Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
BARBOURVILLE, Ky. – Just about every Saturday, one of the most famous recruits in college football history plays for an NAIA school unknown to even the most dedicated fans.
So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that teammates or opponents occasionally come up to him and make the following statement:
"I never thought I'd be playing with someone like you."
That's when Willie Williams smiles and facetiously offers the following response:
Williams isn't the only person who never expected he would finish his career playing for Union College in front of about 2,500 fans each week. He originally signed with Miami in 2004 as the consensus No. 1 outside linebacker in the nation. His size (6 feet 2/225 pounds) and speed (4.4 in the 40-yard dash) made him one of the most celebrated players in the history of Florida high school football.
He was such a prized prospect that The Miami Herald chronicled his trips to various colleges in a diary that garnered national attention for showcasing the sordid nature of the recruiting process.
Williams discussed how he gorged on steak and lobster tails at Florida State and dined on shrimp and crab claws at Miami. His no-holds-barred account of his recruiting visits (see accompanying chart) soon caused other secrets to be revealed as well. After he was charged with setting off three fire extinguishers and hugging a woman without permission during his recruiting visit to Florida, word came that Williams had been arrested 11 times as a juvenile.
Williams eventually signed with Miami, which admitted him to school despite his transgressions, but he transferred after failing to work his way up the Hurricanes' depth chart. He since has made stops at West Los Angeles College, Louisville and Division II Glenville (W.Va.) State before ending up at Union.
The guy who complained in his recruiting diary that Florida served him fried chicken instead of taking him to Red Lobster now goes to school 15 miles from the Colonel Sanders Museum.
Williams realizes this rural outpost represents his last chance to salvage any shot at a pro career that once seemed like a certainty.
"I kind of look at it like a movie," says Williams, who now is listed as 6-4 and 220 pounds. "Every movie plot has its good scenes and bad scenes. Hopefully, this movie ends well."
It already has featured quite a few plot twists.
A HIGH SCHOOL SUPERSTAR
Williams doesn't fit the profile of someone who would have numerous scrapes with the law as a child before bouncing from one college to the next. He didn't come from a broken home, nor did he struggle in the classroom.
Joe Zaccheo, who coached Williams for three seasons at private-school powerhouse Monsignor Pace High in Miami, says his star player regularly had a grade-point average between 3.5 and 4.0. Williams' younger brother, Greg Shaw, is a freshman offensive lineman for LSU. His older sister, Sherria Williams, is a law student at Florida State.
"That's the really upsetting thing," says Zaccheo, now the A.D. at Pace. "He had an unbelievably supportive family atmosphere. His mother was unbelievably supportive. His stepdad – I didn't even realize he wasn't his natural father for about six months.
"It wasn't a situation where he didn't have support. The mother and stepfather were at every function, every game."
Williams' mother, Donna Williams, believes she knows what caused her son's off-field problems. Willie was 12 when his father, also named Willie Williams, died of a heart attack. She says her son ran away from home at least four times in the six months after his father's death and notes that his legal problems also began around that time.
"I've always used this analogy," Donna Williams says. "If his dad said the sky was purple and you're looking out the window and see it's blue, it still would be purple to Willie."
Zaccheo says Pace officials had some idea about Williams' previous troubles because he was transferring from an alternative school but adds that Williams didn't cause any problems at Pace before transferring to Miami Carol City, a public school, for his senior season.
"I didn't know him as anything but a good kid," Zaccheo says. "He was just an outstanding athlete who always had a smile on his face."
NO MORE LOBSTER
Willie Williams' recruiting diary for The Miami Herald included accounts of flying on private jets and dining on steak and lobster during his campus visits. One legacy of his recruitment is that the NCAA has since enacted limits on what perks colleges can provide prospects who visit their schools. The NCAA approved the following reforms in the summer of 2004:
• Underage drinking, sex, drug use, gambling and the use of strippers are prohibited on campus visits.
