Imagine one of the world’s best tennis players getting caught in one of history’s great disasters. Think it would be big news?
It wasn’t 100 years ago Sunday morning. That’s when Richard Williams clung to a lifeboat in the dark waters of the North Atlantic.
People were dying all around him. His legs were literally freezing to death.
Two years later, Williams was crowned the best tennis player in America.
Researchers have excavated a century’s worth of first-class stories about the night the Titanic hit the iceberg. The one about a 21-year-old in a raccoon coat pretty much got lost in steerage.
That was just fine with Williams, who’d be embarrassed at the publicity the 100th anniversary has brought.
“He didn’t like talking about himself,” said his grandson, Quincy Williams. “And he didn’t like other people talking about themselves.”
Where have you gone, Richard Williams? A tweeting world turns its overexposed eyes to you.
If a Titanic sank today, agents would have been lining up on the New York docks to sign the young hero. He’d instantly have a million Twitter followers wanting to know what he had for breakfast.
It’s not 1912 any more. For every humble soul who wouldn’t get in a lifeboat with a Kardashian, there’s a ship of fools that can’t get enough attention.
Williams deserved that. He was a World War I hero. France awarded him the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, its highest decoration.
He became a successful Philadelphia investment banker and philanthropist. He was president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Oh yeah, after refusing to have his legs amputated, he won two U.S. singles championships. He won a Wimbledon doubles title, an Olympic gold medal and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
“If you talk to my husband, you’d never even know he played tennis,” his wife used to say.
That’s a big reason Williams’ tale was familiar mainly to Titanic buffs until recently. The man who held ticket No. 17597 knew what happened on the maiden voyage would make a pretty good movie. But instead of selling his story, he put it down on about 25 typed, double-spaced pages.
The memoirs were just for his family. His grandson said they echo what researchers have pieced together about the disaster.
Richard Norris Williams was traveling from Geneva with his father, Charles. Richard planned on playing the lawn tennis circuit that summer and enrolling in Harvard for fall classes.
They were asleep in their stateroom when the ship hit the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. The jolt didn’t trigger much panic. After all, the Titanic was considered unsinkable.
Richard put on his big fur coat and headed out with his father. They came upon a steward trying to pry open a door to another cabin.
Richard lowered his shoulder and rammed the door in. The stranded passenger may have thanked him, but the steward said he would report Williams for destroying White Star Line property.
Probably wanting a stiff drink after that, they went to a smoking room. Charles got out his silver flask and gave it to his son, telling him it might come in handy on such a cold night. Richard asked the steward to fill it.
“The bar closes at midnight,” he was told.
If only the White Star Line has been such a stickler about lifeboat safety. Richard stuck the empty flask in his pocket.
He and his father mostly wandered the decks for the next couple of hours. In a letter he wrote to historian Walter Lord in 1962, Richard recalled that his father was convinced the ship would not go down.
Charles maintained that opinion even as the Titanic began to list toward its port side. The men walked uphill toward the gym, where they rode stationary bikes to try to stay warm.
The situation worsened in a hurry. As the letters of the ship’s name were about to go underwater, Richard turned to his father.
“I’m not much for symbolism,” he quipped. “But when the Captain forgets which ship he is on, it cannot bode well for the future.”
Not long afterward, there was a thunderous cracking sound and the forward smokestack crashed down. It narrowly missed Richard, and he was washed into the sea.
He started swimming and felt he’d gone about a mile. It was actually about 100 feet. He turned around was astonished to find the Titanic towering above him.
“Despite the horror and peril,” he wrote to Lord, “can’t help feeling it’s a majestic sight.”
The great ship went into its death throes, rising and settling then rising again and plunging straight down. It would not be seen again for 73 years, when explorers found it 1,200 feet below the water’s surface.
Williams kicked off his shoes and coat and swam toward a damaged lifeboat. Its canvas sides had collapsed, but at least it floated.
About 30 people held on. They prayed and sang and yelled in unison for help. One man asked Williams if he could put his arm around his neck for support.
Williams obliged. He felt the man’s grip tighten and then relax. It tightened again, then he felt it loosen as the man slid to his grave.
By the time a lifeboat found them near dawn, only 11 passengers were alive.
They were lifted onto the RMS Carpathia, which had responded to the distress call. Williams stayed on deck to watch the last boats come in, hoping to find his father. Charles Williams never came.
His son went below and tried to warm himself between an oven and a galley way. A doctor looked at his legs. He feared gangrene would set in and advised him to have both legs amputated.
“I refuse to give you permission,” Williams said. “I’m going to need these legs.”
He trudged around the decks for the next three days, hoping to restore circulation. Williams walked off the ship on April 18.
That July, he played a match in Boston against Karl Behr, a Davis Cup veteran. Behr had also been on the Titanic, though he escaped on a lifeboat.
Talk about a made-for-TV spectacular. Of course, there was no TV and essentially no mention anywhere of the voyage the players shared. Behr won in five sets, but the dashing newcomer impressed all.
Williams wore long pants, which was the style of the day. It also allowed him to hide his legs, which were permanently discolored from spending five hours in 28-degree water.
The next time you hear about an athlete overcoming adversity, think about the guy who had a ticket No 17597.
“It’s a different world today,” Quincy Williams said, who was born in 1959.
He was eight when his grandfather died. Quincy was old enough to know about the Titanic, but he never heard a word about it from the ultimate source.
“It don’t think it was ever discussed,” Quincy said.
He did get one thing from his grandfather. The silver flask he stuck in his pocket the night of April 15, 1912.
So here’s to you, Richard Williams.
It’s an honor to toast an athlete who showed true heroism and humility. And it’s sad that 100 years later, such traits seem forever lost at sea.
The preceding was reblogged from AOL Sporting News.