World-class athlete and NFL champion Willie Gault lives large but in a humble way, owing mostly to the amazing foundation his parents brought him up in. In this episode, Willie sits down in a private and real interview with Tanya Memme. Sharing anecdotes about his successes and failures, he emphasizes what it takes to be a champion at any stage of your life and the power of being humble, grateful, and kind.
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The Humble Champion With Willie Gault
I have one of the most important people in my life. You’ve been recognized by the entire world. His introduction is long. NFL player, Raiders, The Bears, Olympic athlete, you’re in the Hall of Fame. You are an Olympic champion. There are many things. You’re also one of the most humble people I have ever met, too. I have many questions for you. We’ve known each other for many years. It’s because I’ve known you personally for so long that a lot of people don’t know about you. One of the things I wanted to start off with asking you, when did you know that you were going to be an exceptional human being?
Early on I had such a great foundation. I had an amazing mother who taught me a lot about life. She taught me how to cook. She taught me how to respect people. My dad was there and taught me things like how to build and repair things.
Literally, you build everything at your house.
I do a lot of stuff.
He does everything. He doesn’t hire people. He does it because you love doing it. It’s not like you can’t hire somebody.
I love doing it because it sends me back home and back to my roots. I used to enjoy sitting in the kitchen with my mother watching her cook and her telling me what to put in things, how to do it. I would enjoy going outside with my father and working on the car and the engine or building and repairing something and having fun with my sister and playing. I’ve had a great foundation in my life. Early on, I realized that I was fast.
When did you realize you were fast?
I was six years old. I was in the school where there were kids who were 7, 8, and 9. Before recess, we have to go out and run around the circle. I would be first in front of all the 6, 7, and 8-year-olds, I would beat them all. I said, “I can run.” People love that. I figured out myself, “They liked that. That’s good.” That’s my way in.
You weren’t thinking football at this time or whatever, you’re like, “I can run.”
I realized that I could run and people liked to see me run. I said, “That’s good.” I also realized that when you’re nice to people, most time people are nice to you. I started being nice to people and smile a lot. People say I smile a lot, but I do. First of all, it takes fewer muscles to smile than it does a frown. It brings out a good attitude from the person that you’re with. That’s why I like to smile.
You realize at six years old that you could run. When did you realize that you could be an athlete and this could serve you well in your future?
I played high school football. I ran track in high school when I played baseball. I figured out my junior year in high school that I’m good from a national standpoint because I’ve been all-American. That means you’re an all-American from around the country. I realized that there weren’t too many people that were better than I was. I thought at that point I may have an opportunity to play football at a different level, which was college. I started getting recruited by a lot of colleges from around the country.Smiling brings out the good attitude from the person that you're with. Click To Tweet
Did it happen fast? Do you put your mind to it?
Yes. I put my mind to it and then I did it. I had an amazing sophomore year in football. I ran back kickoffs and touchdowns. From my sophomore to my junior year, that transition was smooth. Also, in track and field, I started breaking records. I never thought about it at that point though, because my mind wasn’t set on, “I’m going to be a professional.” Even though I had heroes like Tony Dorsett, Walter Peyton, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, and those guys. I didn’t think about, “Maybe one day I’ll be that or can do that.” Once I realized my junior year, then I said, “That’s a real possibility.”
I’m sure people were talking to you they were letting you know that this could be a possibility and you were much encouraged.
I had amazing leadership. I had great coaches, teachers in my high school, gym teachers, science teachers, and principals who all rallied around my family and me and helped me a tremendous amount because they’d experienced things I hadn’t experienced. They taught me about life. One thing that my principal, his name was Johnny Goodrum, he told me, “Willie, never forget people are just people. Everyone is trying to do their best.” I evaluate that because it’s been with me my entire life. When I judge people, I don’t judge them by everything. I judge them by what they do because we all have things in our life that we do or we don’t do, but at the end of the day, we’re just a person. We’re people trying to do our best. Sometimes my best is not up to my standard or your standard, but it’s their best so you have to evaluate it from that.
One of the things I noticed about you too is not that you don’t care, but you don’t identify yourself at all with your fame or with your friends that are famous. I know that you live a big life. One minute you’re flying in a private jet the next minute you’re like, “Willie, what are you doing?” “I’m tiling my pool because I’m digging out the ground.” I’m like, “What?” I know that you value personalities and actions speak louder than words for you.