• Schools can provide recruits with meals and rooms, but they can't take the prospects to five-star restaurants and hotels. Only school vehicles or standard-equipped vehicles can be used to transport a recruit and his family.
• Charter flights and private planes are prohibited on recruiting trips.
• Schools can't use "personal recruiting aids," including the distribution of personalized jerseys or the use of a scoreboard presentation featuring the prospect.
Williams doesn't make any excuses for his behavior and blames it on childhood immaturity. But he also was kicked off Louisville's team last fall after being arrested on charges of marijuana possession, tampering with evidence and driving without a license. He pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and had the other two charges dropped.
For the most part, though, Williams hasn't gotten into trouble off the field since heading to college. The problem is that until this season, he also hadn't wreaked much havoc on the field.
After being redshirted as a freshman at Miami, Williams recorded 28 tackles and no sacks as a backup in 2005. Those are rather modest numbers for a guy Zaccheo describes as the most dominant Florida high school player of his time.
"I think the expectations were unrealistic," says Larry Coker, who was Miami's coach when Williams signed. "The hometown people thought he'd come in from Day One and just be a superstar, but we had really good linebackers at the time. It was a situation where he would have been a really good player, but he would have had to put his time in and get better."
The media wondered when he'd start living up to his brash talk. Williams' mother also remembered how friends would wait for him after practice and prevent him from acclimating to college life.
"There were a lot of distractions with me being born and raised there and having just come out of high school," Williams says. "They just weren't getting 100 percent focus from me. I was just thinking, 'Let me go somewhere else.' "
Williams' mom admits Willie never should have gone to Miami in the first place.
"I grew up in Miami myself and all of his family grew up there," Donna Williams says. "Basically, we were a part of being caught up in the Hurricanes, the UM swagger and hype. We all had blinders on, not knowing that maybe even this type of defense wasn't the best scheme. We weren't going in with open eyes and looking at the future."
Coker agrees that it probably was in Williams' best interest to leave Miami and get a fresh start elsewhere.
Williams' decision to leave UM after the 2005 season launched an unintentional cross-country tour of campuses. After spending the '06 season at West Los Angeles College, Williams landed at Louisville. He lasted just three games with the Cardinals before the arrest led to his dismissal from the team.
Williams then went to Glenville State, where he never played a down. Glenville State officials originally believed Williams could play immediately under the NCAA's one-time transfer exception. In reality, he needed to sit out a year because he already had transferred from a four-year school. When the NCAA didn't grant Glenville State a waiver, Williams headed to Union, an NAIA school that doesn't have to follow NCAA transfer regulations.
YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN
Williams certainly is a long way from Miami now.
Union has 1,350 students, which gives it a smaller enrollment than Carol City High. And the town of Barbourville has a population of 3,576. This week, Barbourville is holding the Daniel Boone Festival, an annual event that includes a fishing tournament, Civil War camp and a long rifle shootout. The closest thing to a tourist attraction around town is the Colonel Sanders Museum, which is in nearby Corbin. The museum hosts the World Chicken Festival, and an attraction during the Festival is the World's Largest Stainless Steel Skillet.
"Good things come in small packages," Williams says. "This is a great experience for me."
So far, it also has been a great experience for the Union football program. Williams has helped his team win its first five games for the first time in the program's 46-year history. In his first game, Williams had two sacks, recovered two fumbles and was named the NAIA national defensive player of the week. He already has a team-high seven sacks and 57 tackles – 26 more than any of his teammates.
Perhaps most important, Williams has seamlessly adjusted to his new surroundings instead of complaining about his situation.
"That was our fear," Union coach Tommy Reid says. "We've had other transfers in years past, and of course the coaches have all played with guys like that, too. Most of the time you're getting a guy who thinks, 'I'm better than this place.' Willie hasn't one time shown that to anybody. That's been really good. We haven't had to say, 'OK, Willie, you're wearing the same uniform as anybody else. You're not better than any of those guys.' We haven't had to have those conversations.
