Leader in the ‘Hood

Leader in the ‘Hood

Great leadership doesn’t always come from executives in the C-suite.

On July 8, my friend Dr. John McKay Williams (or “BJ,” as I and other University of Minnesota football alumni and friends knew him) collapsed and died during a routine walk in his beloved North Minneapolis neighborhood. BJ was a gifted athlete: an All–Big Ten football player at the University of Minnesota and a first-round draft choice in the National Football League, where he played for 12 years. He played in three Super Bowls and won one. I know that an obituary of sorts is an unusual topic for a business magazine column, but the uncommon lessons of leadership, sacrifice, humility, philanthropy, brotherhood, and community that BJ taught us deserve to be remembered.

BJ was born in 1945 in Jackson, Mississippi, and was raised in Toledo, Ohio, where he was an All-City athlete in both football and basketball. He was heavily recruited by numerous colleges, but attended the University of Minnesota, where he was a star football player. In 1967, he was named as a First Team All–Big Ten tackle and was instrumental in the Gophers winning the Big Ten title that year.

In 1968, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education and became the first-round draft pick for the Baltimore Colts. He was an offensive lineman for the Colts, playing in the Super Bowl twice, and winning Super Bowl V against the Dallas Cowboys. Next, he played for the Los Angeles Rams and went to Super Bowl XIV with them. During the off-season, BJ worked on a doctorate of dental surgery degree from the University of Maryland. After playing professional football for 12 years, he moved back to Minnesota to open a dental practice.


       John McKay Williams

Instead of leveraging his fame as a pro football player with a championship ring to establish his practice in an affluent suburb and live the easy life, BJ moved to the north side of Minneapolis. He decided to live in and serve an underserved community that needed a dentist and a leader who cared about making it a better place. Often, he provided free dental care to children who otherwise would have gone without.

For the next 32 years, BJ worked to improve the inner city of Minneapolis and to serve his state and country. He led a prison ministry for more than 20 years, served as a commissioner for the Minneapolis–St. Paul Airport Commission for more than a decade, served on and led multiple nonprofit organizations that support North Minneapolis, and served as the president of the American Society of Forensic Odontology. As one of only 100 professionals in the United States trained in forensic dentistry, BJ helped identify victims of the September 11 tragedy in New York. These contributions, and many more, led Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to comment to the Star Tribune that BJ “was a crucially important member of many civic projects in North Minneapolis, including revitalizing West Broadway and involving youth.”

A Life of Sacrifice

BJ’s life of leadership through service, humility, and love for his fellow man was what we all admired most about him. His decision to serve an inner-city community, for example, was something he recently said he was proud of, as “the city is starting to come back; my patients respect what I did and their children and grandchildren are now patients.”

He was also a humble man who rarely talked about his athletic accomplishments. He usually steered conversations away from himself and showed interest in the people he talked to, so that he made them feel like they were his best friends.

BJ was always working to improve awareness of diversity at all levels, especially for those with mental disabilities and special needs. He used his life experiences to relate to all types of people. Gopher football teammate Ezell Jones described him as “an iconic man” who, like all of us, made some mistakes in life but learned from them and turned everything into a positive life experience. Another Gopher teammate, Jim Carter, who spoke on behalf of the 1967 team at BJ’s funeral, said that “some of the most significant impressions BJ left on others are the ones he didn’t consciously intend—the ones that resulted from just being himself. BJ never tried to be great, he just was. He was a credit to his race—the human race.”

Community service is a Williams family value: Dr. Barbara Butts Williams, BJ’s wife, serves on nonprofit boards and the newly formed Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority. And BJ inspired others to sacrifice: Former Gopher team manager Steve Nestor donated his kidney to BJ when Williams needed a transplant. Nestor, speaking at the funeral, said, “John was more than a dentist. He did far more than fix people’s teeth. He was a friend, a mentor, a doctor of the heart and soul of those who came in contact with him. John understood the meaning of community and he lived it.”

Understanding of Team and Community

As a former football player, BJ understood that “team” is a synonym for “community.” Being on a team means sacrificing individual needs and wants for the well-being of the team or community. It takes moral courage to stand for one’s beliefs and values even when it goes against the grain. But that’s what BJ did, and what his friends and I will remember the most about him.

Perhaps the best way to summarize this tribute to BJ is with a quote from the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi:

“After all the cheers have died down and the stadium is empty, after the headlines have been written, and after you are back in the quiet of your room and the championship ring has been placed on the dresser and after all the pomp and fanfare have faded, the enduring thing that is left is the dedication to doing with our lives the very best we can to make the world a better place in which to live.”

The world is indeed a better place to live because of you, BJ. Rest in peace.