Roy Williams has played just seven games in the past two seasons, but Mike Zimmer is quite convinced that wide receivers know his rule-changing, head-banging, pad-wielding safety is still around when things commence Aug. 8 in Canton against his buddies from Dallas in the Hall of Fame Game.
And then a week later when the Broncos come to Paul Brown Stadium Aug. 15. You remember the Broncos. It was Williams who led the Bengals with nine tackles in last year's opener that they held Denver without a touchdown until the last 11 seconds and a miracle.
"He's a puncher. When he hits you, he hits you," says Zimmer, the Bengals defensive coordinator who has twice lured Williams to Cincinnati in a Texas reunion still sizzling with more potential than pop. "It gets me mad when they write he isn't what he was and just four years ago he and Troy Polamalu were the two best safeties in the game. He was excellent before he got hurt last year."
That's when Williams sucked it up and twice tried to play with a fractured forearm before waving the white cast to injured reserve in early November, making that productive September of 25 tackles almost invisible.
Now with a clean bill of health, new boxing and sand workout regimens, and a custom-made carbon fiber pad for his arm that is lighter than summer reading, Williams is ready to be bad to the bone again instead of just out with a bad bone.
But a man named Bill Horn saw a different toughness to Williams a few months ago on a mission trip in northern Uganda near the Sudan border when Williams demonstrated to a poverty-stricken crowd how to use a water straw. The straws can be used for about a year and filter out filth to prevent death's twin towers of disease and dehydration. Members of a boys club brought their dirty clothes and poured them into a barrel, along with their spit, and Lord knows what else for the demonstration.
"And Roy dipped right in there with the straw to show them how," says Horn, co-founder of Pros For Africa. "No way I would have done that. That's tough."
Horn and his core Oklahoma products - Williams, Adrian Peterson, Mark Clayton, and Tommie Harris - made the 12-day trip to Uganda and South Africa. He watched Williams dig water ditches and smile the smile for the kids and now Williams has planned a Sept. 24 fundraiser in Cincinnati.
"I know he's been in Cincinnati only a year," Horn says, "but you'll find Roy has a huge heart."
It is all part of Williams' drive to give back to the community, which began eight years ago when he took $100,000 out of his rookie signing bonus with the Cowboys and donated it to alma mater Oklahoma for what is now the Roy Williams Strength and Speed Complex. It is why he is heading back to Oklahoma City at the fairgrounds this weekend to team up with Horn again, as well as the group RAM (Remote Assistance Medical), to administer free medical care Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
"First come, first serve," Williams says. "If you jump in the car today and get there in time, no matter who you are, you'll get free medical treatment. It's one of the biggest issues for the United States. It's health care and people not able to receive health care because they didn't have the funds to take care of themselves.
"I'm not going to sit up here and lie. Sometimes I'm like, 'Why does everybody go to Africa to help out?' There is a need in Africa. There's also a need back here in the States. People need help and we're just making sure we take care of home, too."
It is a little more ironic, then, that Williams' health is one of the things dominating Zimmer's thoughts these days. Williams arrived from Dallas last spring with a plate in his forearm, courtesy of a fracture that cost him all but three games in 2008. Zimmer is still seething about Williams not wearing a pad in a practice before last season's fourth game. From what Williams remembers, the play "wasn't much at all," and the practice was "kind of sort of like a walkthrough."
After rookie tight end Chase Coffman caught a ball, it got fast in a hurry, from what people can remember. Williams grabbed Coffman by one arm and swung with the other before letting it glance off Coffman's helmet.
But it broke.
"Again. Again," says Williams, disbelieving still.
"In my case, we won't have to worry about pads because I'm always going to wear my armpad; even when I use the toilet," Williams says. "Zim wants me to have it on. He's somewhere out there. Trust me. I hear from him every day. Every time I step out there this season my pad will be somewhere close strapped on."
Williams likes the new contraption that basically runs from just above his wrist to about his bicep. It was formed from a cast and slides over the arm. It will be taped to his arm and a small pad is taped over the top. He used it during the spring and says the arm held up well whenever it was bumped and jostled.
But he agrees that he won't really know until the pads come out and he's lining up to take someone out.
"Am I cautious about it? Am I worried about it? No," Williams says. "It's football. I'm not going to cut it off like Ronnie (Lott) did to his pinky. I'm not worried about it at all. I'm just going to go out there and play and whatever happens, happens. I'm looking forward to a great season and staying healthy all season."
Williams has no desire to talk about the good old days and regaining the form that got him to five Pro Bowls in Dallas, the first four under Zimmer.
"I'm not that person anymore. I'm not 21 and just coming into the league. It's (eight) years later," he says. "I'm more mature. A little more wiser. I think you become more seasoned and understand how people are going to attack you."
All of which is music to Zimmer's ears.
"As great as he was when I had him in Dallas, I thought he could have been even better if he worked on the things he needed to work on," Zimmer says. "He was always going to Hollywood or someplace. Football was important, but it always seemed like he was going somewhere and he was a celebrity.
"When I was driving to the stadium last year (in July) and saw it was him running over the bridge in a black sweatsuit, that really showed me something. I think he's working on those things. As long as he gets his weight down and keeps his long speed, he'll be good. He knows that. I remind him every day. His explosion, his quickness, his technique, that stuff is good."
Zimmer hasn't heard back from Williams ever since he texted him a few days ago, "I'm watching you in Hard Knocks as a rookie before you got fat." Zimmer loves Williams. He knows the big heart they know in Uganda and Norman ("He's a great kid," ZImmer says), but he also is a coach pushing the buttons.
And Williams has responded. Staying in Cincinnati working in the Ignition Sports gym last July, he got down to 217 pounds from 234 for his lowest weight since he went to the NFL Scouting Combine. When he showed up at Georgetown College for training camp, Ignition chief Clif Marshall said Williams approached his weigh-in like he was a fighter giddy before the bout.
This July, Marshall didn't even have to wait to hear from Zimmer or Bengals strength coach Chip Morton to get him in his Mason, Ohio facility. Williams himself approached him at the end of the spring workouts to set it up and he's coming off his first week of workouts. Marshall says Williams is in better shape than he was last year and at about 225 pounds he only needs to lose three more to get to the number the Bengals want. But the goal is again to be less than 220.
"I appreciate everything Clif is doing even though I don't like everything," Williams says with a smile. "He pushes you to the limit and beyond. It helps. Being an older player in the league you have to push yourself more than when you first got into the league. To stay ahead of the curve, it's tough but rewarding when the season comes."
Williams turns 30 the day before the Broncos come to town for the PBS preseason opener and he knows what that means. He admits he doesn't have the typical nine-year tread because of the last two shortened seasons, but he has put in the offseason grinds each year. Marshall has upped the ante with the boxing workouts topped off by the grueling sand runs.
Marshall expects that in the next week or two he and Williams will do what they did last year and after a morning workout he'll head to Williams' condo for another session.
"If you saw him box this morning, you could see that he understands that he's fighting for his life," Marshall says. "As guys get older, the good ones realize that. He didn't want to stop boxing, he didn't want to get out of there this morning. That was evident."
What is also evident is that Williams is excited about finally being able to get into the mix for a defense that finished fourth in the NFL and has everyone back. And they did it with just four starts from him and six from leading sacker Antwan Odom. Williams can sense a brand emerging.
"You know the potential of this team and everything we can accomplish when everybody is healthy and everybody is playing together. You saw flashes of it last year," he says. "They did an awesome job last year ... everybody is where they're at last year and even more because they're more confident. When you have a team that's confident, it builds a chemistry and arrogance. In a good way, not a bad way. I just feel it's going to carry on."