Alfred Williams, who teams with recent Westword interview subject Darren "D-Mac" McKee weekday afternoons on 104.3 The Fan's The Drive With Big Al & D-Mac, isn't just one of the metro area's most popular radio hosts. He's also a local sports legend thanks to a stint anchoring the defensive line for the University of Colorado Boulder, which earned him a national championship ring and membership in the College Football Hall of Fame, and a three-year run with the Denver Broncos that included not one, but two Super Bowl victories. And in the following interview, he tells his story to date in the sort of straightforward, no-bull manner that's long been his trademark.
Examples? Wiilliams explodes stereotypes about what it's like for an African-American living in lily-white Boulder, talks frankly about the lowest time in his Broncos career and why he initially turned down an opportunity to join the broadcasting business, details a beef with D-Mac that preceded their partnership and describes how he was able to move past it, and reveals how his dispassionate yet hard-hitting analysis once led to his photo being removed from Broncos team headquarters.
In addition, Williams recalls the show when he cried on the air. It's among the best moments of his career, but one he never wants to repeat.
The conversation below, which arrives just prior to the Broncos' final preseason contest of 2017 (a Mile High Stadium match-up against the Arizona Cardinals that gets underway at 7 p.m. tonight, August 31), touches on Williams's home town of Houston. Note that our interview took place before Hurricane Harvey struck the community and the surrounding region. Williams still has family and friends in the area — everyone's okay so far — and he's currently leading efforts at 104.3 The Fan to raise money for hurricane victims. Click to learn how you can help.
Westword: You grew up in Houston, and I'm sure a number of colleges across the country would have loved for you to have played football for them. Why did you choose the University of Colorado? What was it that appealed to you about it?
Alfred Williams: I think the beauty of the campus is undeniable, and that set up with [head coach] Bill McCartney — you had something that was absolutely special. It's a time in my life that I'll never, ever forget and I'll always treasure.
Did you immediately start thinking, "This is a place where I'd like to make my home?"
Absolutely. I had several opportunities to go to school in other states and at other universities. But it was Boulder and what it brought to me — and how open and free it felt for me as a guy from Houston. At times, it didn't feel like my city of Houston was as open or free.
Just in terms of the open spaces in Colorado? Or something beyond that?
Just the mindset. And its citizens, really. Houston, when I left, was a really oppressive city. All the things that surrounded me back in the ’70s and the ’80s. And Boulder was just the opposite. It was open and welcoming and freeing. It was just a place of comfort for me. I didn't have to worry about things. When you grow up in an all-black neighborhood and you have all-black teachers and all of your coaches are black, it's different coming to a city like Boulder. To some, it may have been a little intimidating. Boulder is something like 97 or 98 percent white. But for me, it was as fair as it could have been anywhere in the world. I love the city of Boulder for that, and for the way that they treated me. I'll always be grateful, and I'll always recommend it.
You were subsequently drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals and you played in San Francisco, too, before coming to the Broncos in 1996. Had you been actively working toward coming back to Colorado? Or was that just the way things worked out?
I always wanted to play for the Denver Broncos, because I wanted to live in Colorado. When I left the University of Colorado and was drafted by the Bengals, I bought a house in Louisville so I could be close to Boulder and a little closer to Denver. But I was playing for another professional team. You have no control over who drafts you. You just kind of go with the flow. But you can control where you live, and I chose to move back to Colorado.
The Broncos team you joined was arguably the best in the franchise's history. You won two Super Bowls in a row, and you probably should have won the one before the run started. What were some of the best and worst things you remember from that period?
My time here in Denver was magical. But the worst time was when we lost to Jacksonville and our hometown fans booed us and threw things at us as we were leaving down the tunnel. Everybody was so upset. I was, too, don't get me wrong. It was heartbreaking for me and everybody on that team to lose that game. It was such a lovefest that year, but it ended so poorly. It was the hardest loss I've ever had in my life.
Did the media pile on to make it worse?
No. It's just that when you're a kid in college and you're young, there are teams you want to play for, and Denver was that team for me. We were having such a great run and I was playing here finally, and things were great. I had an All-Pro season. Then it ended abruptly. I had such a love affair with the people of this state, and it just came to an abrupt end. I'll never forget the way that felt. They were disappointed, we were disappointed. And I knew it was only a few people who threw things that day. But at that moment, I said we would never lose another game in that stadium in that type of situation. I knew we had the right team. We just had to be more focused.
