Next to most pro football players, Willie Gault looks as though he belongs in a china cabinet, right alongside an expensive piece of cut glass. But put the gifted wide receiver of the Chicago Bears out there in the secondary with a ball in the air and it is quickly apparent that he is in exactly the right place. There may be a lot of players more ruggedly built than the 6-foot, 180-pound Gault, but none who catch the ball with his flair, style, and grace. Last year he was the first wide receiver to lead the Bears in receptions (42) since 1977. This season he has averaged 23 yards per catch, including two for 35 yards Sunday as Chicago edged Green Bay, 26-24, to lift its record to 7-1.
If a deer could catch passes, Willie is what he would look like. Dance companies casting The Nutcracker may someday decide to pick up his option.
Indeed, Gault once performed as a guest artist with the Chicago City Ballet. The critics liked him. Ballerina Maria Terezia Balough, with whom he performed several difficult lifts, echoed approval. Afterwards Gault said he wanted to show that ballet wasn't a sissy sport, and that a football player could get up on a stage in tights and not make a fool of himself.
On the football field, Willie has the kind of wire-tough body that can take a hit from the defense and spring back good as new. He started all 16 of the Bears' regular-season games in 1985, repeated the performance last season, and expects to keep the string going this year.
Willie's work area, when he isn't simply outrunning everybody to the ball, is often that narrow strip of real estate between the defensive backs and the sideline. Usually the only way he can be stopped there is with double coverage, a wonderful idea except that it leaves one of Chicago's other receivers wide open.
Because Gault is often used as a decoy, his value should never be judged on numbers alone, but also on the quality of his receptions, considering such factors as the score, field position, and time remaining. Also, merely by being on the field, a big-play threat like Willie opens up more opportunities for other aspects of the offense.
Almost from the moment Chicago selected him in the first round of the 1983 National Football League draft, the multi-talented Gault has been a favorite of Bears' followers. There aren't many Chicago fans who don't know that he was a world-class sprinter at Tennessee, who ran on the US gold-medal-winning relay team in the 1983 world track and field championships in Helsinki; or that he once modeled furs; or that he is a fancier of horses. In fact, he loves to hitch up his horse ``Summertime'' and race the wind.
But Gault's popularity also extends well beyond Chicago. When he went back to his hometown of Griffin, Ga., to get married, 600 wedding invitations had been mailed out. Twelve-hundred people showed up, including 15 bridesmaids and 17 groomsmen. Elsewhere in the NFL
Pro football's most unusual commuter is tight end Russ Francis of the San Francisco 49ers. Francis, who has had a pilot's license since he was 21, flies his own vintage, open-cockpit Stearman biplane from his home in Livermore, Calif., each day to the 49ers' practice field in Redwood City. Russ, who recently reached a career milestone of 5,000 yards gained, also likes to hang glide, ride motorcycles, and sky-dive.
Even though it's still early, those who vote for NFL Coach of the Year are going to have to take a hard look at Al Saunders of San Diego, whose team is 7-1 after beating Indianapolis on Sunday, 16-13. A year ago the Chargers' record over the same period was just the opposite. At that time, San Diego was passing almost twice as often as it ran. This year in Saunders's first full season the Chargers have a more balanced attack.
Linebacker Fredd Young, who led the Seattle Seahawks in tackles in 1985 and 1986, has lost none of his efficiency this season. Not only is Young first again in his specialty, but he has also scored two touchdowns - one on a 50-yard pass interception runback against the Los Angeles Raiders, the other on a 45-yard run with a recovered fumble against Denver.
While it probably isn't fair to blame just one group of players for the collapse of the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the fact is that the team's offensive linemen have been playing like imposters. They looked better in Sunday's 17-10 victory over New England, but before that, they had been opening up cracks, not holes, for their running backs.
From Jack Kemp, Republican presidential candidate, New York congressman, and former quarterback in the old American Football League: ``Pro football gave me the perspective I needed to enter politics. I'd already been booed, cheered, sold, traded, and hanged in effigy!''