Chief Zee died on Tuesday, with the Washington Redskins’ biggest fan and unofficial mascot reportedly passing away in his sleep at age 75.
Zee, whose real name was Zema Williams, was famous for the full costume he wore each week, which included a traditional Native American headdress and mock war paint. NBC Washington reported that Williams died sometime overnight on Tuesday.
Zema Williams first became Chief Zee in 1978, when he attended a Monday Night Football game against the Dallas Cowboys dressed in full Native American costume. He became a fixture from there, a regular on television cameras, and even being considered the team’s unofficial mascot.
His death made waves across the internet, with the hashtag #RIPChiefZee trending on Twitter. Many fans shared memories of their interactions with Chief Zee and expressed admiration for his unwavering support for the team, even through some very difficult seasons.
Many Redskins players also expressed their condolences, including wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
Rest in Peace Chief Zee ???????? been a Redskin mascot since 1978 https://t.co/tSN4Hy4B3q— Desean Jackson (@DeSeanJackson11) July 19, 2016
The team also released a statement mourning Chief Zee.
“The Washington Redskins will always appreciate Zema Williams’ unique passion and dedication to our football team and his fellow Washington Redskins fans,” the team said in a statement.
Fans had rallied around Zema Williams in recent months as he fell into ill health and met financial difficulties. Back in April, a group of fans started a GoFundMe page to help Williams avoid eviction. After initially setting a goal of raising $2,000, the fundraiser ended up taking in more than $10,000.
The page noted that Williams had been living off social security checks, which were not enough to cover all of his bills. He had been facing an imminent eviction had he not paid rent, and Redskins fans rallied to his support.
“We all know who Chief Zee is. We grew up watching him or running into him at RFK or Fedex Field. He’s been going to Redskins games since 1978 taking pictures with anyone that asks and supporting our team day in and day out. He bleeds Burgundy and Gold and he needs your help.”
Williams also got an assist from the very top. When he fell into ill health in recent years, Redskins owner Dan Snyder provided a scooter so Williams could continue attending games.
But as the team’s name and mascot have come under scrutiny from Native American groups in recent years, so too did the costume worn each week by Chief Zee. The Washington Post featured Williams in a 2013 story about the controversy surrounding the team’s name, with a profile that was largely critical of Williams and his apparent lack of understanding about why the team name — and his own costume — could be seen as offensive.
“In some ways, it’s as if Archie Bunker or Amos and Andy were hurled forward in time, not sure what to make of all these hypersensitive, politically correct folk who want them gone,” noted author Mike Wise.
Wise added that Williams seemed stuck in his ways about the mascot.
“Trying to enlighten him is like trying to enlighten your half-cocked, old-head uncle who uses racial epithets at Thanksgiving dinner,” he wrote. “At some point, you either let him eat or kick him out.”
Despite the controversy, Chief Zee was beloved by fans of the Washington Redskins and even fans of opposing teams. A group of fans even planned a memorial outside the team’s stadium on Tuesday night, with many sharing on Twitter that they planned to attend.
The cause of death for Chief Zee had not been announced, but NBC Washington reported that Zema Williams had been in poor health for the past few months.
[Photo by Nick Wass/AP Images]