Ageless Wonder

It only seems like James "Big Cat" Williams has had nine lives. He's been around that long with the Bears. The team's grandpa has played all his 11 seasons in Chicago. Williams wasn't given much of a chance to make it in the NFL either. He wasn't drafted out of tiny Cheyney (Pa.) State University and signed as a free agent in 1991.

   The deck was stacked against Williams from the start. The 6-foot-7, 335-pounder was a defensive tackle in college. Early in his career he spelled former players like Steve McMichael and William Perry. Then he was moved to offensive tackle midway through the 1992 season and has been a mainstay since.

   Williams is what you would call a "project." But big No. 71 has proved plenty of people wrong by starting every game at right tackle for the past seven seasons in a Bears uniform.

   "He's a great team player and guys respects him," quarterback Jim Miller said. "He's played 11 years at offensive tackle. That's a tough act to follow."

   Williams has made 117 consecutive starts at right tackle.

   "He's been around a long time. He's seen both sides of it -- both success and the down times," Miller said.

   The ride has been awfully rough during Big Cat's stay in Chicago. This is the team's first winning record since 1995, and the Bears haven't been in the playoffs since 1994.

   That's dealing with a lot of losing, but Williams continued to keep his head up despite the constant disappointments. His college team went 0-11 in 1990, so it wasn't like Williams wasn't used to it.

   That doesn't mean you have to like it, though.    "Does winning make us feel more secure? No. Not at all," Williams said. "This is not a sport to get secure in. You never want to let yourself get over-secure or overconfident because then, all of a sudden, you're gone."

   Williams, who became a full-time starter at tackle during training camp in 1994, was named to his first Pro Bowl this past Wednesday. He was an alternate in 1998, but has never had the luxury of playing on a consistent winning team. As he's seen this year, with winning comes the attention and the accolades.

   "He's been working for it for 10 years or more. He deserves it," wide receiver Marty Booker said. "He's put in his fair share of work. It's good to see players recognized like that.

   "Cat's been around a while. He's paid his dues. Unfortunately it didn't work out in the past few years. But everybody's excited for him."

   Williams has been a leader on a Bears' offensive line that has given up a league-low 16 sacks heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against Jacksonville (6-9). The five members of the offensive line -- Williams, center Olin Kreutz, guards Chris Villarrial and Rex Tucker and tackle Blake Brockermeyer -- have started all 15 games this season. They've also helped rookie running back Anthony Thomas rush for over 1,000 yards.

   Williams, who has shown his versatility by playing on both sides of the ball in the NFL, has also flashed some moves on special teams. He's blocked seven field goals in his career, including a 44-yarder against San Francisco in the Bears' 37-31 overtime victory earlier this season.

   "In the three years that I've known him he's done everything we've asked him to do and more in terms of leadership and off-field work habits," Bears coach Dick Jauron said. "He's really been a tremendous asset to our football team. He epitomizes not just our entire team, but probably throughout the league and throughout professional sports.    "He's somebody who's just persevered."


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