"Willie? It's simple about Willie," said Wayne Miller, his coach. "His head just wasn't in the game.
"You want to see how Willie used to play?"
Miller saunters across the floor of the dingy gym like Charlie Chaplin out for a Sunday stroll. He whistles. He stares off into space. He puts his right hand in his pocket and fiddles with his change. He looks like a man killing time as he waits for the bus, rather than a youngster playing the lightning fast sport of floor hockey.
"That's Willie a year ago," says Miller. "But look at him now."
At that very moment, William James, a 17-year-old mentally handicapped youngster from Northeast Washington, is flying down the right wing, puck poised for a shot.
He draws back. He fires. The puck clangs off the bar behind the net--a goal!
In a little more than two months, Willie and 12 teammates will travel to Baton Rouge, La., to represent Washington in the Sixth International Summer Special Olympics. On the campus of Louisiana State University, among 5,000 handicapped athletes from all over the world, a young man who can barely read, who speaks with difficulty and who can't count without using his fingers, will have a chance to be a champion.
For the last two months, I have been following Willie as he and the Washington Capitals floor hockey squad prepare for their trip to Baton Rouge.
In March, I took a look at Willie's childhood: his infancy, when his parents didn't know what was wrong with him, through his early teenage years, when it became clear that Willie was mentally retarded.
In the months ahead, I'll be checking in with Miller and fellow coach Victor Gordon, and reporting on the progress of the team. In July, I'll be in Louisiana to watch the Capitals take on teams from 50 states, 40 foreign countries and four U.S. territories.
Today, though, the story is Willie himself, and how participating in the Special Olympics has brought him out of his shell.
"I'll never forget it," Miller was saying, as Willie and his teammates whacked pucks and practiced starts and stops during their regular Monday afternoon practice at Terrell Junior High School in Northwest.
"We took a poll of the favorite songs of everybody on the team.
"Every other kid on the team picked a rock song.
"Willie picked 'Silent Night.'"
"He's a very gentle young man, which isn't exactly what you want in an aggressive game like floor hockey," said Curtis Smith, the Capitals' assistant coach.
"Confidence is one of the biggest problems with young people like this. You have a young man who has never achieved very much. He isn't used to asserting himself. It's hard to teach assertiveness when you have a lifetime behind you of knowing that something's different about you.
"Besides, these kids have had very little exposure to this game until two or three years ago. This isn't a hockey town. And you never see hockey on TV." But practice and encouragement have bred success.
"I've seen him knock sticks out of people's hands in the last few months," said Miller, a 32-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran who has been coaching the Capitals since January, 1982.
"He's got a better idea of what to do when he needs to pass. He's got a better idea of where he is. He runs better, shoots better.
"I look for one thing: improvement. And he's one of the most improved players out there."
On the floor, Willie is as obedient an athlete as a coach could want. At the start of practice, Miller told him and the other forwards that he wanted them "to keep your eye on the puck 100 percent of the time." Willie followed the hollowed-out, flat disk like a man obsessed.
But off the floor, Willie remains shy and withdrawn. Shake his hand and he shakes back, but he averts his eyes as he does so. Congratulate him on his goal, and he mumbles, "Thanks." Ask him whether he feels ready for the competition that Baton Rouge will bring, and he says, "I guess so." "There are no miracles with kids like this," says Curtis Smith. "Willie has come a long way. Hockey has helped him. But he has a long way to go."