And the best moment?
The best moment I had as a pro was John Elway's last year. Being able to be here after my college days was incredible. I remember the TV cameras shaking while watching the games. I wanted to be part of it. And on John's last home game, he did something really cool. Watching him run around Mile High Stadium and high-fiving people, it almost brought tears to my eyes. I was so happy, especially because just a couple of years earlier, everybody was so disappointed. Just being able to be there, knowing we were going to our second Super Bowl. It was awesome. Awesome.
At any point during that couple of years, did you start looking beyond your professional football career — and was media one of the things you considered?
I never really thought about it, but I was always in a position to talk to reporters — and it always felt like these guys who were covering the team were my friends. From Craig Harper to B.G. Brooks to Woody Paige and Sam Adams, it just felt like all of them were writing their truth, and I was okay with it. I never backed down from an interview, and I felt like if I played well, why should you shy away from these guys? [Sports information director] Dave Plati at the University of Colorado prepared us to handle the interview process, and I felt that we as a team felt comfortable talking to people about what we were doing.
And you were so good at it. Were there lines around your locker after games because the press knew that you were such a good communicator?
If somebody wanted to know something, I'd tell them. I was an open book when it came to dealing with members of the media. I had no beef with anybody. And all we were doing was talking about football. Why should that be a problem? We were just talking about football.
So if you weren't thinking about a media career, how did you get started on one?
I was contacted by [former Fan program director] Tim Spence after I played my last down in the league. He asked me if I wanted to do radio. At the time, it was so emotional. I tore my Achilles and I was cut from the team, and I didn't want to hear that. I didn't want to hear anything about football, didn't want to be around football. So I just kind of disappeared from the scene and started another business. I thought that business deserved more of my attention than anything else I could do. So I didn't really consider it. I went down to Arizona and lived there for two years.
What was the business?
The business was a data center. At the time, it was called @Lightspeed. Now it's called FORTRUST.
So it still exists?
Oh, my goodness, yes. It's a big business. I'm very proud of it, to tell you the truth. It was something I was researching when I knew I was going to leave football. Mike Brown was the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, and he would always tell people, "This isn't going to last. You need to find something else to do." He was a great man like that. I got a chance to meet and hang out with him for a season; he died at the beginning of my second year there. But those words stuck with me, and I kept looking for different things to do away from football. So me, C.J. — Charles Johnson — John Spulher and Chuck Nelson started this company called @Lightspeed, which blossomed into this beautiful company now. It's one of the best data centers that this state has to offer.
Do you have any interest in it now?
I don't have any more interest in the company, but I've certainly followed its success. The people we hired to operate the company and run the company are still there. We had a wonderful relationship with Gary Magness and Steve Knudson. That group has stayed together, hung together, and the business is unbelievable.
After you sold the business, what happened next?
I was looking for something to do. I came back to Colorado, and I had been out of football at that point for four years, and my agent, Peter Schaffer, got me a job over at Altitude, where I worked with Scott Hastings. We were doing these short, thirty-minute TV shows where we talked about sports. And the TV show led to Scott getting a job with the Fan, and Scott actually brought me over there. Tim Spence was still there, but he didn't trust that I was serious about radio, because I told him "no" four years before. But Scott said, "I want to work with Alfred." And Tim was like, "I don't know if he's serious. Let's do a short contract to see what's going on."
I just had to work through that, and Scott was fantastic. He was a radio veteran. He was just so creative. You had to read the top news of the world, because it's not just sports when you're working with Scott Hastings. He may bring up something that happened in Peru, or he might want to talk about some sport I didn't know anything about, like hockey. So every day, it was looking at everything that happened in the world of sports and the larger headlines that were out there. That was my introduction to sports radio.
Was it hard to be critical at times when you talked about the Broncos?
It was easier then, because as we know, football rosters turn over frequently. You go four years back, and there are only a few guys on the team you once played with. That's the way it is. My evaluation process is harsh at times, and you don't want to talk about guys you played with. It was easier to know most of those guys were gone and I could just give an honest evaluation. And for me, once again, I was just talking about football. The guys on the team, I know they're fan favorites around the city, so I just tried to keep my evaluation focused on football, because I know they have a life outside of it.
Did you fall in love with radio right away? Or did it take a while for you to appreciate it?