Life is short. Even if you live 100 years old it’s short. When you think about the earth it’s millions of years old. One hundred years is nothing. I look at life and I don’t want to read my clippings because they are what they are. I’m just a person. I’m a human being. I bleed, I hurt, I run, I sleep. I do all the things that everybody does. Some things I do a little bit better, but it’s a part of life and they do things better than I do. When you look at it, it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter. The person here who has no home to live in, or the person who has a mansion, they’re both the same. They’re both people. I try to respect them the same because I’ve been and seen all that. I’ve been to countries where the people didn’t know where the next meal was coming from.
They’re living right next door to a mansion that’s worth $10 million and they’re living in a hut. When you evaluate those people and I see that, I see how lucky I am first of all, to be able to live in a country that I can run, jump and I can do whatever I want to do. I have opportunities. A lot of people don’t have those opportunities because when you look at it realistically, one little change in your life, your life could be totally different. I could have been born in Haiti somewhere or whatever. I’m not saying Haiti’s a bad place, but I’m saying I could have been born in a different situation.
There are many countries out there where people don’t have a choice at all.
I could have been gone to Afghanistan in a war-driven country or whatever. That one small thing could have made that happen. I look at that too and I evaluate. What I try to do is that not rush to make a decision. I think about how it’s going to affect me and the other person. I think about how it’s going to affect me now and in the future, and then I try to make a decision.
I could definitely use that advice. From knowing you many years, one thing that I do notice about you, you are one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. I’m going to give you an example. Willie, a documentary is being made about you, which is exciting. I had the honor of being one of your friends in the documentary. The person who’s shooting, he says, “Did you know that Willie’s daughter’s godmother is Oprah?” I’m going to brag for you, Willie. I’ve known Willie for many years and I didn’t know that. There were a lot of things I didn’t know about you. I don’t know these things about you because you’re humble. You could have been given a gold medal and two hours later, I’m with you and we’re cooking. You don’t even talk about it. I don’t even know what goes on in your life at that time because you’re humble. What makes you humble? People like you are never humble.
I’d rather hear about someone else and help them. I’m more of a giver than a taker. I don’t like to talk about myself because it’s somewhat embarrassing a little bit. I’d rather help someone else because I don’t think I don’t need anything. I can find things for myself. I can do what I need to do. I think if I can help someone else, it makes me feel better.
What makes you resilient?
It’s innate, it’s there. You can teach it, but you have to have the gene of it. A lot of people have it, but I was born with it. I had an amazing mother. My father was amazing and my gene pool was great. I was fortunate and blessed.
Can you tell me about a time in your life when you felt like you couldn’t go on, but you did anyway? You’re an athlete dealing with circumstances physically or emotionally, something that happened in your life where you were like, “Where does that come from to keep going?”
The physical part of being an athlete I would say it’s the easy part. When I say easy, it’s not easy. It’s difficult because you’re running that last mile or the last sprint. You don’t think you can make it, but you can make it. The hard part of that is the emotional part, a loss in your life. You know I lost my mother a couple of years ago.
I do know.
That was probably the hardest thing for me ever. I lost my sister years ago. I thought that was hard but my mother because she’s the only mother, I love my mother so much. I used to talk to my mother every day, four times a day, about nothing like, “How’s the weather? What are you wearing?”
Many of us out there we don’t talk to our parents enough.
I use to talk to my mother every day four times a day. That’s why I can’t understand people who have a mother and father and don’t speak to them. Have this little grudge or whatever something happened with family. I can’t understand that because it’s important to me. My sister and my mother, I would give anything, all the medals, whatever. I would give it back if I could have them back because they’re that important to me. When you understand that, and you also realize that there is something that’s bigger than you, I don’t think I’m the biggest thing in the world. I know there’s something bigger than me. There is something, a creator God or whatever. I respect that. I don’t believe everything I hear and half of what I see, but also have a redeeming factor for people. I want to make sure that everyone makes mistakes and you can forgive them. It’s okay. It’s all a part of it. My mother’s passing was the biggest challenge for me because it was something that was stable. It’s stability.
I remember that through you.
