By Bryan Echols
The beautiful bride and the gentle giant wed and lived a full and abundant life — until the giant was no longer needed by the Chicago Bears after 12 years. In one life-altering moment on February 26, 2003, James “Big Cat” Williams was told to clean out his locker; he was being released.
Joi Artis- Williams, now ex-wife of Williams, says she watched as her gentle giant retreated into a shell of himself. According to Artis-Williams, her husband retired to his basement Man Cave for three months following his release and it was rare that he would come above ground.
“He had identity issues. He was no longer ‘Big Cat.’ After 12 years of playing in the League, being a big personality in a big city, doing TV shows; after all that, he was now just James. He slipped into depression,” she says. “After they released him, he went into the basement for three months. He came upstairs when our kids were home, but for the most part, he stayed in the basement. Sometimes he would come out for a parent teacher conference or daddy day at school.”
Artis-Williams says when Williams did decide to engage the few former teammates, family and friends that he had, it was noticeable that something in him had changed for the worse.
“He would block out the windows and all sunlight,” she says. “He grew his hair and beard. He started to drink much more, but outside of kids stuff he only went out to golf on Mondays. It was celebrity golfing on Mondays, so they were appearances. It was then that he got to be ‘Big Cat.’ I would take the kids to dinner every Thursday, but he would not go with us. He began to use more Vicodin.”
Artis-Williams said the depression soon gave way to aggression and “pure meanneass.”
“He was always angry about how only two teammates checked on him after his release. The wives checked on me, because I built relationships, but Cat really didn’t,” she said.
“In ’06 one of his ex-teammates came over and said, ‘Something is wrong with Cat. He ain’t the same.’ They were visiting with us for a while, but before they got down to the end of our driveway, he called me to say that. I had already been speaking to his wife, so she knew something was different, but then she saw for herself,” Artis-Williams remembers.
Artis-Williams says those close to her husband used to refer to the changes they saw taking place in him as ‘“too many dings in the noggin’ disease.”
“Too many dings in the noggin disease” had an official name: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head. Symptoms often include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and, eventually, progressive dementia.
In many cases, the aggression from CTE can lead to domestic violence and other abusive reactions from the affected athletes.
But Artis-Williams says, “There was no physical abuse” in her relationship, “Only emotional, mental and financial abuse.”
“He put the guns in my Victoria Secret bag and hung it next to my white clothes in the closet. When I would shower, he would bring a chair just outside of the bathroom and he would yell ‘We need to talk!’ He was so big that I would have to tiptoe around him so as not to touch him, because he would say I assaulted him.”
“I wondered if he’d do a mass killing of the four of us, like [former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher] did who killed his girlfriend in a murder suicide. … He began to tear all the door frames off the hinges so that I could not close the doors. He stood over me as I slept. I slept with my kids, because I was afraid. I then would put a dirty clothes basket in front of door so that I could hear him coming. I slept in fear.”
Artis-Williams found that it was not just her husband who was suffering with the condition.
“My closest friend had a husband who played with Cat and she was there from the beginning,” Artis-Williams says. “She saw her husband deteriorate [too]. Then there was the high profile suicide of [former Bears safety Dave Dureson] and [Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau]. I began communicating with other NFL wives. One prominent Bears QB’s wife shared that she had to have a tracking devise put on his key ring in case he got lost while attempting to get back home.”
“There [were] a lot of tears and a lot of anger. There was also a lot of encouragement. I knew I had to speak because there could be wives suffering in silence and families falling apart. WE all had skeletons. The more we talked the more we realized we were not alone. There just wasn’t information out there, which caused/causes most of us to suffer in silence.”
No League Interference
Despite a newly vocal anti-domestic violence stance the National Football League has taken recently, Artis-Williams says there was not much support from the league when she reached out in 2013.
At first, she says, “I was too embarrassed to say anything, because at this time I was sleeping in my car and I was embarrassed that my husband was bullying me.”
But “In 2013,” Artis-Williams says she shared a post detailing ‘“My truths’ on FaceBook.”
“Shortly thereafter one of the Bears staff members reached out to me. He then took ‘My Truths’ and my concerns to upper management, but nothing ever came of it,” she says. “There was also a wife’s organization who reached out, but they were not trying to help. That was all about gossip and comparing how good or bad our lives were in comparison.”
“In 2015, I reached out to the [NFL Players Association] via email, pretty much sharing the same thing. The response I got back was ‘We take these circumstances very seriously and we want to address them with Cat, but we like to keep things in house.’ Which pretty much meant ‘Wives are to be seen and not heard,’” she says.
But for Artis-Williams, and many other wives and loved ones, this message is unacceptable.
“The League needs to acknowledge the spouses and what we can share with them. They need to respect what we say,” she says.
“There needs to be a baseline CT scan done upon players entering the league. They should continue every two years. I love Cat, but he is not the same person. If he was a fireman, they would take things into consideration. He would be tested and treated with respect. CTE can happen instantly, within months or within a few years. The NFL must do better,” she continues.
Artis-Williams says “thousands of players” who retired before 2014 are eligible for a class action suit against the NFL for up to $5 million to cover medical expenses related to CTE.
“According to the suit, eligible players will be given baseline neurological exams, but it seems late because this should be done on the front end,” she says. “There are also very strict guidelines in place for filing a complaint after receiving notice of eligibility from the league. Each player will have up to 180 days to make their intent known to the league.”
Beyond the Game
“There may be assumptions as to what the life of an NFL wife is like. Many would think that it is a life of celebrity and riches,” she says. “That is only part of the story; the other part of the story consists of physical ailments brought on by the game, extreme levels of stress in this high profile sports industry and now it involves something more dangerous and violent.”
“The abuse and the violence that more NFL spouses are being exposed to is on the rise now that we know what to call it. As the men in the game get stronger, faster and bigger, we will see more cases of domestic violence coupled with CTE much sooner than ever before. The league has taken precautions, but there is more to do. The wives, children and the players should be valued as a unit. Long after the game is over, the families are the ones who suffer most and are left to pick up the pieces,” she says.
“I signed up for knee surgeries, pain, broken ribs (he still has a floating rib) and maybe even wheelchairs; but I did not sign up for bullying and CTE.”
As for Artis-Williams, she has her own pieces to pick up after her divorce from the Big Cat.
“I have to continue to heal myself,” she says. “I have to figure out an effective way to deal with CTE and domestic violence. If I have to be the ‘sacrificial lamb,’ then so be it.”
But she says her role in her ex-husband’s life is not completely over. “This could end up being one of the greatest love stories ever,” she says. “As more information comes out about the trauma, I imagine being there for him.”
Ironically, Williams co-founded a charitable organization, Big Cat Charities, that has among its functions an anti-domestic violence, anti-bullying mission.
“Imagine that,” says Artis-Williams.