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It’s easy to write off Chief Zee as problematic. Zema Williams has been serving as the unofficial mascot for the local football team since 1978, wearing a burgundy and gold faux-“Indian” headdress and waving a toy tomahawk to fire up fans. In an age where the team name is finally receiving scrutiny that’s decades overdue, a septuagenarian black guy in Hollywood Indian cosplay may be just a bit too on-the-nose to serve as de facto face of the franchise. But this story isn’t about people not writing off the Chief—it’s about people not writing off Zema Williams the man.
Let me get some full disclosure stuff out of the way: first, Chief Zee. Somewhere in my mother’s boxes of stuff, there are pictures of me as a wide-eyed young football fan with Chief Zee at RFK stadium. Somewhere in my own boxes of stuff, there are pictures of me as a bleary-eyed teenage football fan with Chief Zee. Somewhere in the archives of the Internet, there are a bunch of words that I’ve written about Chief Zee.
The fans who helped Williams out this time were led by local super fans Christie and Chris Lopez and “Tailgate Ted,” who prefers not to give his last name to keep his professional life and fan life separate. I know all of them as well. I’ve eaten Tailgate Ted’s food. I’ve written about the Lopezes multiple times. They were welcoming to me when I worked for the team, and even sent a custom onesie for my son when he was born. That’s relevant not just as full disclosure, but because it underlines something about their nature, as football fans and as people.
Williams was behind on his rent. He lives off a Social Security check that’s deposited on the second Wednesday of the month, a timeline that doesn’t sync up with the payment date for his rent, and he was in the hole, under threat of imminent eviction.
He reached out to the Lopezes—they, along with Tailgate Ted, help him out with appearances and other needs even outside of football season—and they, in turn, reached out to the Internet via GoFundMe.
They were looking for $2,000, enough to get him out of immediate jeopardy and to get a month ahead on the rent, to prevent the problem from recurring. They raised it in less than 24 hours, and contributions have continued to trickle in in three days since, with more than $5,000 contributed by more than 155 people.
Scrolling through the list of contributors on the GoFundMe, the donors are a mix of anonymous folks, local football fans, and even ex-players. There are recent players (Phillip Daniels is there by name, and cornerback Leigh Torrance) and at least one from the glory days of the 1980s. Darryl Grant is probably best remembered for the late touchdown against the Cowboys in the 1983 NFC Championship game—that’s what put the defensive lineman on the cover of that week’s Sports Illustrated—but he has remained a fan of the team and kicked in on the GoFundMe because, he said, “It was the right thing to do” for an “icon and a part of team history.”
As soon as the GoFundMe hit the minimum to ensure that the rent would be covered, Tailgate Ted got a cashier’s check to pay the rent and stave off eviction. They’ve since paid another month in advance, as planned. The extra will go into an account co-managed by Tailgate Ted and Christie Lopez to cover future emergencies and similar needs.
There’s plenty to gripe at here—to emphasize the appalling optics of Williams’ alter ego, or to point out that lots of people face situations like this and don’t receive this support, or to ask why the team doesn’t take care of Williams. On that last question, Tailgate Ted says that the team, which provides Williams with tickets and parking for games, didn’t know about the rent issue, and he and Lopez didn’t feel there was time to wait for them to get into gear ahead of the eviction. (Team owner Daniel Snyder also bought Williams the scooter he uses to get around.)
Ted also adds, bluntly, “It’s not their responsibility.” Which is absolutely true. On the other hand, it also wasn’t the responsibility of fans, or ex-players, or, really, anyone else. But they chose to get this done, because Williams is a guy who brought them joy.
Which, to me, is the point of the whole story: Even if you hate the local NFL team, or the mascot, or even football altogether, sometimes sports really does do all the uniting and community building it’s supposed to. In a week where Philadelphia fans humiliated themselves during a nationally televised hockey game—jeering a seemingly concussed Caps player and throwing souvenir wristbands onto the ice and being berated by their own PA announcer—it’s worth noting when local fans do something genuinely kind.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @matt_terl.
Photo by Keith Allison / Flickr C.C.