The stability of her, because she taught me a lot about life and my father is amazing too. Not just like that, but he’s still there and I love him. I talked to him all the time. My mother was my mother. That loss was one that I’d never experienced before because everything in my life has been somewhat nice and fluffy.
You’ve had your set of challenges. You’re downplaying it, you could have had. You teach me how you deal with your challenges. I learn a lot from you.
I’ve had my challenges, but those challenges are something that you can get over but losing, that is something so finite. It’s over, no choice. You can’t go back and go, “I’m sorry. I apologize.” No, that’s it. Once that it made me go back and rethink my life, where I am, what I’m doing that’s why now I don’t sweat anything. It’s too short. It doesn’t matter. I love who I love and I let them know that because I love you and you know that.
You let me know that all the time but it’s in different ways. It’s like answering my phone call whenever I call. It’s sending me little text messages here and there. Sending me an interesting Instagram post. You also send things out of the blue that I at least expect to make me laugh. You’re like, “I hope you’re in front of ten people now.” It’s amazing how you do that for the people that you love.People are just people. Everyone is trying to do their best. Click To Tweet
That’s what life is all about. I go back to this saying, “Life is short.” I give myself a timetable. I say to myself, “I got 30 or 40 more great years of living.” In those 30 or 40 years, I want to do what I want to do. I want to have fun. I’m not going to sweat the things and whatever happens, happens. I can’t control things. Certain things you can’t control. I can only control what I can control. How I treat people, my actions for them, what I say to them, and how I project myself, those are the things I can control. Other things I can’t control. I can’t control people and never will try to. I understand that. My sister and my mother, I have to give that to them because of their finite and what happened to them. It made me see the world and the different space, place and understand that and not sweat it as much.
It’s interesting talking about that. You also have a choice on how to take care of your body. I know that you’re a pescatarian. I know that you don’t drink.
I was vegan for 5 to 6 years I said, “It’s a little bit boring.”
I have known you for a long time. I’ve never, ever seen you drink at all.
I never drink in my life.
We’ve had a lot of fun weekends in Vegas with all of our friends.
A lot of alcohol, but never. I’m always the designated driver.
That’s the great thing about hanging out with you.
It’s like, “Don’t worry. Have fun. I got it.”
There’s a quote that I know that I’ve heard you say and it’s, “You have one temple or one body, so treat it well.” Tell me about that. How do you keep going? You have been a vegetarian and you’re disciplined in your sports and in your training. Let me tell you about discipline, too. I want you to answer that. You are up at 5:00 every morning. You’re at the UCLA track and then you go to Gold’s Gym.
I go to the gym first and then the track.
You eat perfectly and you don’t drink. How do you not derail yourself?
It’s become like a challenge for me and for others because, in my life, people have tried to get me to drink in many different ways. I’ve had managers, I’ve had ex-wives, I’ve had girlfriends, I’ve had friends who tried to get me a drink. I always said, no because I said to myself a long time ago, I decided that drinking or smoking wouldn’t help me be the best athlete that could be. I decided then not to do it and I haven’t done it. When I stopped being a professional athlete, but I’m still an athlete, I said, “I’ve done it for so long, why I do it? It doesn’t matter. I’m not sure I’m missing anything. It’s not going to help me. How would it help me anyway in my life?” I decided not to do it. I didn’t do it.
You don’t think much about it. It’s not a thing. It’s how a nonsmoker would think about smoking, you don’t think about it.
It’s a nonissue for me. When I see people drink, I drink water, lemonade, orange juice, or whatever.
You never judged people.
“Do you want to drink? Sure.” I have a drink. I have alcohol at the house. I don’t drink it, but I have IT there for my friends who come over. I have wine, scotch or vodka, whatever.
I have one more question for you and then I want you to tell me a little bit about your inspiration pod. I cannot wait. That’s something I am dying to know you talk about. What would you say now in your life is one of your biggest challenges?
One of my biggest challenges is to understand this new world because it’s a new world. The traditional way to make a living is not the same way. I was blown away when I went to these kids’ housing, they live in this mansion and I said, “How old are you?” He said, “I’m 18, 19.” I said, “What do you do?” He said, “I do podcasts on YouTube.” “What do you mean?” He said, “All I do is do movies and I have twenty million followers and I get paid to do it.”
What do you mean he does movies?
