Chief Zee, the Redskins and the setting sun
By Mike Wise,
Zema Williams trudges from the front door of his one-bedroom tenement, eyeing a visitor. Hunching, he is wearing a beige fishing hat with the team emblem, blue cotton shorts and a nine-year-old, black T-shirt, a smiling mug framed by his faux American Indian headdress that reads, “The Man Who Put The Soul in The Burgundy & Gold.”
He walks back inside in his brown, wool house slippers, which cover his nine toes.
“Blood clot went down my leg after surgery in ’06. Had to amputate my left big toe,” he says. “You don’t want to lose that toe; that’s the control.
Williams squints through his gold-rimmed, tinted glasses a day after cataract surgery on his right eye, the same eye a thug dislodged from its socket in 1983 when he was attacked by three men in the parking lot of Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium.
“My sight still ain’t right,” he says. “But as long as the Lord don’t call me, I’ll be there next Monday night.”
He is physically ailing. The commercial world and the team appear to be backing away as the recent fervor over the name controversy continues. His one-man, self-anointed tribe is nearing extinction.
But Oct. 2 will mark three and a half decades since a District car salesman first purchased feathers and spear from a costume shop and played dress-up during a Monday night game against Dallas at RFK Stadium in 1978. Chief Zee will turn 35 years old.
Zema Williams is 72, a mere man next to the alter ego he created, who has missed just four home games (all because of funerals) since 1978, who still zips around FedEx Field in the motorized scooter that owner Daniel Snyder purchased for his team’s inarguable No. 1 fan.
“My job is to entertain the people,” Williams says. “A lot of them tell me, they say, ‘You know, my wife won’t even cook me dinner till she see you on TV and says, ‘There’s my Injun.’ The older people been watching me so long, they don’t even say ‘Indian.’ They say, ‘Injun. There’s my Injun.’ And it’s on.”
In some ways, it’s as if Archie Bunker or Amos and Andy were hurled forward in time, not sure what to make of all these hypersensitive, politically correct folk who want them gone.
After all, no professional team in 2013 would begin letting an African-American man dress up in Native American regalia and wave a tomahawk, pay for his admission, his parking pass and let him shape animal balloons for children in the corporate suites on Sundays.
Yet like the nickname, Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have grandfathered in Chief Zee, tone-deaf to the caricaturing of an ethnic minority, unable to see past a franchise’s symbolic touchstone.
Williams can’t see it, either, for that would mean giving up his identity. And he can’t have that. He’s been to too many games, showed up for too many charity events as that costumed Indian.
Trying to enlighten him is like trying to enlighten your half-cocked, old-head uncle who uses racial epithets at Thanksgiving dinner. At some point, you either let him eat or kick him out — and no one is kicking Willliams out of his burgundy-and-gold bubble.
So you peel back the feathers in search of something else, go beyond the persona who only answers to “Chief” and try to find Zema.
“I’m broke,” he says, extending his palms. “But I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. I’ve got a key from Fairfax County. I got a P.G. County proclamation. I didn’t do that for the money.”
He lives in the bottom floor of a three-story apartment complex in Oxon Hill, in a small abode smelling of fresh incense. The NFL Network plays silently in the background, and sports-talk radio is blaring from the dining room.
“You in the ’hood now,” he says, cackling.
As expected, his apartment is a shrine. A painted mural of the late Sean Taylor, whose 2007 funeral he attended in costume, rests below the headdress, hanging on a corner lamp above one of four TVs, across from a 1987 Sports Illustrated with a dejected Chief Zee in the stands. To the right of the headdress and left of a cigar-store Indian is a picture of his children: Felicia, Andonus, Derrick, Dwayne, Robin, Eula, Prentiss, Ishmael and Kwame.
Williams has fathered nine children by six women. (The headdress evidently plays well with certain audiences.) Married once, he fathered his first child at age 21 and his last at 44. He has 23 grandchildren — “Don’t ask me about no names,” he says.
None of the relationships lasted “because of my involvements in this,” he says, pointing to a picture of himself with Robert Griffin III at training camp last year. “I was gone. I would go to Texas, go to Atlanta.”
Of his family life, he laments, “I messed that up because I was into being Chief Zee. The kids was fine with it, but their mothers wasn’t . . . committed.”
When he’s healthy, Williams still sells cars for SK Motors in Lanham. The wall behind him features a plaque that reads, “Salesman of the Year — County Chrysler Jeep, 1999-2001.”
Born in Georgia, he worked as a sharecropper and picked cotton as a youth. His father left the family when he was 6 weeks old, he said. He was driving a truck, hauling tractors and trailers, when he got a draft letter in 1960. Two years later, he completed his service at Fort Riley, Kan., and returned to his old job. By 1968, he had his first job selling cars in the District.
Ten years later, he put on the get-up and went to a game. His life changed.
Within months, Crazy Ray, a.k.a. Wilford Thompson, the Cowboys’ unofficial mascot, helped get Williams onto the Texas Stadium field for a Washington-Dallas game. The two befriended one another and made their cowboy-Indian act part of the lore between the two franchises.
Williams said he hasn’t been back to Dallas for a game since Thompson died in 2007. Some of Chief Zee’s family want him to move down to warmer climes where they can take care of him when he has a medical issue. They know the chances are slim, though.
“He’s not going to leave the Redskins and D.C. for nothing,” said Derrick Williams, 48, a mortgage underwriter in Jacksonville, Fla., who is one of Zema’s six sons. “My dad is pretty stubborn. Chief Zee is who he is. It’s not an act.”
It’s an act also not selling like it used to. People are backing away from Chief Zee these days.
He once made $1,500 for a two-hour personal appearance in Richmond with Bruce Smith and Art Monk. Now it’s down to Greene Turtle in Olney on game day for “a few dollars and dinner.”
“Back then, the players would call me and say, ‘You want to do this, you want to do that,’ and they would get me paid on their appearances. But the new players, it don’t make no difference. That’s all right. I ain’t got no problem with that.”
He shows you a small gold ring with a three-millimeter black-and-white face inside it. “That’s my Mama’s mama, a full-blooded Seminole Indian,” says Williams, adding that she died when he was 3 years old. He can’t find any documented proof but says he is looking into it. (“I heard that,” Derrick says, a tad skeptical. “I don’t know about that, though.”)
Williams is told his predicament now does have similarities to the man known as the last wild Indian.
“Who’s that, Geronimo?”
No, his name was Ishi. Starving after his tribe and family had been killed, he emerged from the Northern California wilderness in 1911 to a modern culture he could not fathom or adapt to. Within five years, his immune system failed, and he died of tuberculosis.
Chief Zee is dying, too. Zema Williams just doesn’t know it. And as you spend time with this warm, old man who hugs you and tells you “God Bless You” after every exchange on the phone or in person, you don’t have the heart to tell him to his face.
“One little Indian, two little Indian, three little Indians,” he hums, chuckling. “I’m a dying breed, all right — the last person representing a team where you can actually see my face. The rest of ’em is all cartoon characters.”
He has to go back to Veteran’s Hospital for his cataract Wednesday. As long as he can see through one eye, he will be there Monday night.
“I feel like I’ll know when it’s time,” Zema Williams says. “I’m not changing. I can’t. I came in this way. I’m going out this way.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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