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John Williams: The NFL Star Who Fell Hard and Then Redeemed Himself as a Dentist

We've heard the story too many times: A professional athlete has his moments of glory, and then, after leaving the game, goes astray and pays a heavy price for it.

But John Williams had a different story.

Williams, who died July 8 at age 64 while taking a walk near his home, earned All-American honors at the University of Minnesota in 1967 and then went on to play 12 seasons (and in three Super Bowls) as an offensive lineman in the NFL, first for the Baltimore Colts and then for the Los Angeles Rams.

All that time, Williams had another ambition: becoming a dentist. He spent his off-seasons as a part-time dentistry student, and eventually earned a doctorate in 1978 from the University of Maryland. When he retired from football after the 1980 season, he moved back to Minneapolis and launched a dental practice.

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But Williams' second act unexpectedly took a disastrous turn. He began using cocaine, and was indicted for selling a small amount of the drug to a college friend who turned out to be a federal informant. He ended up pleading guilty and served seven months in a federal prison. "When something like that happens . . . it makes you re-examine yourself," he explained in a 2002 interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "You have to go deep inside yourself and deal with things you don't want to deal with. You have to be honest with yourself."

After his release, Williams totally rebuilt his life, not only resuming his dental practice but becoming an exemplary citizen. He joined a group that visited prison inmates to assist in their rehabilitation, and he became active in organizations working to revitalize Minneapolis. In 1992, the city honored him as volunteer of the year.

In 2001, in the wake of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, Williams rushed to New York to serve on a seven-man forensic dentistry team that helped to identify the bodies of terror victims.


Photo credit: Vintage Football Card Gallery

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