Is he Erik the dread?

Published Jan. 24, 1996|Updated Sep. 15, 2005

He is exposed now. Erik Williams, man of the shadows, is out in the sunlight, and he does not look comfortable in it.

By nature he does his job _ his dirty work, some might say _ out of sight. No one watches offensive tackles in the NFL, only the holes they create. For most of his years in the league he has been obscured by the nature of his job and the glamor of his teammates.

Now, he stands on a podium in the middle of Sun Devil Stadium, the sun bouncing off a series of large scars on his forehead. His voice is soft, his eyes are hard, as if he is challenging you to think what you will.

Williams is out in the open. Still, he is a hard man to figure out.

Is he the luckiest man of this Super Bowl, fortunate not only to be here but to be anywhere? Or is he the dirtiest player in the game?

Is he the calm, low-key man he claims to be? Or is he the man who had to settle out-of-court a sexual-assault charge by an underaged exotic dancer?

Is he an average player on a great team? Or is he one of the keys to the most crucial matchup of Super Bowl XXX?

Or, as usually is the case, is Erik Williams a little bit of all of it?

"Erik, are you a dirty player?"

For Williams, the questions start low and hard, like a pass rusher exploding off the ball. This is what America wonders about him, if he is his generation's Conrad Dobler, a man who will hold, scratch, claw and bite to keep his quarterback upright.

Two games ago, he was the man with one hand on William Fuller's facemask, the other hand balled into a fist crashing on Fuller's head. One game ago, he was the man piling into the back of John Jurkovic's legs, putting him out of the NFC title game. The man who spent much of the game with his hands inside Reggie White's facemask.

"People can say what they want," Williams says quietly. "But in my heart, I know I'm not a dirty player."

Others disagree. White, who ended the game with scratches on his face, for instance. And Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd.

"Reggie White is a man of God, and he said Erik Williams is a dirty player," Lloyd said. "Who am I to disagree with a man of God? If it isn't dirty, it borders on being dirty."

Williams frowns. "Greg Lloyd has been fined for hitting quarterbacks with his helmet first," Williams said. "I think he's a dirty player."

Like it or not, Williams has developed a reputation as a man who will do what he must to protect the $50-million quarterback behind him. If it is a hand to the face, so be it. If it is a cut block to an opponent who has his back turned, so be it. Williams plays tackle as if he is in a street fight, and he acts as if replays of Jurkovic's injury have only recently given America a glimpse into what goes on in the trenches.

"It's a tough game," Williams said. "I don't care what people say about me. I'll take the bitter with the sweet."

For the Cowboys, Williams is one of the reasons Sunday could have a sweet ending. Dallas has a huge offensive line, dwarfing the Pittsburgh defensive line. With Emmitt Smith in the backfield, that will be the first stress test of the game. For the Steelers, it might be a test of survival, too.

"The way he plays, I might have to watch my hair," said linebacker Kevin Greene, whose locks reach his shoulder blades. "He might grab it. I might have to get a trim during the game."

Williams shrugs, as if he can't fathom why so many people are saying so many horrible things about him. He says White and Fuller complained about him out of the emotion of the moment. He says Jurkovic was hurt because he "was taking a rest play."

"Everyone who knows anything about football knows that was a legal block," he said. "I got off the ball late. I've made that block a lot this year, but no one got hurt."

Odd. If he were not cast as such a villain here, Williams might be the nicest story of this Super Bowl. It was after another trip to Arizona, on Oct. 24, 1994, that Williams' life almost ended.

After the team's return to Dallas, Williams and several teammates went partying. As Williams returned home, his speeding car veered off an exit ramp and into a retaining wall. Whether his car or his body was twisted more violently is an open debate.

Wide receiver Michael Irvin, following in his own car, rushed to Williams. He sat with him, urging Williams to hang on. "But he kept fading out," Irvin said.

Williams lived, although his right knee was twisted (two ligaments and a muscle were torn) and his hand and arm were injured. He came back ahead of schedule. He does not dominate the way he did before. "But I play aggressive," he said.

No one will argue with that. But there is a thin line between aggressive and dirty in the NFL. How often Williams crosses it has become a subject of debate.

"I play hard," Williams said. "But I don't play illegal. If I hurt someone on an illegal play, I would feel bad."

Williams looks at you, as if to show you he doesn't feel bad.

And that he doesn't care how you feel about that.