He does crazy stuff. He’d go out down the street and he makes his own video. Not that crazy, but crazy. He has many viewers and I go, “How much can you make something like that?” He goes, “I make $50,000 a month.” I go, “What? I’m doing something wrong in my life. I should have been doing that.” That was funny though. It was interesting in this new Millennium, the way kids are making money, they view things. Even looking at the government when you got these new Congresspeople in. They’re talking about a different way of changing our economy and taxes. I’m trying to keep up. I watch the news and read a lot and trying to figure out where we going in this next 10 to 15 years, which will be interesting where we are. The traditional way of doing things may not be traditional anymore. There’ll be a little different. My challenge is to try to figure that out and be with it because I’d like to be hip with this stuff that’s going on.
This has nothing to do with staying fit. He’s like, “I got all that. I don’t know how to make videos on YouTube.” Even though you do because love your Instagram. It’s like, “I don’t know how to get one million followers.” That is insane. I’m in the same boat.
People are interested and they’re the same, but they’re different. That’s my challenge. My challenge was working out. I have to get out of the bed and do it which I’d been doing for many plus years.
I know that on your inspiration pod, you’re going to be talking about that.Don’t rush to make a decision. Think about how it’s going to affect you and the other person now and in the future. Click To Tweet
I will be because the number one question I get is, “How do you do it for so long? What motivates you?” Also, I get, “Can I race you?”
You should because you will always win.
On my pod, will.i.am wanted to race me. We’re there shooting Gwen Stefani for this holiday show. He came in with a sweatsuit on and sneakers and I have on my shoes, jeans, a sweater, and a jacket.
You are not prepared?
I am not prepared.
He’s got the sweatpants and the water bottle.
He’s like, “I want to race you. One of my bucket lists is to race you.” I go, “Are you sure?” He goes, “Yes, let’s do it.” Everybody’s around and he’s challenging me. I don’t want to do it because it’s like, “I’m not prepared.” I said, “Fine. If you want to.” We go outside and we race. I beat him. It was fun though.
Tell me a little bit about your inspiration pod because that is one of the questions that you ask most.
My inspiration pod will be about motivating yourself to work out, eat healthily and be all that you can be.
What keeps you doing that for many years?
It’s a part of my life. I understand it and I make time for it. The problem is that we, as people, we work all the time. We don’t make time for things that we need to make time for. When we’re traveling, we still can make time for it. If you don’t do it early, most of the time I found out you don’t do it because your day catches up with you and then it’s the evening I got things to do at dinner and then you got to go to bed. I try to get it done first thing in the morning. After that, I can do whatever I need to do for the rest of the day.
I know you’re going to be talking about the emotional side too, what keeps you going as well and your inspiration pod. I know you’re going to dig deep. I can’t wait.
If I don’t, I know you’ll say, “Dig deeper. What about this?”
You’re amazing. Everything that you say, I’m always learning and absorbing all of the information that you share with me.
I do the same with you and everyone. I try to learn from people because when you stop learning, we die. You have to always be willing to learn also.
You heard it from Willie Gault himself. You are a true champion in many ways. I cannot wait to hear your inspirational pod. You have to check out what he has to say.
About Willie Gault
While playing wide receiver for the Bears and Oakland Raiders in the 1980s and 1990s, Gault was widely known as one of the fastest players in the league. He caught 333 passes for 6,635 yards and 44 touchdowns in a career that spanned 11 NFL seasons. He was also a member of the Bears team that won 1985 Super Bowl.
Gault’s track career was arguably even more impressive. At the 1983 World Championships, he earned bronze in the 110m hurdles, and helped break the then-world record in the 4x100m relay with teammates Emmit King, Calvin Smith, and Carl Lewis. Gault was also on the 1980 Olympic team that boycotted the Games in Moscow.
In college, Gault competed for Tennessee, and remains the third-fastest 110m hurdler to ever compete in the Southeastern Conference. His collegiate best, 13.5, would have finished seventh at last year’s NCAA Outdoor Championships.
These days, Gault is not only competing as a masters athlete, but also working as an actor in Hollywood. View his IMDb profile, Gault has 32 film and show credits to his name. His most recent projects include “Ned’s Declassified School Survival guide,” “Sideliners,” and “The West Wing.”