There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Chief Zee won’t be going to Veterans Stadium this weekend to see
his beloved Redskins’ last game there. He never goes to Philadelphia anymore.
Chief Zee, the alias of Oxon Hill resident Zema Williams, has been the unofficial Redskins mascot for nearly a quarter-century. Williams gave himself the job on a Monday night in September 1978. It all started when a family friend offered him tickets to a game against Dallas at RFK Stadium.
“I’d been rooting for the Redskins back to when Eddie LeBaron was the quarterback, but until that Dallas game I’d never been to a game,” he says. “So I wanted it to be special.”
Williams showed up wearing a black robe and a feather headdress he’d rented from a costume shop, accessorizing the ensemble with a rubber spear. Cameras from the Monday Night Football crew caught Williams mock-beating on another fan dressed up in Cowboys garb, and, during the Redskins’ 9-5 victory, the MNF heyday crew of Dandy Don Meredith, Howard Cosell, and Frank Gifford commented on his antics.
“I couldn’t believe how many people said they saw me on TV after that,” Williams says.
A mascot was born. Williams began showing up costumed at every Redskins home game soon after his ABC exposure, and at some road games, too. He used to try to travel to other cities within the division and particularly looked forward to the visits to Dallas. From the start, Williams says, Dallas management treated him like a celebrity, and always allowed him and Crazy Ray, his Cowboys counterpart, down on the sidelines to rain faux blows upon each other. The Fox network’s telecast of the latest tilt with Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, for example, featured several shots of Williams, 61, and the equally ripened Crazy Ray going at it. (“I don’t really know what’s going on there,” said commentator Cris Collinsworth, obviously disturbed by the sight of two costumed old dudes rasslin’.)
But there was nothing playful or faux about the scrap that brought Williams perhaps the most attention of his mascotting career. It happened in Philadelphia in September of 1983. He’d gone there to watch the defending Super Bowl champion Redskins play the then-lowly Eagles.
Legend holds that Philadelphians don’t like folks showing up in opposition garb. Rob Charry, longtime news director for WIP-AM, the sports station in Philadelphia, says he’s not so sure his town is any tougher on visiting rooters than other locales. But, Charry adds, if you show up at Veterans Stadium wearing non-Eagles colors, “You’re basically putting a sign on your back that says, ‘Hit me!’”
That’s apparently the sign Eagles fans saw on Chief Zee. Early in the game, two locals accosted Williams in the upper deck. They ripped his customized jumpsuit during an unsuccessful attempt to tear it clean off him. The assailants also grabbed the feathers off his head and threw them to the grandstands below. Veterans Stadium security guards came to Chief Zee’s rescue, throwing his attackers out.
Williams, who was ruffled but unhurt, went downstairs and asked for help from Philly fans in retrieving his headdress, but, with John Riggins leading the Skins to a 23-13 win over the home team, they weren’t in any mood to assist. The Chief left the stadium without the feathers. On his walk to the parking lot, a van cut in front of Williams and stopped. The back doors opened, and a thuggish quartet—including the two folks who’d been ejected for going after Williams inside the stadium—jumped out. They proceeded to deliver perhaps the worst mascot beating in NFL history on Chief Zee.
“They treated me like chopped meat,” he says. “They ripped off my costume, smashed my eye socket so my eyeball was just hanging out, snapped my leg like it was a twig, and yelled, ‘You won’t be jumping up and down in this stadium anymore!’ They left me lying in my underclothes.”
Williams says his fear of Philadelphians was so acute that he refused to let an ambulance take him to a nearby hospital. Instead, he hired a limousine and went directly to D.C. General.
For the rest of the season, Chief Zee went to games in a wheelchair or on crutches. None of his attackers were ever arrested, but Williams sued the firms in charge of security at Veterans Stadium and won. (A UPI report at the time said Williams received $14,250 from the defendants.)
Eagles officials invited Chief Zee to come back in costume as their guest for the 1984 game at the Vet.
He accepted the invitation.
“They gave me the VIP treatment: drove me to the game and put me in the box seats,” Williams says. “But this senior-citizen lady comes up to me and says, ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve coming up here! We mugged the guy who dressed like that last year!’ And then she threw her drink in my face. I can still smell that drink.”
Though it was only halftime, Williams got up and left the game after drying himself off. He hasn’t been back to Philadelphia since. But he hasn’t missed a Skins home game “unless there’s a death in the family.”
During the Redskins glory days, Chief Zee brought Williams all sorts of acclaim that probably wouldn’t have come his way had he never donned the costume. Marion Barry proclaimed Nov. 7, 1985, “Chief Zee Day,” and he’s gotten keys to the counties of Prince George’s and Fairfax. And two years ago, he was named as the Skins’ representative to the Visa Hall of Fans, a sorta Hall of Fame for guys in face paint.
There’s been some local backlash against his act, also. Chief Zee has long been a target of Native American groups, who aren’t happy with the cartoonish image the character projects.
“A bunch of protesters wanted to fight me outside RFK a few years ago,” he says.
Williams says that he has no intention of taking off the uniform and that he feels he has the right to wear Indian garb, because his maternal grandmother was a full-blooded Seminole. But though most Washington fans regard him as the team’s mascot, Redskins management gives no support to Chief Zee. Perhaps because of the controversy surrounding the team’s name, he’s no longer allowed down on the sidelines during home games.
“I think they’re trying to smother the Chief,” he says, adding that he even has to come up with his own tickets to games at FedEx Field. Sometimes friends or folks who know of his game-day function provide seats. But often, Chief Zee says, he has to deal with scalpers.
That seems fitting.
Mr. Pat, the 3-year-old colt that Pat Robertson bought last year for $520,000, got his first-ever win Dec. 7, in the fourth race at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. Robertson has been involved in racing for a long time, while mostly keeping his operation, named Tega Farm, out of the public eye. This past spring, however, after news stories about his parimutuel pursuits caused some of the minister’s longtime supporters to voice misgivings, Robertson wrote a letter to his followers that said he’d sell off his animals by the Keeneland breeding-stock auction. That auction ended on Nov. 13, with Mr. Pat still in residence at Tega Farm. Angell Watts, Robertson’s spokesperson at the Christian Broadcasting Network, says Robertson is unavailable to comment on his success at the track. Mr. Pat paid $3.90 for every $2 win bet. —Dave McKenna