When entering Jamie Williams’ Memorial Stadium office, you might get the initial impression from the framed photographs and portraits on the wall opposite the door that you are walking into an athlete's trophy room.
An illustration of him as a Houston Oiler, which looks like it was taken from a 1980s childhood bedroom wall, hangs alongside a photograph of him running downfield during his days as a tight end with the San Francisco 49ers. His Nebraska years are represented similarly.
But to the left of those photos is a dry-erase board with quotes from Sun Tzu and Gandalf and the 11 lines from the Langston Hughes poem, “A Dream Deferred.”
Next to that is a framed illustration of Spider-Man depicting him in what a comic book fan would instantly recognize as the Venom suit -- an alien being that bonded to Peter Parker, giving him extraordinary powers while also threatening to overtake his identity.
And on another wall, flanked by Williams’ four diplomas, hangs a sword -- a really, really big sword.
On any given morning, Williams, Nebraska’s associate athletic director of diversity and leadership initiatives, might study a report from a fellow Big Ten institution. A Wisconsin diversity report was on his desk Wednesday morning. He frequently takes phone calls from higher-ups in fellow athletic departments. Williams’ longtime friend, and current Maryland AD, Kevin Anderson, called the same morning. (“Yo, Kev!” is how Williams answered his cell.)
But more and more since Williams, 52, returned to his alma mater in June, he said some of Nebraska’s student-athletes and recruits are visiting his office. And Williams, who wrote the screenplay that would become “Any Given Sunday” and came to Nebraska after building what is now a 16-sport athletic department from scratch at an art school, has plenty to say.
“Very rarely do I talk to them about their athletic skill,” Williams said. “They have coaches for that. What I talk to them about is who they can become.”
So those pictures of Williams on the wall are for them, he said. Everything on display is there by design.
“I’m really big into metaphor,” Williams said. “Metaphors transcend. Boilerplate doesn’t. The company line, the standard doesn’t translate. It doesn’t transcend. But metaphors do. That’s why we use them.”
In Williams' experience, there isn’t much more transcendent of a metaphor than a warrior’s sword.
“The object of this game is to leave here with a sword,” Williams said. “If you don’t have a sword, you’re either a peasant or you’re blessed and born within the aristocracy -- you’re born Donald Trump’s son. And there are very few of those people around. So you need to figure out how to get a sword and use it, because now you can defend yourself and assure you can get something to eat. That’s a medieval type of way of looking at things, but the college degree is today’s sword.”
The late Wayman Tisdale might be as well-known for his jazz musicianship as his basketball career. Major League Baseball veterans Bernie Williams and Bronson Arroyo play a mean guitar. Former Denver and San Diego offensive guard Ernie Barnes was the official artist of the 1984 Olympic Games.
The myth, Williams said, is that an athlete can’t be an artist and vice versa. The reality is that they can be.
“We grow up in a society where people are more comfortable putting others in boxes,” said Williams, who captained both his high school’s football team and poetry club in Davenport, Iowa. “I never felt like I belonged in a certain box. I felt like I belonged in boxes.”
Williams took the associate AD job at Nebraska after serving as athletic director of a school that, until he was hired in 2005, didn’t have an athletic program -- the for-profit Academy of Art University in San Francisco. The Division II program is the only art school in all of the NCAA.
There, he found that the art students practiced fundamentals and grew into themselves the same way that athletes do. When he threw up a challenge, they rose to it. The school's mascot -- the Urban Knight -- was named and designed in the days after Williams proposed a campus-wide contest.
"Students have been inspired by his spirit, and faculty excited by his inspiration," Academy of Art University President Dr. Elisa Stephens said when Williams' departure was announced. "Our lives and spirit are better because of him."
And Williams, who still serves on the Academy's board of advisers, keeps track of the program. He scrolled through photos of the athletes on the Urban Knight's student-designed website, noting a men's basketball player who had transferred to Art U. from a Division I school, and a women's player who hit five three-pointer for the 11-3 squad. He pointed out that, along with stats and rosters, you can view athletes' artwork online.
“I created this mantra right here,” he said, pointing to the right-hand corner of the screen. “‘Be Artist, Be Athlete.’ Because I figured we had to have an easy, quick mantra that you can always remember, like Nike’s ‘Just Do It.’ Doesn’t have to be grammatical. Just has to be like coaches talk to you. Be Artist. Be Athlete. Be both. Be the dichotomy. Be the warrior-poet, OK?
“And they’ll do it. If you tell 'em it’s OK, they’ll do it.”
Williams can talk dichotomy.
While in college, the broadcast journalism major DJ'ed a funk show on KRNU called “The Iceman Cometh.” The station played mostly top-40 songs when he attended UNL from 1978 to 1982, so he had to bring in records from The Gap Band, Al Green, Stevie Wonder and others, because KRNU didn’t have them. His teammates did.
“A lot of brothers who were from various areas of the country, we connected through our music, not just the color of our skin,” he said. Hearing some familiar music made the California and Texas guys feel a little less homesick. Soon enough, fraternity brothers from the predominantly white Greek system were calling in and thanking him for playing the funk, too, he said.
“That’s the thing that set me off in college,” Williams said. “I didn’t get a hard time (about the show) at all, and people liked it. I thought, let’s stay creative.”
During his Houston Oilers days, he said Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews made him stand up and bellow the mantra of Conan the Barbarian before they took the field. Williams, who’s read more than 30 of the Conan paperbacks, happily obliged.
“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet,” Williams said. “Man, that’s some cool stuff!”
From Conan creator Robert E. Howard to Tolkien to Faulkner to Hughes, Williams said he's found something of himself in nearly everything he's read.
That includes comic books. Tons of comics. He said he owns about 8,000 of them.
“Each one of these characters has something they sacrificed to do what they do," he said. "That’s a hard thing for young people, or even adults sometime, to understand that sometimes you have to give up of yourself. You have to sacrifice certain things. Spider-Man, of course, does what he does because of guilt. Wolverine is a tortured soul because of what happened to him as a young man. Of course, the Silver Surfer gives up his humanity to save his people, to be a sentinel."
During his pro career, Williams wore a Spider-Man shirt underneath his pads and told himself that he was drilling linebackers for “the greater good.” When he was Parker, he was trying to keep a job, an apartment and a girlfriend. When he was Spider-Man, "he was one of the baddest cats on the planet," Williams said.
“Ultimately, that’s what you want to get your athletes to do," he said. "Once they put that jersey on, that helmet on, they become hero-like, if that makes sense. That’s the kind of thing for the kids that I’m trying to get them to grasp, the concept of student-athlete. Be the student first. Be that person. Be that Peter Parker.
"And when it’s time to go represent your university, your team, your coach, then go into that mode. That’s the only time you need to be in that mode. You don’t need to be bullying people. You don’t need to be strutting around. You only need to do that when it’s time for the quarterback to say ‘Hut, hut,’ or the tip-off in basketball or whatever.
“It’s not life or death, but it is a moment to help define yourself. It’s not like Navy SEAL stuff. It is a moment for you to define yourself in that moment. I don’t see how that’s much different than an artist.”