By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Editor's note: This story was published in print on July 10, 2008.
The Hammer is half-cocked.
The hammer is cocked.
His resolve eroded, ego fed to the furnace and suicide notes written, Greg Williams is a trigger pull from eternal mute. He is besieged by pain, haunted by guilt and devastated by depression, all simultaneously demanding their reckoning. He barely gives a damn about leaving this world without proper goodbyes. Even to his former co-workers at 1310 AM The Ticket, with whom he built an unprecedented Dallas radio dynasty, only to have them now turn their collective back on him.
Sitting in the study of his 1,800-square-foot condo of The Renaissance on Turtle Creek on a dreary night early last December, Williams—whose country-fried, common-man "Hammer" persona made him one of the most popular talk-show hosts in Dallas radio history–crouches at his expansive desk, gently rocking in the red, high-back leather chair.
In front of him: Short farewells written to his mom, best friend, girlfriend, childhood pal and longtime sidekick on The Hardline, Mike Rhyner. In his mind: Thoughts of a cocaine addiction that cost him his dream job, memories of estranged relationships with station hosts and images of his brother's suicide 10 years earlier. In his right hand: A loaded, cocked Glock 9 mm handgun.
Williams is sober. But also about as fucked up as he can possibly be.
In an absurd way, he feels happy. Peaceful. He's going to erase it all, his free fall fittingly climaxing in a crash.
Like The Sopranos' finale, he'll quietly and abruptly fade to black. He'll leave friends to ponder how a guy with so much cared so little. He'll leave foes to debate whether he merits inclusion on The Hardline's next irreverent "Trifecta Talk" of notable deaths.
Or will he?
Because in his skewed ad-libbed reality, his plan has developed a glitch. Fear? Remorse? A sudden blip of hope?
Unable to point the gun at his temple, he eventually sighs, crumples the notes, flips on The Military Channel and crawls into bed. The bailout offers him another restless night. Another chance to reflect.
"The only reason I'm alive is because I'm a coward," Williams says now. "I was such a loser, I couldn't even pull the trigger."
Greg Williams is addicted to Coke.
And lighthouses. And TCU. And America. And guns. And, turns out, anything else—at one time, The Ticket included—that tickles his obsessive compulsive fancy.
Go to a Memorial Day weekend party at his house on Lake Granbury, and it's apparent the dude has a Ph.D. in OCD.
His home sits at the intersection of charming cove and sprawling lake. It's a party palace, accessorized with the kind of bells and whistles assembled during years of mid-six-digit salaries. That's the one, with the white convertible Porsche with the TCU license plate and the purple 'n' white TCU mail box and the TCU-colored guest bathroom.
"I'm an addict. I don't do anything half-ass," Williams says, shrugging at his organizational overload. "I've always been super-neat. Make the bed, clean up after yourself. Everything's got its place."
No wonder Williams is skittish. The guy who depends on order has been forced to revamp his routine.
He's downsized his circle of trust. He's pursuing an on-air gig at The Ticket's rival, ESPN Radio KESN-103.3 FM. He's selling his Uptown apartment and his ski condo in Breckenridge, Colorado, all in an attempt to move in and move on with girlfriend Jennifer Rosenbaum in the relative peace of this historic community 80 miles west of Dallas.
Rosenbaum briefly dated Williams a couple years back after she offered to build a Web site for The Hardline, and she obviously left their initial relationship with strings attached.
"When we were talking about ending it, out of the blue Greg told me he'd need me someday," Rosenbaum says. "When I heard he was in trouble last fall I came running, even though I had a boyfriend."
In his backyard, the adults—fanatically loyal Ticket "P1" (Priority 1) listeners, "NASCAR Dennis" DeWeed, Richard "T-Bar" Boggs and a lake-rat neighbor—are tilting cold beer and trading tales between bites of brisket. Out by the lake, kids climb atop the elaborate dock—which houses two boats, two jet skis and boasts an enormous sun deck—and plunge 20 feet into the murky water.
"Come on in!" Williams greets. "Wanna show you something."