It was so easy, because Scott was so fun. It was a shame that we couldn't do the drive-time show, but he was gone so much with the Nuggets that they didn't want to put him in a drive-time show. We were on from one to three, and we just had a blast every single day. We laughed so much. I love that guy. I love him for so many different reasons — not only because he introduced me to radio, but for the father that he is and the man that he is and the man that he wants to be. He's a great friend.
About eight years ago, management came to you and said, "We want to pair you with D-Mac in the afternoon-drive slot" — but D-Mac said in our recent interview that you weren't speaking to him at the time and hadn't spoken to him for months because he'd made a totally inappropriate joke after your second wedding. When you heard they wanted you to team up with him, what was your reaction?
Hell, no. I was like, this guy is a loose cannon and I'm going to say something on the air and ruin all the goodwill I'd built in this community. I was not for this union. But I believed in the guys around me. There was a great guy in sales by the name of Steve Price, and Steve kept on nudging me, and Tim kept on nudging me, and eventually, I said, "Let's try it. We can try it for a few months and see what it's like."
But it wasn't cool. The guy insulted my wife, insulted the process of the marriage and insulted all the people in town for the wedding. I got married on a Saturday and I worked Monday, and all those people were basically still here. It was Memorial Day weekend, and they were still here, because they were going to fly out that night. So they were listening to the radio, and this guy is going on about how crazy I was to get remarried again and how he wouldn't have done it. And I thought, this is not good. He basically ruined my weekend.
D-Mac said when you first met in an office to talk about the new show, there was some awkwardness for a few minutes. But he says you were an incredible professional about it, and that allowed both of you to move forward. How hard was that for you? Or were you able to pretty much flip the switch and say, "We're going to make this work"?
It was a trial basis that we started working under. But the one thing I wanted him to know was that we didn't need to do the really rude or raucous type of radio that maybe he'd done in the past [McKee had previously co-hosted an envelope-pushing morning program on hard-rock signal KBPI]. I love D-Mac, but when we first started, I kept reminding him, "Scale it back, scale it back, scale it back, scale it back." He's so creative, and this is his dream job. Radio was never my dream job. I never aspired to be an afternoon-drive sports-talk guy. So it wasn't my dream job. But he went to school for this, he trained for this, and this was the zenith of his opportunities up until then. We found a balance there, and it's been a wonderful balance. But early on, if he took things too far, I'd have to say, "Stop. You can't go that direction."
I told him something he always reminds me of now. When we would start to talk about something and it would get uncomfortable, I'd say, "Hey, man, Coach Mac is listening. I want you to talk on this radio station like Bill McCartney is listening to us every minute we open our mouths." That calmed everything down and it put it in a different light for him. I don't know if he'd worked with anybody like me before — someone who had this relationship with the city. I was just trying to make sure we were on the same page.
Was there a moment you can recall where you first realized, "Hey, this is really working"?
After the first two or three months, I was like, this is cool. But it took me a long time to get over the comments he made after I got married. A long time. As you can tell, I'm still a little shocked that he would go there. But two or three months in, it was clear that the guy is creative and he was energetic — and he is a worker. That's what he is: a worker. He will commit to the process of running down the biggest stories, being at places. He's a worker, and that's what I really appreciated about him. I knew where his heart was and I knew what he wanted to do. So I was like, let's have the best time we can have — but let's also remember that Coach Mac is listening.
Chemistry is one of those qualities that's really hard to define — but it's obvious the two of you have it. How would you describe why the two of you work so well together?
We don't hold on to anything now. There's nothing he says on the show, even after the microphone goes off and we're between segments, that we hold on to after it's out of our mouths. It's what he's thinking, it's what I'm thinking, and it's not personal. It's never been personal. I know who he is as a person, I know the kind of man he is and who he wants to be. I know he's in love with his wife, loves being a dad, I know how he feels about his parents. I just know him, and I know he wouldn't do anything malicious on purpose. That's just not how he's built. And it's easier to be around people you understand. I've been to his house, he's been to my house, we've been to multiple dinners, our wives know each other. It's easier, because I'm safe around him. I'm safe.
Do you guys do much prep work before the show starts? Or are you hearing his opinions at the same time listeners are and you're reacting to them spontaneously?
