members of last season's pass-catching corps—Gault, Darryal Wilson and Mike Miller, all of whom had been members of the track team—went in the first four rounds of the NFL draft. "From opening day of practice as a freshman," says Gault, "I knew I was the best player on the team." He buttressed that contention by going 69 yards for a touchdown with his first catch.

Miller and Wilson lost their 1983 track eligibility when they went to Tampa in February to be tested by one of the NFL's scouting combines. "I figure it'll cost us 30 points at the NCAAs," says Huntsman, whose Vols finished second at the collegiate outdoor championships in 1982. Gault didn't go to Tampa, which may or may not prove anything about his Tennessee team spirit. "I ran the 100 in 10.10 last year," he says. "I don't have to show anybody how fast I am."

"Gault's not just one of those guys who can run well in a straight line," says LSU Football Coach Jerry Stovall. "He has great hands and excellent body control. He scared us to death." Last fall the Tigers purposely kicked off away from Gault. That tactic worked for three quarters, until LSU's kicker accidentally sliced one Gault's way. He returned it 96 yards for a TD. "When he passed our bench," says Stovall, "all I heard was beep-beep."

"If you're going to get a look at Willie with a football, you'd better look fast," says Vols Football Coach Johnny Majors. "He's the fastest there is."

As a kid Gault longed to get out of Griffin. His parents work in textile mills. "I wanted to escape from the way they have to struggle," he says. "I thought that there was more to life than making towels."

He got his build from his father, James, a former amateur baseball player, and his first name from his mother, Willie Mae. "He's always been confident," she says. "When he was in the sixth grade he thought he was the best artist in school. He could look at a comic book and just draw it out: cars, people, a heap of little things. He'd sit in his tree house and draw for hours. I thought that he was going to be an artist, but he fooled me. Everything he tried to do, he just picked up and did."

Gault absorbs things quickly, and from almost everyone, even from the scores of agents who have been swarming around him of late. "They give me a different perspective on business," says Gault, a marketing major. "I'm learning how to control money and promote myself." He has certainly grown more sophisticated. No longer does he order Russian dressing on a salade vinaigrette, though he still trowels honey on his Chateaubriand. "I'm very particular about what I eat," he says.

To improve his hurdling technique, he sought out Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah, the former No. 1 hurdler in the world, who abandoned his Olympic hopes last year to become a wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers. Nehemiah told him to go over a hurdle with his head up but Gault still keeps his head down, like a fullback bulling into a defensive lineman. "I think of the hurdle as an obstacle in my way," says Gault, "the same as when I'm up against a defensive back. It's my enemy."

If so, to hear Gault, it's about the only enemy he has. "Some people have only one or two friends," he says. "I've got thousands." He expects about 1,200 of them to show up at his June wedding, which promises to be the biggest event of the track season. Nehemiah will be one of the three best men. The ushers include Carl Lewis, Stanley Floyd, Mel Lattany and Harvey Glance. "We plan on setting a couple of hurdles down the aisle that Skeets and I will go over," says Gault, containing a laugh.

The wedding will have an Oriental motif. Dainnese and her bridesmaids will wear brocade silk dresses. At the reception there will be fried rice, papayas, egg rolls and a 15-tiered cake bordered in bamboo and topped with ceramic Chinese figurines.

In the meantime Gault plans to remain inscrutable about his future in athletics. The Bears are confident that he'll play for them. Of course, their recent track record makes that view suspect. Their fourth-round selection in this year's draft, Notre Dame Guard Tom Thayer, had signed with the USFL's Chicago Blitz three hours before they picked him. Gault could, of course, sign no pro football contract this year, go through the draft again next April, run in the Olympics and, when they're over in the middle of August, negotiate with whatever club then holds the rights to him.

Gault's dreams are just about evenly divided between the two sports. "I'll be running into the end zone with the winning touchdown," he says, "or crossing the finish line, but either way the crowd will be on its feet yelling: 'Willie! Willie! Willie!' "

Well, what will he do? Go for gold, or the gold?



Willie and Dainnese expect 1,200 of their closest friends to see them tie the knot.