For now, there's no time to be dumbfounded at the living room's main wall—15 feet high and plastered with 11 years of assorted Coca-Cola antiques. For now it's just a blur, whizzing past that guest room decorated with what must've been 100 various representations of lighthouses, from embroidered pillowcases to decorative wallpaper to nightstand figurines. You'll have to wait to dissect the two photos of Williams with Rhyner and the patriotic master bedroom and its three wooden doll chairs affixed in a row—red, white and blue—where wall meets ceiling.
Because right now—first things first—the host really wants you to see his pride and joy. His gun collection.
"I should not be allowed to own all these," says Williams, unlocking a 6-foot-tall safe stockpiled with an arsenal that would make David Koresh blush. "Nobody should be able to go out and buy an assault rifle. But, because the law says I can, I'm going to take advantage of it."
Williams beams that he owns $50,000 in weapons. He has a Bonnie 'n' Clyde machine gun replica; an Italian Carcano M91 rifle, the kind that Oswald may or may not have used to shoot JFK; and a Robocop-looking contraption with a red laser scope Williams claims could pierce a coconut across the lake, some 600 yards.
"But I never shoot anything but paper," he says. "I took the concealed handgun class and walked around NorthPark mall packing heat in my shoulder holster just to see what it felt like. But I'll never join the NRA."
Before you can calculate the volatility of combining guns with depression with drugs, there it is—the Glock.
Jokes Williams, "Wanna hold it?"
Bizarro notwithstanding, it's refreshing to see Williams lucid, much less laughing.
Nine months ago he walked off The Hardline in mid-syllable, checked into drug rehab and subsequently, depending whom you believe, either quit or was fired.
Either way, Williams' departure imploded his high-profile, high-income career and aborted his 14-year marriage to Rhyner on the highly rated Hardline. Down to its "Stay Hard" mantra, the wildly popular show was aural sex, eschewing traditional radio formats for guy talk with subplots of sports, private parts, bathroom humor, fake guests and the grand illusion that listeners were members of a big frat house, in on all the jokes and cosmically connected to its Everyman hosts. While other stations over-laughed, slurped imaginary coffee and pretended to be enthralled by traffic and weather together, The Ticket didn't just pull back the industry curtain, it yanked the sucker off the rod.
After moving from middays to 3-7 p.m. in '96, Rhyner and Williams earned numerous awards including ESPN "Sports Radio Personalities of the Year" in '97, '98 and '03. Anchored by The Hardline and the Dunham & Miller morning show, The Ticket also won the National Association of Broadcasters' prestigious Marconi Award for "Best Sports Station in America" last September.
Spawning an almost cult following, Williams' career was the triumph of genuine over genius. Whether his humor was born of intelligent design or unintentional country bumpkinism, his charisma hypnotized.
"He's the rare guy who made a living out of being himself," says Live 105.3 KLLI-FM host and former Ticket voice Richard "Big Dick" Hunter. "He's not a traditional sports broadcaster, but more a voice who makes you think you're listening to a friend. There's nobody else like him, in this market or many others."
But behind Williams' success was excess.
Depression, drugs and deceit conspired to obliterate the fairy tale, leaving Ticket listeners grasping for an explanation and Williams struggling to rebuild his career.
"I got caught up in the big-city stuff—being someone I wasn't," says Williams, ingesting a gorgeous sunset atop his dock. "I didn't handle the success well at all. This is a place I can just handle being me."
Out here—with minimal fame, fortune and frolicking females—he can be like the rest of us schmoes, bitching about chores and snakes and dead batteries. Out here, ensconced in lakeside serenity, he can even tame his OCD.
When Rosenbaum sets out portable chairs, Williams notices she's assembled one of the Reebok logo backs upside down.
For once, Williams is trying to starve his cravings. Whatever they may be.
"Honestly, it's driving me nuts," he says, struggling to divert his gaze from the askew chair. "But see, I'm not even going to touch it."
If only he would've taken the same approach to cocaine.