One hundred percent spontaneously. The first time you hear his take is the first time I hear his take. We have a producer, Bryan Beard, who's responsible for putting the show together. When we first started, we used to sit down and talk about the show and what we were going to do — and we'd be in the same room. And what we figured out is that it was like doing the show twice. So why don't we have Bryan collect our thoughts and put them into one congruent document, and we'll use that as a guide and work to get our messages across? And he could be the mediator of the topics and how we move to them.
Now, we've had disagreements about what we talk about or how we get to what we're talking about. But Bryan is the tie-breaker. If I want to do something and he wants to do something and we don't come to an agreement, Bryan breaks the tie.
As you mentioned earlier, you often have really strong opinions about players on the field and their skill sets. How are you able to speak critically about players at times but keep things respectful and constructive?
I'll give you an example: Derek Wolfe. When he first started in this league, Derek Wolfe wasn't the player that he is today. Nobody hardly ever is. Derek didn't get it in a timely fashion as far as my eyes told me. He was the Broncos' top pick, and they did a lot of things to get him where they did. He was essentially our first-round pick. And every time I'd see Derek, I'd say, "Hi, how are you doing?" and talk to him. But when I'd watch the games, I'd see that "he's got to be stronger there. He's got to do that. He's got to do this." And I never attacked him personally. It's just what I saw on the game tape. The game tape is the boss. The video we see as evaluators, that's the boss. It's not about anything you say you've done. When the game film is on, either you did or you didn't. The NFL is a harsh world, and you ought to be able to tell people whether they did or didn't do something on every play.
But with Derek, that evaluation process started out to be about what he wasn't doing, and now it's what he is doing. And he's at a place where he's dominating.
Do people like Derek Wolfe understand that you're not just being critical — you're trying to make them better?
It's not like I'm talking to them. I'm talking to the Broncos' fan base. I'm telling them what, in my opinion, has to happen for them to be as great as they possibly can be. And it's not personal. I don't want to make it personal. It's just my opinion.
One year, some of the guys on the Broncos got upset when I said that I would take the Kansas City defense over the Broncos defense. I guess it got back to the facility, and they ran the tape and heard me say it and they were upset. They took my picture down from the wall [laughs]. It's funny. It's not like it hurt me. I was just saying what I thought about the Kansas City Chiefs' defense at the time and the Broncos' defense at the time. But I'm just giving you my opinion.
For me, one of the most memorable shows I ever heard you do was one in the immediate aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting. Of all the broadcasters that day, both local and national, I thought you were the one who struck the best tone of empathy and concern and compassion. Did you have a personal connection to what happened? Or was it that you knew the town so well that you knew what the town needed?
I do remember that show. And I do know this town. During the Columbine shootings, I was on a motorcycle ride. It was me, Harold Hasselbach, Elway — nine or ten guys who played for the Broncos. We were coming down 470 and we saw these cops rolling by us, and we were trying to figure out what was going on. So it feels like I've been here for these terrible occasions. I've been in town, I've been here. And after the Aurora theater shooting, I remember trying to call my son. My oldest boy was living in his own apartment at the time right outside of Aurora, and quite conceivably, he could have been in the theater that night. So I was just calling him, and I kept calling him. And when he answered the phone and said, "What's up, dad?" — I felt so relieved. But so many parents, so many people, didn't get the relief of an answer from their kids after that event. So I just needed to intimate my thoughts about what happened, because I was so close to the fire.
That situation was so heavy, and if there was only one day in my life that I wished I had a partner with me, it was that day. But [D-Mac] was out of town — I think he was on vacation. It was just me stuck behind that mic, and I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to be the communicator. I was crying on the air. I just couldn't believe what happened. Everybody has the capacity to do great things, and I try to surround myself with positive people. So when you hear about something like that, it shatters your immediate surroundings and breaks you down in a way that for me was uncontrollable. I just cried. I was on the air crying, and I wished I didn't have to do the broadcast that day. Because I was like so many people in this great state of ours. I was just saddened by it.
Even though it was difficult for you, I'm sure you heard afterward about how meaningful it was for a lot of listeners.
Yeah. But for me.... There are very few days that I remember being on the air. But that was one I'll never forget.
More recently, you've talked on the air about how you told Vance Joseph, who's a longtime personal friend of yours, that he shouldn't take the job as coach of the Broncos. What were your arguments about why he shouldn't have taken that job?
