‘Still On The Roster – 29 years later’
Former Birds OT Bernard Williams Reacts To Release Nearly Three Decades After Last NFL Snap
The Nov. 16 edition of the NFL transaction log probably raised a few eyebrows.
The name “Bernard Williams” appeared under the Eagles’ roster housekeeping.
The inclusion of the team’s first-round pick from the Rich Kotite era must have seemed like a clerical error, as it’s been 29 years since the 6-foot-9 offensive tackle last played an NFL down.
The designation under his name read: “From Reserve/Suspended by Commissioner-At Least One Year.”
For perspective, Williams’ final game – a 33-30 road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals – fell on Christmas Eve, 1994.
But on Thursday, amid a typical work day, Williams received a phone call from a player he’d coached in high school, Ventell Boulware, now a scout for the Green Bay Packers.
Boulware had a rather significant news item to deliver to Williams, now 17 years removed from Williams’ most recent gridiron endeavor, a four-year stint with the Toronto Argonauts.
“I was actually at work when a kid I coached in high school … called and asked when was the last time I did anything with the NFL,” Willams told Inside The Birds over the phone from his home in Georgia.
“I told him I had just applied for some benefits recently, and [Boulware] said, ‘Well, your name just came across the [transaction] wire.’ I’m like, ‘For what?’ And he was like, ‘The Eagles released you.’ I had some kind of idea, but they never released me. And I always wondered what happened with that.
“When I went to Canada, the Eagles kept my rights through all of that. They never released my rights. But I had no idea that I was still on the roster 29 years later.”
Williams, who had failed numerous marijuana tests throughout his brief NFL tenure, was suspended in 1995 for six games, and for the remainder of the season just three months later.
“We didn’t have a drug policy my rookie year,” Williams said. “So, I smoked my rookie year without any consequence. But when I came back my second year, they said, ‘We have a new drug policy. You’re at stage 3.’”
Williams never played again, nor did he apply for reinstatement.
He instead languished on the Eagles’ reserve/suspended list, his playing days all but a distant memory.
Drafted to the Eagles out of Georgia with No. 14 pick in the 1994 NFL Draft, Williams, then 22, would be a plug-and-play left tackle on an offensive line that included the likes of left guard Antone Davis and right guard Lester Holmes.
Williams, who started every game as a rookie, faced a murderers row of pass-rushers, though it hardly deterred him from being named to the NFL’s All-Rookie team.
“I played every game, every snap my rookie year,” Williams said. “I didn’t have a sub. And I played against guys like Charles Haley, Ken Harvey … played against Reggie White. The whole team from Dallas, man.
“Clyde Simmons. Greg Lloyd. Kevin Greene. I ran into Kevin Greene at the Super Bowl, and when he walked by me, he stopped and he was like, ‘Hey, man. You beat me up!’’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I did.’ If you go back and look at the film, I had a good rookie season.”
Williams’ downfall was largely attributed to a host of external factors, many of which stemmed from family tragedies and strain.
When he was in high school, Williams lost his father, Walter.
On draft night, April 24, 1994, his mother, Celestine, informed Williams, her youngest son, that she had stage 3 breast cancer.
Williams’ aunt, Alice Marie Johnson, faced drug charges and began her trial during his rookie season. Johnson initially faced a life sentence that was ultimately reduced to 22 years.
“Marijuana was just a crutch for me back then,” Williams said. “I let it get in the way of the other things I had planned and kind of just bowed out. The whole situation had just become too much for me, so that was kind of my way of bowing out.
“I really just needed some time off at that point. At that point in time, and how things were, there was really no time for me to get that time off for my mental health.”
Williams would remain in Philadelphia for another year or two after, at one point determined to make a return to the NFL as a reclamation project.
But the reinstatement procedures were too onerous for him, spawning a sweeping sense of despondence and pessimism. Williams would eventually lose his passion for the game.
“I could play football right now, if somebody asked me to,” Williams insisted. “Football has never been hard for me. I took those six years off. After my mom passed, it took me a while. I was hurting, I was clinically depressed for a while after my mom passed.
“Around ’99, 2000, I started to put it back together and my agent called and said, ‘Ya know, there’s still some teams that have interest in you. The Eagles still have your rights, and there’s still some other teams that have called about you.’”
Williams, hesitant to apply for reinstatement, chose instead to revitalize his career in Canada – a place he referred to as the “the actual free version of the United States.” He latched on with the BC Lions.
The final professional stop for Williams brought the well-traveled tackle to Toronto in 2003, where he played for the Argonauts for four seasons.
In 2004, the Argonauts would defeat the BC Lions, 27-19, to secure a Grey Cup win.
It was during the 2006 season – Williams’ final season – when he crossed paths with Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, a repeat offender of the NFL’s drug policy.
Facing a year suspension, Williams had travelled north to rehabilitate, under the pretense that he would return to the Dolphins the following year.
“When Rick first got to Canada, he seemed to be avoiding me,” Williams recalled. “Because I believe he was still trying to get back in the league and I didn’t wanna mess him up with that, because I was chillin’ in Canada, doing pretty much what I wanted to do.
“So, when Rick came up and finally found out that they couldn’t come up and drug test him, that’s when we started to hang out.”
Williams also developed interests outside of the football realm. He and his nephew, former Chiefs safety Eric Berry, launched “Stunt MotorSports,” restoring old cars.
He also owns and operates “Build a Big Man,” working with offensive and defensive linemen, along with his consulting company, “I Make Players LLC.”
Williams’ training is hardly relegated to linemen, as he’s even trained some of Berry’s former University of Tennessee teammates, including former Eagles tight end Jason Croom, when he sought to refine his run blocking.
Williams also worked with Chargers pass-rusher Joey Bosa prior to the 2016 NFL Draft at XPE Sports in Boca Raton, Florida.
Williams’ latest venture, Smokin’ Aces, is a catering company based in Fairburn, Ga., specializing in barbecue.
Though occupied with several projects in the most recent phase of his life, the former first-round pick continues to keep tabs on the Eagles, who enter Monday night’s matchup against the Chiefs – for whom Eric Berry played nine seasons and made three All Pro teams – with an NFL-best 8-1 record.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Who’s your team?’ Williams said. “I’m gonna always be an Eagles guy because the Eagles chose me. I’ve only been to one game since I left there.
“I came to see my nephew (Berry) play for the Chiefs … they played the Eagles back when Mike Vick was there. That was the last Eagles game I’ve been to. You know, you gotta lot of Georgia guys on the team … Nakobe [Dean], [Jordan] Davis, you got Nolan Smith on the team. So, I’m a [Bulldog] fan and an Eagles fan. I’m definitely happy about both of their situations right now.”
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.