I am on record saying how much I love special teams. Because of that it seems only natural that with my CFL fan hat on this series got me thinking about some of the great special teams players who have played North of the Border.
With my colleague, Greg’s latest article being about the great return man Devin Hester, it got me to thinking about great returners in the CFL. That, almost inevitably led me to one name, former Edmonton great, Henry ‘Gizmo’ Williams.
Henry Williams had a difficult road to the CFL stardom that would come his way. He was one of 11 children but his family would be struck by tragedy.
His mother and seven of his siblings would die of multiple sclerosis related illness. He lost a brother in a shooting and a sister died of a drug overdose. His father would die in a house fire.
Both of his parents having died when he was a child and he was initially raised by his brother, only for Williams to see him die too and an aunt step in with raising him.
He has talked about multiple sclerosis being a curse faced by his family. In a 2006 interview, (when he was 34 himself), he is quoted as saying, “Nobody in my family has ever lived past the age of 35”.
Yet Williams fought on and succeeded. His whole life and career are a testament to perseverance and overcoming extreme adversity.
At 5-foot-6, some might have said he would be too small for pro football. Those people would be proved very wrong.
He first made it to East Carolina University. Whilst with the Pirates Williams led the nation in kick off return yardage in 1983 and did enough to be given a shot by the Memphis Showboats of the USFL.
It was whilst with Memphis that Williams picked up his Gizmo nickname. Given to him by no less a luminary that NFL Hall of Fame member Reggie White.
An Edmonton Legend
After being released by the Showboats, Williams headed north to Edmonton. He would go on to be an Eskimo from 1986 to 2000 with a brief hiatus in 1989 when he spent half a season with the Philadelphia Eagles.
So successful would his career be that the CFL saw fit to create a ‘designated import’ spot on each team’s roster to allow for a game-breaker just like him.
Over a 14 year career as an Esk Williams accrued 23,927 all-purpose yards. He also played in 22 playoff games over 14 post season appearances.
At the time of his retirement, Williams held the CFL records for career punts returned for a touchdown with 26 & most punts returned for a touchdown in a single season with 5.
He still holds the CFL records for most punt returns with 1,003 and total career punt return yardage with 11,257 yards overall.
1991 proved a particularly stellar year in this regard as he set the single season record with 1,440 yards. Williams 232 yards in one game from that season also remains a league record.
Gizmo also counts the career CFL kickoff return records among his achievements. 335 career kick returns added up to 7,354 yards.
Most of those yards came on a single Grey Cup record return. Set as he returned a missed field goal by covering 115 yards.
Outside of the Grey Cup, Williams also set the record for the longest punt return in a CFL playoffs game, scampering for 103 yards vs Saskatchewan on November 15th, 1992.
Gizmo was named a CFL Western Division All-Star 7 times in 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 & 1997. He was also named a CFL All-Star five times. That being in 1987, 1991, 1992, 1993 & 1994.
He appeared in six Grey Cups during his 14 year career and took home a championship ring twice in 1987 and 1993.
Williams is a member of the North West Mississippi Junior College Hall of Fame, has a place on the Eskimos Wall of Honour. He is also a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame which he was inducted into in 2006.
Beyond the CFL
Because of his remarkable career and success Williams now seems like a prototypical Canadian football kick returner. Even though he managed over 900 yards receiving twice he was so successful a return man that he is the standard everyone is now judged by.
Since retirement Henry Gizmo Williams has acted as personal trainer, coached and been a motivational speaker. Something tells me whatever he does will be done successfully.
Banner image from the Edmonton Sun