Because this community wants a winner, period. And they're not willing to wait. They're very impatient when it comes to the Broncos — very impatient about winning. This organization is responsible for so many great Sundays for so many people, and they just want more of them. They're not willing to rebuild. And I thought John Elway would make him play Paxton Lynch. I just thought that when you draft a guy in the first round, you want him to play. But Elway surprised me, VJ surprised me. They went with the best player available, and that's a credit to them. I didn't think they'd do that, because first-rounders play — and I just knew the kid wasn't ready. When you play on a good football team, you have a good quarterback. You have to have a good quarterback to win big in this league. And I wanted him to have a chance to grow in this league and pick his quarterback and not have a quarterback forced on him.
Going forward, you'll be talking about the team, and you'll be talking about Vance Joseph. Have you had conversations with him where you've said, "If something goes wrong, I'm going to have to talk about it and we'll have to find a way to separate the personal and the professional"?
[Laughs.] The first couple of days after he got the job, he spent over here at the house. We were just talking about the families, and then he started talking about football — and I said, "Listen, man. We can never talk about football. We can never talk about football. I just don't want that to be our relationship. We can talk about the families, we can talk about life, but we should not talk about football."
Have you stuck to that?
Absolutely. One hundred percent. If I call him, he knows I'm just calling to catch up. Because what I've also learned in football is that coaches lie. They won't tell you how they really feel about a guy. So I wouldn't even ask. Let the game film be your boss, and what you see there, that's real. Everybody can see that. So you can do your evaluation off of game tape, and off of what you see in practice. So you can say, "They have this" or "They don't have this." It's not personal.
I have some great relationships with guys who've coached on this time, and with management. Mr. [Pat] Bowlen and I had a great relationship. I have a great relationship with the guys who cover the team. But my opinion is just mine. [ESPN correspondent] Jeff Legwold told me something about Paxton Lynch when we were watching practice. He said, "Paxton Lynch throws the ball to the right side of the field." And I was like, "Wow." So what did I do? I got back on radio later that day and said, "I was talking to a great friend of mine, Jeff Legwold, and he told me Paxton Lynch throws the ball to the right side of the field. And I watched practice, and sure enough, the ball was thrown to the right side of the field." So I don't mind giving guys credit.
What we do on our show is, we don't try to break news. We just explain it.
You guys definitely dig deep into things the casual fan probably hasn't noticed and may not even understand — yet somehow it's still entertaining. Do you ever think, "We're going into too much detail here, and maybe we need to back off a little bit"? Or are the fans in Denver so bright that you know they'll still be interested even when you're drilling down about guys who are on the bubble and may not even make the team?
D-Mac will say, "I like a guy," and I'll say, "I like a guy because of this." He'll explain, from the members of the media he deals with, and from the people in the organization he deals with, why he feels one way, and then I'll say what I feel. But like I say, the film is the boss. When I watch the film, I'm able to say, "This is what I like about this guy, and this is what I don't like." So it's almost a two-pronged approach when we talk about what these guys do and what the organization thinks about the situation. D-Mac does a great job of talking to guys in the organization, and I don't want to destroy those relationships — so I leave that to him. Then I can just do the evaluation from what I see on the film.
In many quarters, radio is seen as a struggling industry. Yet there are still a lot of people who listen to radio in general and you guys in particular. Do you think radio's going to stick around for the long haul? And if so, why do you think the medium's such a good fit for you?
I think local radio is here forever. The national? I don't have great confidence in that. My great mentor, a guy who's kept me going and lifted me up when I didn't know the answers to some questions, is Dave Logan. Dave is the most talented broadcaster in the state, and he had a chance to go to ESPN many years ago and do football games on a national level. And he chose to stay here. He said, "What's wrong with living in this great city and doing the job right here? There's a way for you to make a living right here. You don't have to go national." And I've always taken that as my guiding light.
Local radio works because you're talking to your neighbors. Your neighbors want to know what's going on. So not only do I think radio is still going to be around. I think it's going to multiply by a thousand, because I think podcasts are credible audio from the radio community that's available online.
I like to travel, so if I'm going to Vancouver, I want to read something by a person who lives in Vancouver — and if I can listen to a broadcast about something that's going on in Vancouver, that's even better. To be able to have video or sound behind it, that's where we're going. We're certainly going there. We're certainly going to be around for that. It's something talked about in our industry all the time: How do you stay relevant in an ever-changing digital society? Well, when you're local, you can tell people what's going on in your neighborhood, whether it's news or dining or sports. People want to know. And we're going to let them know.
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