Though Williams was born in Fort Worth, he moved to Hampton, Virginia, and then to Boyd in Wise County with his military dad and even stricter mom. Williams, his two sisters and brother tight-roped a delicate balance between perfection and peril.
"My mom's house is always immaculate," says Williams, who attended his father's funeral on Tuesday. "Dad has stuff on his table laying in the same place since 1999."
Williams isn't bipolar like his brother Ron, who Greg says crafted a gun out of spare parts and shot himself in dad's backyard shed. But a constant moodiness gnaws at Williams, whittling quantity and quality from his life when left untreated.
"It's always there," he says.
His parents divorced, prompting Williams to seek solace in sports. But his playing career topped out at one year playing baseball for Ranger Junior College near Abilene, where he roomed with future University of Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillespie. With an affinity for attending games and spinning yarns, Williams shelved a bartending career to pursue a degree in broadcast journalism at TCU.
Upon graduation at 29, he landed an entry-level job at WBAP-820 AM, which led him to become Randy Galloway's Sports at Six right-hand man. More important, it directed him to the auxiliary press box at old Arlington Stadium. It was there—in cramped, steamy quarters down the first-base line dubbed "the back of the bus"—that he blossomed as both hard-working Williams and fun-loving Hammer, a nickname bestowed upon him by Galloway for the way he relentlessly pounded away at assignments.
And it was there, in 1990, that he met Rhyner. Peanut butter, jelly. Jelly, peanut butter.
"He was playing the small-town country guy card, but before long I learned there was a lot more to him," Rhyner says. "We both had a love for baseball, and we weren't afraid to speak our minds. Before you knew it we were friends. Some of my best memories are of spending nights at the ballpark with Greggo. That was the height of fun."
Says Williams, "I don't think either of us ever figured out why we clicked. We just had a special chemistry you can't teach."
Soon Williams, nabbing interviews for Galloway's show, and Rhyner, recording Rangers reports for a GTE sports phone service, lassoed KRLD-1080 AM minion Craig Miller into their nightly baseball banter.
"All of the sudden we started noticing the reactions to us," Rhyner says. "People pulled up a chair. They listened. They either wanted in on it or they hated us. It was obvious we were having a tangible effect...We began to wonder if we truly had something useful and, if so, what the heck do we do with it?"
Rhyner used that momentum and recruited financial investors and a slew of old radio cronies who helped him launch The Ticket in January 1994. The innovative 24-hour sports station was an instant hit, with phone lines jammed, remote broadcasts crowded and ratings soaring within six months. The station's backbone was the Rhyner-Williams pairing, christened The Hardline because of its tell-it-like-it-is tenor.
Desperate to fit in and intimidated by Rhyner's résumé—which included a prominent role on The Zoo KZEW-98 FM's LaBella & Rody morning show—Williams immediately raised a red flag, one that would become a catalyst for the breakup of one of Dallas radio's most successful couples. He began telling whoppers.
He claimed he played Major League Baseball for the Montreal Expos and hit a home run off Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton in his first at-bat. Stats nerd that he is, Rhyner checked his Baseball Encyclopedia. Nada.
"I didn't call him out on it," Rhyner says. "There was so much else I liked about the guy. He was good-hearted, and he'd do anything for anyone. I just glossed over it."
Admits Williams, "Yep, I said that. And it's a total lie."
Same with the one about legendary University of Texas football and baseball coaches Darrell Royal and Cliff Gustafson fighting to acquire his talents. And the one about him dating country singer Tanya Tucker.
"I don't deny saying that, either," Williams says. "I just wanted to be cool."
Just as The Ticket and The Hardline were gaining traction, Rhyner was again alarmed by his co-host. When Williams summoned Rhyner to a Fort Worth hospital room, it seemed as though he were meeting Williams for the first time. And, apparently, vice-versa.
"Greggo didn't recognize me," Rhyner recalls. "He looked at me and said, 'Who are you?' I should've taken it more seriously, but by this time the guy had brought something really valuable to the table. However much he needed me, I needed him more. His radio voice was well-defined already. Mine wasn't."
