How does a private man use his celebrity status for social good?
How does a professional athlete realize a future as a business professional?
When you put such questions to Madieu Williams, expect him to be guarded. He exerts calm control over his life and his message, without a trace of pride or arrogance. He doesn’t want to dwell, for instance, on how — in just 14 years — he went from escaping a bloody calamity to a pro football contract worth $3.2 million.
Do ask him about the successful wine-tasting fundraiser for his foundation (“Madieu’s Uncorked Connoisseur Night”). Listen to him tell about how 300 kids and a community responded enthusiastically to his free football clinic in the struggling Cincinnati neighborhood of Avondale. Then you’ll see him ease into a welcoming smile.
He’ll relax more if you don’t statistically define him as Cincinnati Bengals free safety Madieu (pronounced Muh-DEE-oo) Williams, age 25, drafted in the second round of the 2004 National Football League draft, the University of Maryland graduate who recovered from a 2005 shoulder injury to be on the field for more snaps in the 2006 season (1,265) than any other Bengal. He’s the one whose web site (www.madieuwilliams.org) features a Bengal roar and the thump of “This Is Why I’m Hot” by MIMS.
This isn’t to suggest Williams isn’t proud to be a Bengal. His work ethic is solid. At his best, he produces game-transforming plays on defense and special teams. He says the upcoming season is promising, so long as the team can remain healthy.
As he prepared for the grinding heat and hitting of summer training camp, Williams consented to an exclusive interview with Cincy Business on one condition: This story focuses on his future as a business professional.
You see, besides his commitments as an athlete, Madieu Williams is the founder and hands-on leader of the Madieu Williams Foundation, was selected this year for the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program at the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is an MBA candidate working on projects with students around the world and — take note — an intern in hospital administration at Mercy Hospital Fairfield.

DRIVEN BY VALUES
Sitting in an executive conference room at the hospital, Williams is enthusiastic about his internship. “I want to learn more of the ins and outs…and not just by watching ER,” he laughs.
In recent months, he’s soaked up information about employee operations, balancing budgets and fundraising for a non-profit organization. (The hospital is part of Mercy Health Partners of Southwest Ohio.) “It’s about looking beyond…preparing yourself for when the time comes,” he says.
When the time comes. Some pro athletes live for the moment. Some worry about the day when the career ends abruptly, the bonus money is gone and the knees are shot. Madieu Williams looks ahead to fulfill a mission. Knowing where he’s from will help you appreciate where he wants to go.
He was 9 years old and living with relatives when his homeland — the West Africa country of Sierra Leone — was sinking into an 11-year-civil war that killed thousands. His parents, both nurses, had left to seek stability and opportunity in the United States. Williams then joined them in Lanham, a Maryland suburb near Washington, D.C.
Before long he was earning high school letters in football, track and baseball in high school. After two years at Towson State University, he made the Maryland Terrapins football squad as a walk-on, started all 27 games in two years and contributed to blowout victories in the Gator and Peach bowls.
“My parents were very involved in my development: football, socially and academically,” he emphasizes. Education came first. They supported him in sports because they saw how the structure would help his development. “Looking back now, I understand why.”
He remembers accompanying his mother and father on visits to elderly people in nursing homes, developing personal relationships with residents. “With my parents, day to day we would have home discussions. I learned there’s a way with responsibility…to do something to help those in need.”
After considering a nursing career and serving in summer internships at the National Institutes of Health, he decided to pursue family studies. “My mother told me my duty was to get a degree because, most important, it can make a difference to society. That keeps everything in perspective.”
COMMUNITY PARTNERS
He began his foundation in 2005 “to reach children at an early age,” to help them develop healthy lifestyles through good nutrition, fitness and wellness awareness. This was an idea he discussed with his parents before he was drafted into football.
Williams is understandably hesitant to talk about the loss of his mother two years ago, at age 45, of complications resulting from diabetes. The conversation steers back to the values his parents instilled in him, especially his obligations to others.
“Increasing the knowledge base and providing resources is half the battle,” he says about getting health education and awareness to people of all ages, beginning with the young. “I see it on a daily basis, even in my own family,” he observes. “It touches your heart when you see a child who’s obese and you know how it affects his future.”
As Williams became more aware of how he might help, Mercy Hospital officials were thinking about allying with a celebrity to help their own community health initiatives. “But we wanted someone to take it seriously,” recalls Greg Ossmann, director of public affairs and marketing for Mercy Health Partners. He learned about Madieu Williams through contacts with former Bengals Jim Breech and Eric Ball.
“He visited the hospital, met the staff and asked good questions,” Ossmann continues. “Then we got involved with his foundation. What we’re both trying to achieve meshed.”
Williams says Mercy’s reputation — “it’s second to none” — attracted him. The community programs fit what he was trying to accomplish, such as Mercy hospitals’ free blood glucose screenings that he helped promote this summer. “You have to like the people you’re working with,” he adds.
Like Ossmann, Jeffrey A. Ashin, president and CEO of Mercy Fairfield, was impressed from the start by Williams’ detailed interest in health care, how he kept picking their brains for information. So Mercy suggested the internship. “Madieu doesn’t want to be a poster person,” Ossmann notes, recalling how Williams put it: “I want to learn the business, to see how you make decisions.”
With Ashin and Ossmann as his mentors, and a hospital schedule flexed to accommodate his Bengals commitments, Williams gets briefings on healthcare issues and meets experts to broaden his knowledge. “Once we reach a mutual comfort level, we’ll have him take on an initiative,” Ossmann predicts.
Watching the three men interact, it’s evident they enjoy one another’s company. Ashin says it directly: “We’re friends.”
But the hospital CEO emphasizes the professionalism of the relationship, and Williams wouldn’t want it any other way. “He takes his public role very seriously,” Ashin says. “We have to feel good about who we work with. We’re a faith-based institution with high standards. Madieu fits the bill with his integrity and commitment.”