Henry “Gizmo” Williams, football player, motivational speaker (born 31 May 1962 in Memphis, Tennessee, United States). Gizmo Williams is considered the greatest return specialist in the history of the Canadian Football League (CFL). In 14 seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos (now Edmonton Elks) between 1986 and 2000, Williams set more than 20 CFL records, several of which still stand, including most punt returns (1,003); most yards on punt returns (11,134 yards); and most touchdowns on punt returns (26). He won the Grey Cup with Edmonton in 1987 and 1993 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
Early Life and Family
Henry Williams was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to a family beset by tragedy. His mother died from multiple sclerosis (MS) when he was a young boy and his father died in a house fire at Christmas time the following year. Another brother died in a shooting and a sister died from a drug overdose. One of 11 children, Williams also lost seven siblings to illnesses related to MS. Henry’s older brother Edgar became Henry’s surrogate father, dropping out of school at age 21 to take care of the family. In his early teens, Henry and his youngest siblings moved to Mississippi to live with their aunt. Edgar died in 1986.
“Nobody in my family has lived beyond the age of 35,” Williams once said in an interview. “People ask me if I worry about it. I never worry about something I can’t control,” he said. “People ask me about heroes and they’re thinking I’m going to say Tony Dorsett or Herschel Walker. My brother Edgar was my hero.”
Williams discovered his love for football through a schoolyard game called “hot ball,” in which one person would catch a football and other kids would try to tackle them. Williams has said that his friend, Greg, saw how elusive Williams was on the playground and suggested he try out for the football team.
Williams credited football with keeping him out of trouble as a youth. He received a scholarship to attend Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he competed in football and track and field. At 5 foot 6, he was remarkably undersized for both sports. As a sophomore in 1982, Williams helped carry the Rangers to their first football national championship. He was named first team All-American and was also named to the Junior College National All-Star Team. Williams also excelled at sprinting, setting a state record in 1982 in the 220 yard dash. He could run the 100 m dash in 10.2 seconds and could bench press 158 kg (350 lb).
Williams then transferred to East Carolina University (also on a scholarship), where he played his junior and senior seasons. He recorded the second-longest kickoff return in program history with a 99-yard return and finished third all-time in school history for career kickoff return average. In 1983, he led the NCAA in punt return touchdowns and kickoff return touchdowns, and was second in average yards per kickoff return.
Memphis Showboats and Nickname
After graduating from East Carolina University, Williams was selected 36th overall in the 1985 USFL Collegiate Draft by the Memphis Showboats. (The United States Football League was a short-lived league, similar to the World Hockey Association, that tried to rival the National Football League.)
Williams spent one season with the Memphis Showboats before the USFL folded. He amassed a total of 1,046 yards and one touchdown in 17 games. While playing with the Memphis Showboats, one of Williams’s teammates, defensive end and future hall of famer Reggie White, nicknamed him Gizmo, after a small, likeable character in the 1984 move Gremlins.
Edmonton Football Team (1986–88, 1990–2000)
Williams was a return specialist during his 14 seasons with Edmonton, but he also played as a wide receiver. He had two seasons where he received for more than 900 yards and at least 21 touchdowns. However, he was so impactful as a return specialist that the CFL changed its rules restricting the number of American players on a team to allow every team to carry one American kick returner. (This is now referred to as the designated American rule.)
In his 14 seasons with Edmonton, Williams set more than 20 CFL records, several of which still stand. He holds CFL records for most punt returns (1,003); most yards on punt returns (11,134 yards); most touchdowns on punt returns (26); and most kickoff returns (333 returns for 7,291 yards and two touchdowns). He is also tied for most punt return touchdowns in a season with five. His total career yards (receiving, rushing and returning combined) of 23,927 ranks second all-time behind Michael “Pinball” Clemmons.
Williams also won two Grey Cups with Edmonton, in 1987 and in 1993. He made one of his most memorable plays in the 1987 Grey Cup, where he set a record by returning a missed field goal attempt 115 yards for a touchdown. In 2005, it was named the greatest Grey Cup play of all time in a vote by fans.
Williams made 14 postseason appearances, playing in a total of 22 playoff games and five Grey Cups. He was named a CFL Western Division All-Star seven times (1987, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1997) and a CFL All-Star five times (1987, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994). He was well-known for doing a flip in the end zone to celebrate a touchdown; he started this in college football, where flips, unlike spiking the ball, were not penalized for showboating.
Philadelphia Eagles (1989)
Williams spent the 1989 season playing for the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL. He played 13 games for the Eagles, returning a total of 516 yards on special teams. After the season, he returned to play with Edmonton. He told a reporter at the time that he fulfilled a dream by playing in the NFL but considered Edmonton home.
Williams has five children and has been married twice, first to Petra Chambers and then to Lisa Marie Martin. In 1996, he pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman at a nightclub in 1994. He was sentenced to a one-year conditional discharge, 50 hours of community service and one year of probation.
Since retiring from football in 2000, Williams has continued to live in Edmonton, where he works as a personal trainer and a motivational speaker. He also coached the senior football team at Jasper Place High School in the city’s west end in 2017. Williams was invested in the community throughout his career in Edmonton and was honoured in 1999 with the team’s Community Services Award.
Honours and Awards
- CFL All-Star (1987, 1991–94)
- CFL West All-Star (1987–88, 1991–94, 1997)
- Edmonton Eskimos Community Services Award (1999)
- Edmonton Elks Wall of Honour (2002)
- Northwest Mississippi Community College Hall of Fame (2002)
- NJCAA Football Hall of Fame 1997
- Canadian Football Hall of Fame (2006)