Says Williams about the incident, "I had a mental breakdown over a girl. She was my first real love, and I was crushed. I mean, crushed."
On the air, Rhyner and Williams were quickly gaining popularity and ratings last seen in these parts by Stevens & Pruitt, Hal Jay and Dick Segal or perhaps Ron Chapman and Suzie Humphreys in the "K-V-I-L-o-van."
Rhyner gruffly derided the Cowboys and talked up his die-hard fondness for American Idol. The Old Gray Wolf was the pompous patriarch who delighted in forcing listeners to carry a thesaurus; Williams wore ostrich boots and looped Smokey and the Bandit. The Hammer was the chubby commoner, jumping off bridges at Super Bowls, boasting about eating 10 Whataburgers and obsessing about women's boobs.
Long before The Ticket and The Hardline earned No. 1 in their coveted (men 25-54) demographic for two consecutive years, Williams sported more alter egos than Herschel Walker—Greggo, Uncle Greggo, The Hambonita, Robot Greggo, Li'l Girl Greggo, Motorcycle Greggo, et al. He soaked in his celebrity, attracting TV cameos, a short feature in Sports Illustrated and a salary that topped out at $500,000 last year.
Though their on-air camaraderie suggested they fell asleep in bunk beds while talking MVPs and double D's, truth is Rhyner and Williams stopped talking off the air in the late '90s.
"Some of it was that it was better radio if it was spontaneous, if we hit each other with stuff for the first time on the air," Rhyner says. "And some of it was that we just grew apart."
Ironic, that at the height of Williams' machismo, The Ticket aired a fake phone call purportedly between program director Jeff Catlin and Williams, mocking the host's recent sick days.
"I've got a sneaker in my cheek, Cat," claimed fake Greggo. "Whatever you do, don't tell Rhynes! Don't you dare tell Rhynes!"
If listeners only knew.
As The Hardline's popularity soared, Dallas' most mesmerizing radio relationship soured.
"My trust in him waned," Rhyner says. "It was more what I saw him do to others more than to me. Girls mostly. When he thought he had the upper hand in a relationship he treated them just awful."
According to both, the "Corby Conundrum" deepened their chasm.
Sensing the show needed a tune-up in '99, Rhyner suggested bringing in a third voice. Williams pushed for Corby Davidson, who had lost his foothold at the station in the wake of The Chris Arnold Show going kaput.
"When Greggo first mentioned him, I didn't know him," Rhyner admits. "Then when I met him I couldn't stand him. But eventually he was right. It worked."
Or did it?
Of all the sensitive issues between them—from women to drugs to habitual lying—none is more polarizing than Davidson. In short, Williams believes Rhyner steered conversations toward Corby and away from him in an effort to re-route the show's flowchart. Rhyner calls it jealousy.
"He orchestrated a game of freeze-out against me," Williams says. "It was like keep-away, between him and Corby and Danny [Balis, The Hardline producer]. For whatever reason I wasn't utilized like I once was. I still don't know why."
Rhyner denies choreographing any such manipulation but admits that a "natural order of things" commenced with the rising of Williams' insecurity and Davidson's competence.
"Look, all the mics were open all the time," Rhyner says. "There was never an intentional stressing of Corby over Greggo. As bad as the thing was, I'd never do that to the guy. I'd do it an honorable way if it needed done. But the truth is, he just wouldn't get involved. He became withdrawn, and everybody noticed."
The fib that broke Rhyner's back came in the summer of '04, when Williams went into the hospital for what he said was gall bladder surgery. When he returned to work 10 days later, he had dropped 20 pounds. Diet and exercise, he claimed, though he refused to talk about it in detail, on or off the air.
For a station founded on "full disclosure," someone seemed to be hiding something.
Tipped off by multiple anonymous e-mails, Rhyner finally had his answer: Lap-Band surgery.
"That finally made me see the futility of it all with him," Rhyner says. "Lying to me about that? What would I care? Had he told me the truth all along we probably wouldn't be here right now. But at that point, I was done."
