- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2018

Madieu Williams suffered a concussion the first day he played organized tackle football. Twenty years later, he realized it.

At the first practice of his freshman year of high school, he absorbed a hit and began feeling a sharp headache. His coaches brought him off the field to let him recover.

The headache lasted into the night. It was with him when he woke up the next morning. But the cause was not officially diagnosed.

“Looking back on it and knowing what the science is saying now, that was a concussion,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Williams, now 36, played for DuVal High School in Lanham, Maryland, then Towson University, the University of Maryland and all the way to the NFL. He concluded his nine-year career with one season on the Washington Redskins, the team he rooted for while he was growing up. That first concussion, he said, was one of many, diagnosed and undiagnosed, over the course of almost two decades playing the game.

These days, with his years of roaming the field as a hard-hitting free safety behind him, Mr. Williams remains connected to football, as many NFL alumni do. But he is not a coach or a broadcaster. As an aide in a Maryland state delegate’s office, Mr. Williams helped write a bill that would prohibit tackling in football for children who haven’t reached high school.

Like many others in his sport, Mr. Williams has become convinced that there is a relationship between football’s violent impacts and the brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

“I enjoy the game of football. I played it, I loved it,” Mr. Williams said. “But at the end of the day, if we can make some changes to make the game more enjoyable and safe for today’s youth, then that’s what we need to do.

Redskin vs. ‘football purists’

Delegate Terri L. Hill, a Democrat from the Baltimore suburb of Columbia, introduced two bills into the Maryland General Assembly in early February centered on the safety of youth sports. One would require someone trained in concussion risk and management to be present at every youth practice and game.

The other, in addition to barring football players from tackling, does the same for body-checking in lacrosse and hockey and headers in soccer for the same age group.

Ms. Hill wanted to work on the issue this legislative session and reached out to Mr. Williams as a Marylander and former NFL player who was interested in the issue of concussion safety. As a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore, Mr. Williams needed to complete an externship for his degree. It was a good match.

“It’s nice to have somebody who is extremely intelligent, bright, enthusiastic, who has life experience and professional experience and gives a perspective that I otherwise wouldn’t have,” Ms. Hill said. “[He] is a hard worker and a strong advocate and can help us reach out to folks we need to reach out to.”

Mr. Williams works part of the week in Ms. Hill’s office in Annapolis while taking night classes for law school. The football bills are his primary focus. In addition to helping in the writing process, he monitors jurisdictions looking at similar bills — New York, Illinois and California — conducts policy research and speaks with Ms. Hill’s constituents.

Those constituents don’t remember Mr. Williams from his NFL days, he said. Their main concern is that their children won’t be allowed to play America’s favorite sport.

“I think oftentimes there are the football purists, I like to call them, who just like anything else are afraid of change,” Mr. Williams said. “They’re afraid of modification, which is what I feel as though this bill is focusing on. For the most part, the science is there for them to utilize the information to make an appropriate decision.”

Mr. Williams said his job is “to listen, first and foremost.” Some of his conversations have helped change minds or at least clarified that the bill is not meant as an “infringement on their choice to pick which game they want to play or choose for their child.”

The NFL has come under scrutiny for its handling of concussions and head trauma issues over the past 10 years, and participation at the Pop Warner level of the sport has declined amid a steady drumbeat of news about the connections between football and CTE. Many fans find the issue overblown and politicized by figures such as former President Barack Obama, who said in 2014 that if he had a son, “I would not let my son play pro football.”

The league, struggling suddenly with falling ratings after decades of growth, seems to be open to the idea of limiting contact in youth sports.

“There are … concerns about the risks involved,” a league spokesman acknowledged in an email to The Washington Times. “It has been encouraging to see … developments at the youth level, such as the certification of over 130,000 youth and high school coaches through USA Football’s Heads Up program; USA Football’s National Practice Guidelines — including limits on full contact; Pop Warner’s initiatives, from no intentional head-to-head contact to requiring players who suffer suspected head injuries to receive medical clearance from concussion specialists before returning to play; and 50 states have a Return to Play law, which can help reduce the rates of recurrent concussions. We hope that all youth sports will continue to take measures to reduce head contact through similar rules changes, education and improved protective equipment.”

As a former NFL player, Mr. Williams is instantly a potent symbol of the football safety movement — though he said that’s not why he got involved.

“I didn’t go into this looking to be a face of anything,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s more or less being proactive on understanding what the impact a concussion has on not only adults, but also potentially young children who are playing the game of football.”

Late bloomer

Mr. Williams was born in Sierra Leone in West Africa, and his family moved to Maryland when he was 9 because his parents were pursuing educational opportunities. He was exposed to football once he arrived in America because his father watched the Redskins on TV every Sunday.

His parents didn’t want him to play tackle until high school. He credits his group of high school friends who took football seriously for teaching him the game’s nuances.

One of those friends, J.B. Gerald, won’t take all the credit. He said the group practiced together six days a week and took Sundays off.

“But Madieu, it was church and then out to the field to practice and work. Madieu would go to the field by himself and work on his backpedals, work on his craft,” said Mr. Gerald, who was DuVal’s quarterback. “That’s a story we always laugh about [now], that Madieu didn’t even rest on Sunday. He was working every day of the week to work on his goal.”

Mr. Williams called himself a “late bloomer” physically and was lightly recruited coming out of DuVal. When his body caught up to his football IQ, Mr. Williams made it onto more radars. He transferred from Towson to Maryland and was eventually drafted in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2004.

The free safety finished his NFL career with 13 interceptions, 448 tackles, 5.5 sacks, four fumbles forced and four fumbles recovered. He returned two picks for touchdowns: one in his first year in the league and one in his final year.

After four years in Cincinnati and stops in Minnesota and San Francisco, that last season, 2012, was spent with the Redskins.

“It’s not so often you get an opportunity to play for your hometown team that you grew up watching, and that opportunity was there,” Mr. Williams said. “We decided it made sense for us and our family.”

A generation later, Mr. Williams and his wife, Ruth, are going to hold back their 4-year-old son, Mathieu, from tackle football until he starts high school, like Mr. Williams‘ parents did with him. It didn’t prevent Mr. Williams or other players, including Drew Brees and Jerry Rice, from reaching the NFL.

“Our job as parents in our household is to expose them to arts, introduce them to music, introduce them to various other interests they may not have been thinking about,” Mr. Williams said.

An off-the-field star, too

Mr. Williams‘ work starting the Madieu Williams Foundation earned him the 2010 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, the league’s top honor for charity work.

Started in 2005, Mr. Williams‘ foundation focuses on health and education for youths in the U.S. and Sierra Leone with physical fitness and after-school enrichment and programs. He built a school in Sierra Leone that now serves 300 K-8 students.

Given Mr. Williams‘ desire to “do the right thing,” Mr. Gerald isn’t surprised that he is on this new path of law school and safety advocacy.

“I didn’t know that he was going to go into law, but I knew that he was going to go into something that would help his community and help others,” Mr. Gerald said.

Once he receives his law degree, Mr. Williams is keeping his options open but laughs when asked if one of those options might be a run at public office.

“No, is that a joke?” he said before clarifying that he hadn’t given it much thought.

The bill with the former player’s fingerprints on it faces a tough challenge in the General Assembly. Ms. Hill is open to amendments at this early stage, but some Democrats don’t support it and it’s unclear if Republican Gov. Larry Hogan would sign it.

That won’t stop Mr. Williams from trying, even if it means no rest on Sundays.

“Once he accomplishes a goal, Madieu finds something else to conquer and go after,” Mr. Gerald said. “He’s a special dude.”

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