By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
In a post-LeBron James world, the phrase “More Than An Athlete,” has become a rallying cry and common refrain for today’s ambitious professional players of games, meant to state that these often objectified public figures have more things they’d like to represent in their lives than what’s thrust upon them or limited to them by society.
In measuring up the “More Than An Athlete” movement, we’d do ourselves a disservice to ignore or count out the efforts being made by former stars or those who have mostly always let their actions speak as loudly as their words.
I learned as much in observing New York Yankees legend Bernie Williams walk in a charity event promoting awareness of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF). Done in partnership with Chicago’s Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, the event took place last Saturday at Diversey Harbor to help raise awareness about the disease through the Breathless campaign, of which Williams has become a public face.
It is a campaign that is close to Williams’ heart — his father died in 2001 to IPF, which is currently an un-curable lung disease.
Beyond the personal connection to the disease and cause, this platform not only allows Williams to testify his efforts to raise health awareness but it also allows him to pinpoint and overcome many realities and struggles he’s dealt with in his life, dating back to his time as a professional baseball player and even before that.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Williams, 51, started playing the game of baseball around the age of 7 or 8. Growing up with a mother who was an educator in the Puerto Rico’s public school system, she was adamant in introducing Bernie and his brother Hiram to sports, arts and music.
Initially, Bernie’s mother did not see baseball and music as full-time careers for her children, and neither did Bernie, but she ultimately supported it when she realized that Bernie was good at these endeavors and opportunities arose for Bernie to provide the income needed to survive.
“In my mother’s eyes I was going to be the next Dr. Williams or (an) architect/engineer,” Williams told WARR Media. “That was until she saw the first check and said I guess this is going to be your way of making a living and we’re going to support you in that.”
Williams needed all the support he could get, especially early on in his baseball career. Coming to the United States at the age of 17 after signing his first contract with the Yankees, it took time for Williams to adjust to the culture of the U.S. and doing things like learning fluent English as well as the ways of the American people and the ways of a professional.
On top of all that there was learning to become a man and handling the vast amounts of pressure of maintaining success in the minor leagues without the physical presence of his family was strenuous for Williams.
It would take five and a half years before Williams was called up to the major leagues, where he would begin what would be a successful 16 years in a Yankees uniform, featuring his showcase play in center field and his clutch hitting in the middle of a legendary Yankee run that saw the team run baseball with five American League pennants and four World Series wins in six years. Williams would retire in 2006 with his legacy out sized in the the minds of lovers of the Bronx Bombers from New York and beyond.
However, many issues arose for Williams in building that legacy and sacrifices had to be made.
Playing 162 games consistently every year takes a toll on your mental and physical health. During each ultra-competitive season, Williams and his teammates experienced hearing racial and derogatory slurs from opponents’ fan bases as the Yanks’ steeped themselves deeper and deeper into as stark a divide of love and hate as any franchise has seen.
Williams even recalled a moment when a team made fun of Jorge Posada’s son, who was suffering from craniosynostosis. But Williams handled his issues through daily preparation before every game and staying focused on the goals ahead of him.
“[The racial slurs] got me more laser focused [on the game].” Williams said. “I took it as a challenge and always embraced it. A lot of times the opposition paid for their indiscressions when it came down to things like that.”
Williams not only learned more about himself, but also learned from his teammates. Playing alongside greats players such as Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and plenty others, he learned that everyone had a different routine on how to prepare for the game, but when it was time to play ball, they were ready to play. Williams was amazed at the adjustments his teammates made when it came to handling adversity and various struggles throughout the seasons. He recalled the consistency his teammates played with, especially Jeter.
“Derek Jeter was the same guy whether he was 4-4 or 0-4 with 4 strikeout,” Williams said.
“His approach never changed because he had that inner confidence to know for himself from within that he had the ability to play the game and he was not going to let a bad day have him second-guess his ability.”
Williams’ career put him in the middle of some very historic moments, from winning the four championships and participating in some of the most memorable games in the MLB’s most storied rivalry against the Red Sox.
Always standing out in memory as well is playing in the wake of 9/11 in the city where most of the tragedy of that day took place. Just over 18 years past, Williams expressed his gratitude to place for not just a city, but for a country during that time, making an effort to utilize sports to bring normalcy to the New York citizens and Americans across the country.
“We were in a situation where we transcended the game,” Williams said. “It was not about being a sports fan, but being a country fan. And we were part of that process. I think it was one of those few times that the whole country was rooting for New York to win and we didn’t. But to be part of that process really transcended the game.”
Today, Williams is a Grammy-nominated musician, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and is transitioning to playing at various events in the newest phase of his life.
Even though he experienced a successful baseball career, Williams admits to wanting to change some things if he could, especially in regards to improving his relationship with his kids. Williams was married with three kids by the age of 28, and balancing the drive to stay successful in the major leagues with maintaining a fatherly presence took a toll on his maintaining a happy family.
Even though he does a have good relationship with his kids today, Williams believes it could have been better if he handled his responsibilities when he was younger.
“I would have brought my family and get them more involved in the game/in my work. I was just compartmentalizing that they were in their world and the other world as my work. Sometimes I regret that because I think they took baseball as the thing that took my dad away from us.”
Williams can relate to what it means to lose a father.
As he strives to maintain being a good father, he also uses his time to give back to the community through various charitable campaigns, including the IPF walk that he recently participated in. 132,000 people are currently suffering from the disease while 40,000 people die from it every year and 50,000 people get diagnosed with the disease every year, with the numbers continuously rising. Williams wants to make sure the awareness spread throughout the country.
“Unfortunately there is no cure for this disease, but there are options that has people that suffer from this disease can explore and evaluate,” Williams said. “It is really important that during the course of the year, we are creating awareness for IPF. It’s at the top of my list because it is an important topic and people should know about it.”
Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media