At a lunch in Houston during the baseball All-Star Game, Rhyner confronted his longtime partner. After multiple denials, Williams ducked his head in shame. "I was very embarrassed to get that surgery," Williams says. "Plus, at the time, I thought I could get away with anything."
Even his on-the-air ripping of home-run king Barry Bonds for taking steroids, then joining his Uptown crew that same night for a couple bumps of go-go powder.
Rhyner had tolerated Williams' lies, seen the womanizing, endured the depression, witnessed the mental breakdown and experienced—also in '04—Williams' traumatic detox from an addiction to the painkiller Lorcet, prescribed to treat a bad back.
But then his partner's behavior turned even more troubling.
Last June, Williams showed up to a pre-show meeting with "allergies"—allergies that lasted five months.
"I've known the guy 20 years, and if he's allergic to something I'd have known it by then," Rhyner says. "But he was so loaded up he just assumed we'd all be naïve."
Williams sniffled incessantly and sweated profusely. In meetings he was nervously and endlessly chatty. He radically changed his dress, from boots and button-downs to loud paisley shirts. At a staff dinner last July at Cowboys' training camp in San Antonio, Williams' nose began bleeding onto a restaurant table.
"We'd confront him about drugs, about cocaine," Rhyner says. "But it was always 'allergies.'"
Friends, too, grew concerned.
"I had suspicions, because he was forgetting stuff and not showing up where he was supposed to be," says Boggs, the longtime Ticket promotions assistant who earned his "T-Bar" moniker supplying The Hardline with VIP passes to topless bars. "But you never want to think the worst of your best friend. He thought he could do drugs every once in a while and control it. But that's just his stupidity. He's too addictive."
Says Williams, "It occurred to me to come clean when they'd ask. But I just kept on. I thought I was bulletproof to anyone and everyone about everything. That's what addicts do. They use. They deny. I was trying to pull a fast one on everybody, but the only person I was fooling was myself."
There was a sudden two-day absence later in July when Rhyner says Williams answered his inquest with, "Well, if you must know, I had a stroke." And on August 23—The Ticket's "Fight Night" at the Village Country Club—suspicions earned substance when, according to Rhyner, Davidson walked into the bathroom and found Williams kneeling over a line of blow on the toilet seat.
"I don't remember that exactly," Williams says, "but I'm certainly not denying it happened."
He then put on his headphones and re-joined the on-air round table while under the influence, a career-ending violation under most codes of conduct.
"Including mine," says Williams.
For Williams, who often chastised Dallas' fair-weather sports fans as the "cocaine and boob-job crowd," this was more than a bump in the road.
It all started while hanging out in May '07 at a Saturday night house party with his new, eclectic Uptown friends. Though he hadn't taken the drug since a one-time experiment in '81, he downed a couple drinks, was offered cocaine and dove in nose-first under the illogical reasoning of: "Sure, why not?"
Two bumps—snorted off his car key—and Williams was hooked, he says. "I was euphoric, energetic. I called the next weekend for more, and from there it was a steady climb."
For the next five months he altered personas: Greggo by day; Wacko at night.
"I never did it daily, but I was addicted," he says. "If I hadn't been confronted I might have never stopped until something really bad happened."
Worse, even, than losing his job.
On Friday, October 12, Williams claims he innocently overslept. In between his workout and lunch, he dozed off and didn't arrive for The Hardline's remote at Addison's Blackfinn Restaurant and Saloon until the middle of the first segment. During a commercial break Catlin called and ordered Williams to immediately take a drug test.
"I can't take a drug test right now," Williams told his boss.
At 9 a.m. the following Monday at the station's offices across from Reverchon Park, Williams met Catlin and Dan Bennett, vice president at Cumulus Radio, which owns The Ticket. "They knew, and I knew I couldn't deny it anymore," Williams says. "I told them I couldn't take the test...because I couldn't pass it."
