Family first for grid-iron giant

IN AN unusual boost for family values, an American professional footballer is being praised for skipping a game because he wanted to see his wife give birth to their first child. His team, the Houston Oilers, took a dim view of his decision and docked him dollars 125,000 ( pounds 84,000), the rate for the game.

Callers jammed radio talk shows to complain about the Oilers' coach, Bob Young, who considered the player, David Williams, a wimp. 'Football is like World War Two,' said Young. 'When guys were going to war and something would come up, they still had to go.' Young added that when his wife told him she was having a baby, he said, 'Honey, I've got to go play a football game.'

Not so the 27-year-old Williams, who earns dollars 2m a year. 'My family comes first,' he said. 'That's the way I've always been, and that's the way I always will be, long after I'm finished being a football player.' Yesterday, he announced that he was suing the Oilers for the money.

Williams is not one of those slender, fleet of foot catchers who speed off with the ball into the end zone and might possibly be caught, in a rare moment, having wimpish tendencies. He is a hulk of a man whose baby boy is a sporting 9lb 11oz.

He plays starting offensive right tackle, which means he is in the front row of the line- up and basically butts head and body against all comers. He is a symbol of the macho image the game portrays but also, unusually, an example of the more sensitive American male who is being all but written off by the media. The latest issue of Newsweek magazine asks if sexual correctness gone too far.

Williams was so struck by the magical moments of the birth of his son that he turned up for training the next day laden with Polaroid snapshots of the event and cigars for his team-mates.

Outraged at the coach's analogy between football and war, Americans recalled how Muhammad Ali allowed himself to be stripped of a boxing title rather than be drafted into the Vietnam War. No one in professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey leagues could recall a player being fined for wanting to witness their child's birth. Many players had done so. They just worked it out with their teams.