NEW YORK - The big-time anticipation surrounding Ted Williams at LaGuardia Airport last night proved short-lived after the Columbus panhandler-turned-viral sensation eluded a barrage of national media outlets awaiting his arrival.
A hectic day in central Ohio - consisting of nonstop interviews, inquiries and more - might have been too much for Williams, who declined to face the frenzy in the Big Apple.
When the Delta Air Lines jet he'd boarded in Columbus landed in New York, he remained on the plane after all the other passengers had left. Ultimately, he was taken off the tarmac surreptitiously.
The development delayed a planned reunion between Williams and his 92-year-old mother, Julia, a Brooklyn resident whom Williams hadn't seen in 20 years.
Even for a man who just hours earlier was showcasing his booming baritone at every opportunity, the reluctance doesn't seem surprising.
Only days ago, he was a homeless beggar who spent days holding a cardboard sign and nights sleeping in a makeshift tent behind an abandoned gas station.
This morning, he's in New York for an appearance on the Today show, suddenly famous after millions of people worldwide heard the former radio employee's "golden voice" in an online video.
"I feel like Susan Boyle," Williams, 53, said yesterday. "Or Justin Bieber.
"It's almost choking me."
At a North Side highway exit ramp last month, Dispatch videographer Doral Chenoweth III shot a video of Williams demonstrating what his sign described as his "God-given gift of voice."
Posted on Dispatch.com on Monday and then uploaded to YouTube, the video has since attracted almost 8.5 million views and yielded for Williams numerous interview requests, as well as potential job offers from the likes of MTV, ESPN and the National Football League.
Yesterday, Williams told Fox 8 in Cleveland that he plans to take a gig with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which offered him full-time announcing work and a house.
Tracey Marek, senior vice president of marketing for the NBA team, told The Dispatch that Williams' history of drug and alcohol abuse and theft doesn't necessarily disqualify him for the opportunity.
"First and foremost, we need to meet him," she said. "(But) our concern is about the future. I think everybody deserves that second chance."
State records show that Williams served three months in prison in 1990 for theft, and nearly two months in 2004 for theft, forgery and obstructing official business.
He was also cited for a dozen misdemeanors, including drug abuse and criminal trespassing. In the past six months, he was cited four times for pedestrian solicitation near I-71 and Hudson Street, the same intersection seen in the video.
Williams' most recent job in radio involved recording voiceovers for the former WJZA-FM, said a co-worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Williams, the co-worker said, was among those laid off in 1997 when the station was acquired by Power 107.5.
The co-worker didn't think Williams' job loss was related to his criminal past but said that he had a reputation for theft.
"Of all the people I've worked with in radio in 25 years, he would have been the last one I would guess would be famous," the co-worker said.
"To be honest, I'm shocked he's still alive, considering all the stuff he was into."
Although Williams was unavailable to respond specifically to the former co-worker's comments, he had touched on his struggles at various radio stations after a four-hour guest spot yesterday morning on WNCI (97.9 FM): "The devil took me to hell and back."
Williams and his wife divorced in 1998 because of his addiction to crack cocaine and the fact that he fathered two children with another woman, said one of his stepdaughters, Tangela Pullien.
Married for nearly 17 years, he and Patricia Pullien Kirtley had two daughters together, in addition to his two sons and her two daughters.
Since the divorce, Williams lived off and on with the six children, 16 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, who call him "Papa Teddy." They tried to help him, Pullien said, but became frustrated that he used drugs in their homes.
"There were points of time no one had heard from him in months," said Pullien, 31, of the West Side. "Eventually, we got used to it. There was nothing we could do but pray and wish for the best and hope that, one day, he would come out of this."
Recently, Williams had been calling family members more often, saying that he had found God. Daughter Jenay Williams thinks that, with age, he grew tired of his lifestyle and decided to get clean.
"You could just tell in his voice, his laughter, his personality," said Jenay Williams, 28, who also lives on the West Side. "At one point, (drugs) had affected that; it was just like you were talking to a zombie sometimes."
On Tuesday night, Ted Williams called Pullien about the video, crying and overwhelmed by excitement. Although she is thrilled by the job offers he has received, she already worries about his newfound fame - saying his previous radio career had exposed him to "the wrong crowd."
"This was his demise in the beginning," she said. "That's one of my biggest fears, just him spiraling out of control and letting this get the best of him."
Williams said he has been sober for 21/2 years and, despite the ongoing attention, doesn't intend to stray.
"Staying sober gives me a moment of clarity," he said. "Not to say I will never take another drink, but right now that's the furthest thing from my mind."
Pullien thinks her stepfather always wanted to return to radio but was only trying to earn a day's living by advertising his "God-given gift of voice" when panhandling.
"It was kind of gut-wrenching to me that he had to resort to holding up a sign, just to get a few extra dollars," she said.
"But I guess it turned out to be a good thing."