Unaware he had uttered his last word on the Ticket, Williams underwent four days of rehab in Arlington, followed over the next month by Narcotics Anonymous meetings and four more days as an outpatient in Dallas. "My motivation for going through it all was getting clean and going back to work. The Ticket was my carrot," he says.
But while Williams was planning his return, his co-workers were committed to proceeding without him. At a remote broadcast in late November, Boggs says, he overheard Davidson express the fear that The Hardline would no longer be able to use Williams' drops (short, recorded quips) because "that's half our show."
"It was really sickening," Boggs says. "Greggo was being told he still had a job, but these guys were already talking about him in the past tense."
Indeed, in his mind, Rhyner already had burned his last segment with Williams.
"When my contract was up, if he came back I was leaving," Rhyner says. "He had just become a drain on everybody, especially me. He threw pity parties for himself, he didn't participate in the show and he was high on the show more often than not. The show was just better without him. He was unsalvageable....He became intoxicated with his fame and developed a sense of entitlement that would stun a mastodon."
On the morning of November 21—the day before Thanksgiving—Williams went to Cumulus' 16th-floor offices and walked into a scene right out of 12 Angry Men.
Perhaps he should have seen it coming. When Williams arrived for the 10:30 meeting, there in the lobby was Rhyner. The two hadn't spoken since October 12. They took separate elevators.
On one side of the imposing conference room, sitting in a semicircle, were the brains and brawn of Dallas' most popular talk-radio station: Bennett, Catlin, Rhyner, Davidson, Balis, Miller, George Dunham, Gordon Keith, Dan McDowell, Bob Sturm, Donovan Lewis and Tom Gribble. (10 a.m.-noon host Norm Hitzges and assistant program director Mark Friedman were on the air.)
"I'm almost happy I wasn't able to be there," Hitzges says. "Some days it would take a genius to tell Greggo was struggling because, to me, his work didn't suffer."
Nevertheless, there sat Williams in the bull's-eye of the storm.
"It was without question the tensest thing I've ever been a part of at The Ticket," Rhyner says. "Months and years of frustration and venom came down on him."
Williams felt he was being ambushed, the attack occurring just 48 hours after he had completed out-patient rehab and 24 since he signed a "last chance" contract stipulating a $100,000 pay cut, no bonuses and random drug testing.
"I knew the meeting was going to be unpleasant," Williams says. "But I looked at it as part of the healing process. I was facing the music. I signed that contract without batting an eye, and I was assured point-blank by Dan and by Cat and by human resources that my job was safe. At no time did I think there was a chance I was going to be fired."
After Bennett opened the meeting, Williams made his plea for clemency.
"I'm sorry," he told the group. "I've made some really big mistakes."
Because most in that room refused interview requests, detailing exactly who said what is difficult. By several accounts, Dunham expressed the most empathy and disappointment, Miller and Davidson talked of mistrust and broken bonds, and Rhyner landed the fiercest verbal haymakers, bludgeoning Williams for his drug use but more so for his lying. At one point, Rhyner told Williams he should be "institutionalized."
"I guess the meeting was a last-ditch effort to try to save things," Rhyner says. "But it was clear early on that no one wanted him back."
Rhyner says three times Williams volunteered to resign, but Williams disagrees. "I might've said something like, 'If you guys really feel this way maybe it's best I move on down the road.' But did I quit? Never."
Though Williams claims he was taking only anti-depressants, Rhyner thought Williams' speech was slow, his body language sluggish. "I think he was messed up."
Williams counters that he was embarrassed, nervous, "but otherwise I was sharp as a tack."
After the 90-minute grilling Williams went home, convinced he'd survived the firing squad and prepared to return to work the following Monday.
"Looking back," he says, "I went into that meeting a dead man walking."
On Friday, Bennett told Williams not to show up for work Monday, and it became evident The Ticket was working toward a conclusion rather than a resolution. On Tuesday, Bennett called to say, according to Williams, a "parting of the ways would be the best thing for everyone" and to offer—after 14 years—one month's severance pay.
