Monday, July 17, 2006

His real name is Zema Williams, but Washington football fans know him as “Chief Zee,” a big-hearted 65-year-old retired car salesman who has been a fixture at Redskins football games for nearly three decades.

In his colorful Indian headdress and elaborate costume, the affable Mr. Williams — who bills himself as “The Man Who Put the Soul in the Burgundy and Gold” — has entertained generations of Redskins fans with his whooping and hollering, and has charmed children by making balloon animals.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Mr. Williams said. “After 20 years, I said I’d give it 30 years. Hopefully, I can get a Super Bowl out of it. I get younger fans saying how much their parents and grandparents enjoyed me.”

But Chief Zee will be sidelined this fall. Mr. Williams, an Army veteran, spent 12 days in a veterans hospital in May with an aneurysm in his stomach. A blood clot in his left leg has crippled him, and the big toe on his left foot will have to be amputated.

Living on Social Security, the Redskins’ unofficial mascot is facing a pile of medical bills.

This is the first time Mr. Williams has been injured since a game at Philadelphia in 1983, when angry Eagles fans attacked him, breaking his leg, tearing off his original Indian costume and leaving him hospitalized. Fans donated money for his recovery. He never missed a game.

In 2000, Mr. Williams was inducted into the special fans section of the NFL Hall of Fame as the Redskins’ No. 1 fan, rivaling the portly fellows who dress up as lady pigs and call themselves “the Hogettes.”

Before every game, fans would beg Chief Zee to stop by their sections, especially if there was a birthday or anniversary to celebrate. He always made sure to walk the entire circumference of the stadium. One year, he took a live hog to the football stadium.

He says he has spent “uncountable” money of his own over the years: airline tickets for away games, tickets for home games, balloons, trinkets. He has also appeared at various Redskins charity events over the years, as well as at the Special Olympics.

But he doesn’t know how he’s going to get around FedEx Field in a wheelchair.

Wearing a Redskins cap, large glasses and gray mustache, Mr. Williams — born in Georgia, the son of a sharecropper — enjoys sharing his passion for the Redskins.

“I’d always say, ‘Bring it to the Chief; bring it to the Chief,’” he says, recalling a time when Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss, after completing a touchdown, ran over to the stands and gave the football to Mr. Williams.

One wall of his Oxon Hill apartment is covered with photographs depicting Chief Zee with NFL players. Now, a wheelchair and a walker rest beneath a huge Redskins wall hanging.

“The season starts next month. But I can’t walk. I’ll have problems. The stadium is so hard to work,” he says.

“I’ve enjoyed it, other than the beating,” says Mr. Williams, who also recalls the time he got “roughed up” in Giants Stadium in 1979 by New York fans he calls “the stupos.”

He lives on a fixed income of $1,039 a month. His rent is close to $800 a month. “All I can afford to do is keep a roof over my head.”

A spokesman for the Washington Redskins said the team was unaware of Mr. Williams’ hospitalization.

“We didn’t know a thing,” said spokesman Karl Swanson. “We obviously wish him the best. He means a lot to us and his fellow fans. We hope he stays a fixture for a long time.”

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