"Willie's come in, worked hard and has been a good teammate. He's just trying to do the best he can for himself and trying to do the best he can for us."
Because he hasn't conveyed the attitude that he's above it all, Williams has made fast friends with his new teammates - some of whom didn't even know about his history until his arrival.
"He's down to earth," Union linebacker DePaul Peyton says. "He's one of the coolest people I've ever met, seriously."
Williams hasn't had any trouble at Union; he also didn't have any problems at Glenville State. In fact, Glenville State coach Alan Fiddler liked Williams so much that he recommended him to Reid, a former Glenville State player.
Williams attributes his change in attitude to fatherhood. Williams has a 3-year-old daughter, Willaysia, who lives in Miami. Although he sees her only about once a month, Williams says he calls his daughter every day.
Here's a look at the Rivals.com top 10 prospects from the signing class of 2004:
1. RB Adrian Peterson: Starred at Oklahoma and was a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2007.
2. WR Ted Ginn Jr.: Starred at Ohio State and was a first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2007.
3. WR Early Doucet: Solid player at LSU and was a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2008.
4. QB Rhett Bomar: Signed with Oklahoma but now a senior at Sam Houston State.
5. LB Keith Rivers: Starred at USC and was a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008.
6. LB Willie Williams: Signed with Miami and now at Union College in Barbourville, Ky.
7. DE Brandon Miller: Played at Georgia and now is on the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad.
8. DE Derrick Harvey: Starred at Florida and was a first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2008.
9. DE Jeff Schweiger: Signed with USC but now a senior at San Jose State.
10. QB Xavier Lee: Played at Florida State and currently out of football.
"It definitely made me more mature and that much more of a man," says Williams, who indicated he is two semesters away from earning a degree in business management. "The thing you realize is you have responsibilities now that you have to take care of. That really changed me."
Of course, the same guy who's dominating at the NAIA level couldn't even win a starting job at Miami. And it's easier to stay out of trouble in a town as small as Barbourville. NFL teams might look at Williams' checkered past and circuitous career and wonder why they should take a chance on him.
If an NFL team poses that question to Williams, he says he'd tell them to ask his coaches. His two most recent coaches have given him rave reviews.
"The thing I like about Willie is he's a kid who has a good personality," Fiddler says. He practiced hard. The other kids liked to be around him. He was a fun kid. He's not a mean-spirited person. He gets a bad rap as far as that goes. The kids really loved him.
"I just tried to treat Willie by what I knew about him, not from going off what other people have told me about him."
Does he have the talent to play in the NFL?
"I think so," Reid says, "but it doesn't matter what I think. What matters is what the NFL guys think."
Although you won't find Williams atop any draft boards, he at least remains in the thoughts of NFL scouts. Reid indicated a handful of NFL teams have contacted him about Williams.
Rob Rang, a senior analyst for nfldraftscout.com, believes Williams' history of legal troubles make him a long shot to get drafted. But he also says Williams has the physical tools to play in the NFL if he performs well this season, stays out of trouble and earns an invitation to training camp.
"There are a lot of guys out there who do have that combination of size and speed, but he's an explosive hitter and that's where he's a pretty unique prospect," Rang says. "He can hit guys and has that short-area explosiveness to separate a player from the football.
"You see that over and over on the film. Even at Miami, when he wasn't seeing the field very much, you could see it on special teams."
Williams believes a pro career remains a realistic option. He knows the premium the NFL places on pass rushers and figures he could fit right in at the next level. Williams says he still is the same player who was considered a can't-miss prospect in high school, all the while insisting he isn't the same person who caused all those off-field headaches way back when.
"I've got my eyes on the prize," he says. "It's like a big race. I've just got to finish."
Williams was expected to be much closer to the finish line by this point, but at least he's still in the race.