Staffer ran with the NFL’s fastest

By Fernando Quintero


Paul Williams

Campus groundskeeper Paul Williams displays a photo of himself taken in 1973, during his career as a defensive back for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Noah Berger photo

31 January 2002 | With a degree in social science from Berkeley and several Berkeley grads in his family, campus groundskeeper Paul Williams is a die-hard Cal booster.

“He bleeds blue and gold,” says Lisa Bauer, manager of Campus Recycling and Refuse Services.

But there was a time when Williams also was true to black, red, silver and white — team colors of the Atlanta Falcons.
Recruited to Berkeley in 1967 on a football scholarship, from a small liberal arts college in South Carolina, Williams went on to play in the NFL and the Canadian professional league, alongside the likes of Joe Namath, Warren Moon, Joe Theisman and O.J. Simpson.

Today, the 54-year-old sweeper operator starts his shift each day at 5 a.m., and before noon has swept clean all the campus arteries, streets and parking lots.

“I pick up leaves and debris all over the campus. When I go into the area, it looks bad. When I finish, it’s immaculate. It feels good. I went to school here. I like to see the campus looking good.”

As a staff employee, colleagues call him exemplary.

“He’s an unsung hero,” says Bauer. “For me he represents all those staff people who work hard and diligently because they own their work and are dedicated to what they do.”

Williams began playing football in high school in Charleston, S.C., and continued when he attended Benedict College, a traditionally black college in Columbia, S.C. A Cal football coach spotted Williams, and recruited him his sophomore year.

He came to Berkeley during a turbulent and colorful period — a time of “hippies everywhere,” Williams recalls. “In South Carolina, we had dress codes. I was coming to school with starched shirts and pressed slacks. My first week I called home and cried. It wasn’t too long before I was wearing dungarees. I had to change my attitude — quick.”

Meanwhile, Williams proved to be a star athlete. “I was one of the fastest receivers at the time,” he recalls, from the maintenance shop beneath the Edwards Track stands.

In 1968, he was drafted by the Falcons, but was injured the following year in a pre-season game against the Kansas City Chiefs. He returned to Atlanta in 1970, then went on to play for the Canadian league, which paid considerably more.

“Football players weren’t making the kind of salaries they make now,” says Williams, who earned $28,000 a year on the NFL team.

In 1972, Williams graduated with a B.A. in social science. His “main goal,” he recalls, was to get a degree and go back to South Carolina and teach at his old high school, which now has a scholarship in his name.

Instead, Williams spent nine years in Canada playing for the Winnepeg Blue Bombers and the Saskatchewan Rough Riders.

In 1978, a fan spotted him eating a hamburger in a southside restaurant. The fan turned out to be the campus facilities manager, and he offered Williams a job.

Williams instilled the value of education in his family, and has sent two daughters to Berkeley.

“He influenced me and my sisters, taught us to be strong-willed and set goals,” said Paula Williams, a special education teacher in Stamps, Ark., who earned her B.A. in social welfare from Berkeley. Her sister Rochelle, who graduated from Berkeley with a degree in early childhood development, is now working on her master’s. The third eldest, Corinne, recently graduated from CSU Sacramento.

From his second marriage, Williams has two daughters Aliky, 11, and Bianca, 8.

“They both play soccer,” he says. “My 11-year-old is fast. That’s me.”

Williams started on campus as a furniture mover, transfered to the groundskeeping unit in the mid-1980s, and has been working in the same department since.

Not even a health scare can keep him away from his work for long. Earlier this year, he had trouble breathing at work and was taken to the Tang Center, then rushed to Alta Bates. It was major artery blockage. Williams took a few weeks of medical leave, but showed up for work before he was scheduled to return.

“I don’t like to be off,” he says. “I enjoy my career. I like being around my co-workers.”

And he enjoys driving the large green street sweeper that helps keep the campus grounds beautiful. Though a “rough ride,” he says, “it does a great job.”

“I like being here, feeling like I’m still a part of Cal,” Williams says. “I’m not here because of the money. I’m here because of my loyalty. This is my school.”


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