The last few years have been strange for Ted Williams. That’s possibly an understatement for a man who went from panhandling to afternoon cable—or as he likes to say “drinking Cobra to Grey Goose”—in a matter of minutes.
But as quickly as he shot into the public’s consciousness after Doral Chenoweth III’s simple video of his amazing radio voice went viral, he was written off—skewered by Dr. Phil, plagued by relapse, shamed by past arrests, and preyed on by shady managers. In many ways he’s a modern parable; the insatiability of our pop culture demands quick categorization. Should we root for him? Should we dismiss him? Does he deserve all of this?
It turns out the space between never-was and has-been was as thin as the soles of his shoes, the ones that plodded up and down a thin highway island in search of cash—cash that would spend little time in Williams’ pocket before making its way into the hands of a crack dealer.
Funds were just as transient after his re-discovery: money from gigs with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kraft never really arrived, instead destined for the coffers of unreliable promoters and managers who descended on the viral star virally, leaving him just as broke as he was three years earlier—except this time with the specter of a failed second chance hanging over his head.
Yet, Ted Williams is probably the happiest he’s been in his whole life. He’s clean and sober, and has a reality show in the works that aims to offer second chances like the one he received.
“Hey Ted!” the man says—a familiarity in his voice that I will hear a lot over the next two hours, never knowing whether they know him or just feel like they do.
To tell the third (or fourth?) phase of Ted’s story, we go right back to where the second phase started—that thin stretch of grass near the I-71 ramp, where he used the only thing un-ravaged by addiction and depression—that golden voice—to get by.
I’m standing there, too. Those big hands shake mine, before extending toward a slowing car. The driver reaches out with a business card and hands it to the erstwhile celebrity, who can’t help but be a little disappointed there’s no money in his hand.
Some habits are hard to break.
Open, eloquent, passionate, and humble, Williams looks me directly in the eye when he talks, his attention only broken by passersby and well-wishers—which are frequent during our interview.
“Stop for a minute,” Ted says to his manager. We’ve only been en route from his offices on Main Street to the Hudson I-71 overpass for a minute when he sees a homeless man on the street. “Hey Ted!” the man says—a familiarity in his voice that I will hear a lot over the next two hours, never knowing whether they know him or just feel like they do.
[I want to] facilitate a place for homeless people to be able to do their laundry. It’s one of the worst things, to lug around your clothes and they’re dirty. So I want them to at least have that opportunity to wash some of their most important clothing items. And it’s all going to be absolutely free through my donations.
Ted takes a call from one of his daughters, one of his nine children. “Daddy’s in the company of a magazine editor and I’m riding out to my infamous corner of I-71 and Hudson…Oh no, honey, no, not under the bridge…if you give me about 20 minutes or so, honey, I promise you I’ll call you.” She asks for his address and he declines to give it to her, and feels compelled to explain it to me.
The reconnection of family I’ve found can be beautiful, and then it could have some very detaching moments, and that’s one of those detaching moments. I don’t want my daughter to know where I live so she can come and disrupt me or get me out of focus. She’s going through some things now where she’s starting to feel like she’s being slighted—unresolved anger, resentment, all of those words fit what my children are going through. And this is a child that I’ve had no dealings with—no hands-on with upbringing—but I have in these past three years tried to connect, and each time I’ve tried to connect, it wasn’t the way I thought it would be or envisioned. I thought when you don’t see a child for 16 years and you come into their life that it was party time, celebration…it’s not that way. I’m, on the other hand, trying to reach out to her with things that I don’t have yet: money. I’m always trying to give away money. [My manager] even gets mad at me now because he asks me, “Ted, what do you need money for? You’ve got a place to live, you’ve got food in your refrigerator, your clothes are clean and everything…why do you need money?” ’Cause he knows that I’m the type of person that if I got $10 and I see a guy standing out there looking like he could really use 10 bucks about now, I’m not thinking about what he’s going to use it for, I just know that this man needs 10 bucks. OK, I’ll give it away.
As we arrive at Hudson and cross onto the strip of grass between ramps, more than a dozen cars stop and roll down their windows—some to snap a quick, blurry photo, others to offer encouragement or to recall a moment they’ve shared with him over the years. Each time, he beams an authentic smile and turns on the voice: “You know you love it! My man! I’m here with the 614!”
[Even if] you don’t have nothing…a smile is what you have. A smile. You could have a person who’s going through addiction or mental health [issues], and they haven’t had nobody smile at them because everybody down here looks down on them, doesn’t give them any kind of encouraging word: “Hang in there! Hey, pray more! Hey, there’s a free…” anything, anything. And sometimes that’s all I had on that corner in spite of my hairdo and my nasty clothes and my ugly teeth, I still had a smile and a kind word for people, whether they gave me anything or not.
There was people that pulled up on me knowing that they didn’t have not one penny to give me, but they did again have that encouraging word. Like maybe, “I would help you but I’m barely keeping gas in my car,” or “Honey, I just lost my job but I would love to give [to] you.” And I’d still say [radio voice], “When you’re listening to nothing but the best of oldies…” and they’d be like, “My God.” It made them feel like “wow.” So that when this story finally hit, as crazy and as overwhelming as it hit, people was like, “Damn, it couldn’t have happened to a better guy.”
“Hey buddy! What’s up, big man?” The attention he still warrants is enough to make me fear that we’re going to cause a traffic jam.