Enter attorneys. And a dark month in station history in which Williams' co-workers publicly danced on his grave, privately ignored his desperate phone calls and alienated listeners with a lack of information about their vanished host. Because of legal ramifications and health-care privacy laws, the station was gagged in what it could say on the air about Williams.
Yet The Hardline began turning Williams into a punch line, referring to him as "He who must not be named" and returning to the broadcast from commercial breaks with Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" and Eric Clapton's "Cocaine."
"I lost a lot of respect for The Ticket with the way they kept playing Greggo's drops and making fun of him," DeWeed says. "Greg's good people. He won't stoop to the mudslinging. Through all this, he's learned who his true friends are and hardly any of them work at The Ticket."
While his disgruntled fans demanded answers and created a "Where's Greggo?" Web site, Williams clung to life.
"There were days when Greggo wouldn't get out of bed," Boggs says. "He'd just lay there crying in the dark, saying there was nothing worth living for."
And on that December night, Williams almost ended it all. Almost.
Says Rosenbaum, "I didn't think he'd commit suicide, but when he'd just lay there in the fetal position, it crept into the back of my mind. There were days when he told me not to come to his place. He said his body ached. Said his hair hurt. You could hear sheer terror in his voice."
His career and well-being in limbo, Williams retreated to his condo in Colorado. Near Christmas he drove his car through an icy patch and into a snow bank, suffering a gash on his head that required 21 stitches. At the hospital, however, his Cumulus insurance card was declined, forcing him to pay the $3,200 bill out of his pocket.
"That just reminded me that even after 14 years of loyalty and success and everything else," Williams says, "in the end it's just a business."
On January 10, The Ticket issued a press release that read, in part:
"Greg Williams, co-host of afternoon drive show The Hardline, has resigned."
It's confounding that a company would agree to pay severance to an employee it claimed had quit. But then, surely Williams' illegal drug use violated his contract. Even more convoluted, The Ticket, by law, couldn't fire an employee who voluntarily entered and successfully completed drug rehab. And that doesn't even factor in Williams' clinical depression.
Asked to comment on Williams' tenure at The Ticket, Catlin and Bennett offered only this statement:
"Greg Williams was a key and critical part of building The Ticket and The Hardline into what it is today. To have him not be a part of that anymore is a shame. But just like a team who loses a star to injury or trade, we have to keep on winning with our current roster. I have full confidence in the guys that we will do just that, provided we keep entertaining our hardcore P1's in the way that they've come to expect and enjoy over the past 14 years."
Williams and The Ticket reached a settlement of their differences in May. As part of their agreement, The Ticket avoided a lawsuit and retained his drops, able to use its intellectual property as it chooses; Williams received a chunk of cash and the freedom to work wherever he chooses.
Losing a job Williams could stomach. But losing his friends—at least who he thought were friends—is devastating.
"I'm not a bad guy. It's not like I was some strung-out junkie screwing everybody over," Williams says. "The person I was hurting was myself. I don't understand why they have to treat me like this. They won. I lost. I'm trying to move on. But they're still talking about me on the air, just running up the score."
With his classic malapropos and innate ability to make you laugh both at him and with him, Williams' unique voice will be as difficult to replace as Don Meredith on Monday Night Football. But his friendships, apparently, were overrated.
Since October 12, Williams has received calls only from Hitzges, McDowell and Keith, and an e-mail from Miller. From the guy who got his Hardline blessing and who has since slid into Williams' No. 2 role on the show? Not a word.
"I thought me and Corby were beyond friends," Williams says. "Even on my best day I think about him turning on me. Nothing hurts worse than him not at least taking one minute to call. We'll never be friends."
Davidson declined to be interviewed for this story.
There's also no ignoring the brutality of the Williams-Rhyner break-up. The former partners last talked shortly after the November 21 summit, when Williams called via olive branch.
"I wasn't bitter," Rhyner says. "I just told him how I felt, and he told me how he felt. That was it."
Stubbornly, Williams hopes to one day resume their relationship, if not their friendship.
"If he calls me at 3 a.m. broken down in Waco, I'll go without question," he says. "He can't do anything to change how I feel about him...But I take full responsibility. I ruined our friendship."
