William Andrews was asleep when the ball boy pounded on the motel door in Suwanee, Ga. "Get up!" the kid hollered before moving to the next room. Mist hung over the Atlanta Falcons' practice field across the parking lot. It was 6:30 in the morning, Aug. 21, 1984. The season would start in 12 days.
Andrews pulled on a T shirt and a pair of shorts and yawned. He looked at his roommate, Alfred Jackson, who was half awake. It seemed the Falcons had been going through two-a-days for years. Eat, get taped, practice, shower, study, meet for film, sleep, wake up, eat, get taped—the routine itself was numbing. The night before, Andrews had fallen asleep the moment he lay down on his bed. He hadn't moved. He hadn't dreamed. The dreams would come later. But he had awakened with a start around 11:30 and called his wife, Lydia. She and the two boys, Andy and Micah, were visiting relatives back in Thomasville, Ga., Andrews's hometown. Everybody was fine, she said. Andrews knew they would be. Still, he hated to miss his daily call home.
The 6-foot, 213-pound running back looked at his feet. Sometimes he put on sneakers, but this morning he wore sandals. "It was hot the day before," he recalls, "and I knew it would be hot today." He had no idea how much time he would spend looking at his feet, the left one in particular, in the months to come.
He ate breakfast with his teammates, having the usual—eggs, bacon, orange juice, grits with butter. "After that I took a Jacuzzi, because my lower back was stiff," he says. "Then I had my ankles taped and sat down at my locker to put my stuff on."
Other than being a little tired, Andrews felt great. He had practiced well the day before, and he wanted to have a good one now. "Sometimes you'll want to lie on the floor and catch some more Z's," he says. "I'm usually not real sharp in the morning, but I was up that day. I was excited about practice."
Andrews pulled on his white practice jersey and walked out to the grass field. He joked with some of the defenders, who wore red, and loosened his huge thighs and sinewy calves. "I was happy that camp was breaking up soon and that I'd get to see my boys and wife," he recalls. "And I was happy about the way the team was playing. Things looked up."
If time could be freeze-framed, then it should be stopped right there. William Andrews, 28, was at the peak of his game—possibly at the peak of his life just then. He was entering his sixth season, and already he was the Falcons' leading career rusher, the 26th alltime rusher in NFL history. He had been named to the Pro Bowl four straight years and had gained more than 1,000 yards in every one of his seasons except strike-shortened 1982. He ran like a bull and blocked like a rhino. His hands were as soft as kid; his 81 receptions in 1981 were just one of the 19 team records he held. Only a few days earlier, owner Rankin Smith Sr. had rewarded him with a contract (including an annuity) worth about $200,000 a year for the next 42 years.
Moreover, Andrews was such a good man that nobody resented any of his accomplishments. Name a charity and he worked for it. Name a banquet that needed a speaker and he was there. He signed autographs as long as people wanted him to. His motto was: "If you've got time to talk to me, I've got time to talk to you."
In 1983 his 1,567 rushing yards and 609 receiving yards were 39% of the Falcons' total offense. Said Buffalo Bills linebacker Jim Haslett, "He is just the best runner in the NFL. I know all about Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett, Eric Dickerson and the rest. But Andrews is the best I've seen."
Sitting now on the grassy bank of the drainage pond at the Falcons' training complex, Andrews furrows his brow, thinking back to that day almost two years ago.