My purpose was to build a relationship with Christ Jesus. I stood here in spite of my smoking and all—the Bible says “acknowledge him in all your ways.” God ain’t through with none of us yet. I stood here for that reason because I thought this was the lowest form of homelessness, the lowest form of crack addiction, to be standing out here on the street corner begging for money. This was my rock bottom. Dr. Oz’s people, they said, “Ted what was your bottom?” I said, “Standing on that corner.” Because I easily could have went over there and stole a DeWalt drill. Took my chances at it, anyway, as opposed to standing here for an hour, trying to get five bucks to go get me a hit.
“Lemme go say hi to my friends, here! You know you love it!” Ted enters a nearby hardware store and credits the staff with always treating him with kindness. He rewarded them by only stealing from Lowe’s down the street when times got tough. He tells them about plans for his upcoming reality show. It’s an odd reunion, but in the best possible way. They seem as proud of Ted’s story as he does.
My girlfriend would sit on the top of that hill over there, and they never ran her off. But it’d be pouring down rain and she’d be willing to go and turn a trick real quick as opposed to me standing there. I was against it so I would say, “No you sit there, you sit there.” I would find out what days I should stand on this side as opposed to what days should I stand on the other. It was back and forth, back and forth. But guys like these, man, [they] understood the struggle. I’m sure they didn’t like crackheads, but as opposed to running and darting out of Lowe’s with two drills in my hand or something [laughs], I never stole anything out of here.
“Well, that we know of,” jokes one of the employees. “Check the tapes!” Ted says. “I love you guys.” For our photo shoot, I hand Ted a black cardboard sign, and after some thought, he writes, “He Who Was Homeless Will Now Lead Them Home.” He admits that it’s surreal to be back in this same place where he fought every day to survive, especially the aforementioned motorist who handed him a business card.
I have to admit that I thought he had a dollar in his hand. It went right back three years ago. I almost forgot I had a suit on. I almost forgot what this sign actually said, and I was reaching out as if he was giving me some money and disappointed when it was a business card. Those feelings still resonate in my spirit…we were passing off this ramp to make a left to go over to Wendy’s, and my grandson said, “Hey Paw Paw, there’s your job,” and I’m thinking, “Where?” I’d never worked around here…he was actually pointing to the corner. [To him], that was my job.
Ted knows he’s no saint. Dr. Phil rubbed his face in it—“the criminal-like side of me, the deadbeat dad side of me, the addiction side of me,” as Ted says. He’s transparent, especially regarding his addiction and his depression. Ironically, he’s needle-phobic and pill-phobic and can’t bring himself to take any painkillers, despite a spinal issue. Since his addiction started at the height of his success–his morning radio shows were top-rated in the Columbus market in the mid-‘80s–I ask him what caused the descent.
I was very displeased with my life after I walked out on my children. I walked out on a woman who had four of my children, and I walked out on her to only take on a relationship with another woman and impregnate her with four more, so I wasn’t legally divorced at that point. So I didn’t expect anything good to happen to my life—I would spend my nights haunted by the idea of them wondering if I [was] ever going to walk through their door again. And those things haunted me…[I thought I should just] go all the way out, go out in a blaze of glory, no pun intended. So that’s what I did, I just used that as the one factor in me just going into addiction instantly.
Dr. Phil…I thought at that time he was trying to build me up to bring out the redeeming qualities that I had inside of me. And it wasn’t. I think it was ratings, so exploitative. I was like, “Lord, is that what my story’s all about? Is to let the world see that I’m a piece of crap and at how you can clean up a piece of crap?” And that’s what the Lord said: yes. He said, “I knew your heart, Ted.” Because when I didn’t have nothing to give, I still gave…I saw a guy standing over there, and he had less than a layer of clothing, and it was cold, and I took my coat off. My girlfriend thought I was a nut. “You’re giving this guy your coat? And it’s cold as shit?”…I said, “Don’t worry about why I give,” and I just gave and I walked away, and lo and behold I got a leather coat not too long after that.
Ted believes in karma—or at the very least, the notion that giving is as important as receiving. His hope is to produce a reality show that offers a second chance to people, a premise he compares to Extreme Home Makeover, except more person than property.
I don’t want to “make over,” I want to give second chances to people who deserve them…Let’s say there’s an addict, a homeless man who wants every opportunity in the world to go to drug treatment…Maryhaven’s list is huge. And who knows, I might run into a gifted Ted Williams.
Ted clutches the mustard seed necklace around his neck, a token he’s adopted as a symbol of his faith, based on the Scripture passage that there’s power in faith as small as a mustard seed. Whether his show becomes reality or not, it’s clear he’s achieved some peace in this strange, surreal life of his. After all, Ted has lost and gained and lost again, and survival grants you a certain freedom from everyday fears, a clarity in times of chaos. Ted is Ted again—perhaps for the first time in a long time.
You are honestly getting the real Ted Williams, you are. I feel that clarity…I feel good, I feel confident. I’m just having the time of my life, man, not only reconnecting with family members but going out on that highway just brought déjà vu in many ways. One of the best things that it did bring to me was how people still gave me that, “Hey, Ted, keep doing what you’re doing.” And that just means the world to me, to hug people…
“I love you,” Ted tells me, and he gives me a hug. And then he’s off, down the road again in search of his (second) second chance.
His potential reality show, A 2nd Chance With Ted Williams, was fundraising on IndieGoGo throughout the month of December.