Says Rhyner, "I'm still really pissed about all this. I hope there comes a day when I can recall our time together more fondly and think about him in friendlier terms. But not yet. Not after how it all went down."
Despite the ugly divorce, The Hardline appears softer but remains popular. The show conducted tryouts (Full disclosure: I twice sat in Williams' vacated chair), but those ultimately fizzled and, in fact, prompted increased roles for Davidson and Balis.
With the latest boffo ratings and Rhyner's seemingly renewed enthusiasm, it appears the show's DNA won't be altered anymore—at least no in the immediate future. In the winter '08 ratings book, The Hardline clobbered its lone sports-talk competition, ESPN Radio, by an almost 2-to-1 margin.
Without Williams, The Ticket's Super Bowl trip wasn't as high-jinksy and the annual compound week not as unpredictable, and the program's unique candor seems forever tainted. But to the majority of its fans, the beer-guzzling, boob-gawking, ball-bouncing boys' club is still the best thing on radio.
"I'm not sure what shape we'll ultimately wind up in, but I'll be here," says Rhyner, 57. "Just because The Hardline isn't the same doesn't mean it isn't good. It's evolving, and I'm excited about the direction we're headed. I've found my radio voice again."
Says Boggs, "They can play all the drops they want, but it's not Greggo. It's not The Hardline."
As the sun goes down on his lake house and his Memorial Day party heats up, Williams encourages his guests to eat, drink, be merry and drink some more. Seems like cruel and unusual punishment for an addict to tease himself with the lure of alcohol on his own porch. But with his friends slamming tequila shots, gulping Jägermeister snow cones and his girlfriend cutting up more limes for more Coronas, he surveys the scene and accepts his fate.
"I can't drink, because I'm an addict. Not one beer," Williams says. "Look, I've been clean since October. It's 9 o'clock on May 24. I can just about say I've whipped this day's ass. But tomorrow, if I don't watch it, I could go tumbling right down again."
Thanks to Rosenbaum, he's back on his medication, seems relatively healthy, is considering marriage and is working on getting closer to his 26-year-old son, Derek. Though he still has a legion of fans—some who infiltrate Ticket events with "Where's Greggo?" signs—Williams knows his image has been plundered. He was the ultimate hypocrite, gallivanting down the same decadent path he sanctimoniously lambasted athletes such as Michael Irvin, Roy Tarpley and Steve Howe for taking.
At 48, he could retire. Williams has been smart with his money, and the profits from selling a condo or two could keep him afloat for years. But he desperately wants to return to radio. "For my credibility and sanity, I've got to get back on the air."
He says he could start tomorrow working afternoons in Phoenix or mornings in Pittsburgh, but he's not about to leave home. Since March he's been in negotiations with ESPN Radio about a weeknight 7-10 p.m. show.
Though ESPN program director Tom Lee will only speak about hiring Williams in vague terms—"He's definitely on our radar"—Williams talks about the job in terms of when, not if. He says he's already undergone an extensive background check, agreed in principle to a one-year contract without benefits and at about a seventh of his Ticket salary, and expects to debut this month during Cowboys' training camp alongside ESPN regular RJ Choppy. He already has theme music, has Rosenbaum working on a Web site and even recently bought a fuel-efficient Ford Focus for the nightly commute to Arlington.
"I'm humbled, but I know I can still do winning radio," Williams says. "I've got a lot left in me, and I've got a lot to prove to myself and everyone else."
Williams knows he will likely never win back all of his fans or half his friends. But in a sports town that cheers Josh Hamilton and forgives Pacman Jones, his reputation just might be salvageable.
"I'll live the rest of my life through urinalysis," Williams says. "Even if I say I'm clean nobody will believe me. And they shouldn't. I did this, and I'll probably never totally forgive myself. I pissed on my name. Pissed on the best job in the world. But I'm ready to move forward, to live the life I should've been living all along."
The Hammer is half-cocked.
The gun, however, is no longer loaded.