(Photo by Kristian Dyer)
At a time when most draft prospects are trading up their cars, NFL hopeful Rashid Williams recently traded in his luxury sedan for a minivan. He's heard the jokes and the zingers from the other players training at TEST Parisi Football Academy in Martinsville, N.J., including that he drives a “soccer mom mobile.” But his minivan is more than a set of wheels to take him to his combine training every day.
He also lives in it. Williams is homeless by choice.
For most NFL draft prospects, sacrifices are to be expected as they ready for the combine and their individual Pro Days; for Williams, his ambition has taken him so far as to empty his life savings to train for the NFL draft. This decision now means that he lives out of his van to pursue this goal.
He is far from your typical athlete readying for a shot at an NFL payday.
He ran track at Division II Holy Family in Philadelphia and never played college football. Then after college, he went through a series of jobs before he enrolled at Penn State to get his MBA. He's smart with a good sense of humor and a tremendous belief in himself, very much an All-American type.
When he smiles, so does everyone else in the room.
This past fall at 26 years old, he decided to be gung-ho for his NFL dream after two tryouts with indoor football teams. He believes through hard work he can make it.
But that belief that he can change himself from a track standout into an NFL player meant leaving his comfortable job as a sales representative at Frito Lay, a decision he said “wasn't easy because I enjoyed working there.” He moved out of his apartment in the Harrisburg, PA area and emptied his life savings that he had earmarked for a down payment on his first house.
On the surface, it all seems incredibly risky and perhaps a bit crazy, especially since he last played competitive football in high school.
He enrolled at the TEST Parisi Football Academy in northern New Jersey for their combine prep program. With his life packed in his trunk, the three-hour drive from central Pennsylvania took him to a facility that has produced the likes of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson and New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis among dozens of other NFL players. Unlike the other players prepping for the draft, there is no agent to pay for his combine training and all expenses come out of his pocket.
With his life savings “pretty much” cleared out, he sold his new car to buy a used minivan. It is in that minivan where he now sleeps at night.
“It is a sacrifice for sure, but I knew that putting myself through this program would be worth it in the end. Housing wasn't included in the fee I paid,” Williams told Yahoo Sports. “So I traded in my car for this minivan. I eat in it, sleep in it. I park it overnight at nearby hotel so that I am safe.
"No one has bothered me yet. I've stayed in a hotel parking lot, a Walmart parking lot, a gym parking lot. I've gotten used to it.”
The northeast has been struck by a deep-freeze this new year, with night temperatures routinely dropping into the single digits and 18 inches of snow expected this week in Martinsville. Williams sleeps in the back seat of his van with multiple layers of sweatpants and sweatshirts on. He huddles underneath three blankets to stay warm. He reads at night to keep his mind off the cold.
His body has acclimated to the cold temperatures he says; after six weeks of the lifestyle it has become his new norm. He eats a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as well as consuming protein drinks. As for creature comforts, there are none. He just wants to not freeze at night.
A wet towel from his shower at the gym last night hangs over the seat and snacks are piled up in a container on his passenger seat. A book on personal training sits on the seat. A duffle bag filled with his recent laundry is on the floor in the storage area.
He stays at a local Panera or a library sometimes until closing time, just to soak up the warmth and access to electricity. Then when their lights go off, he slides open the door of the minivan to try and get some sleep. It is a long way's away from a promising career in the business world, but it is a sacrifice he is willing to make.
There's always the threat of someone trying to rob him, so he tries to stay under the covers and do his best at getting some sleep.
One of eight children, Williams is hoping to support his mother – his father passed away a couple years ago - and his siblings with an NFL contract. He knows that on the surface it all sounds silly, a bit Quixotic in a way. He didn't play college football and while he has worked out regularly the last few years, he doesn't have the game-tape many of the other prospects at the TEST facility can claim.
In early November, he asked himself the question “Why not?” with regards to pursuing this dream of being in the NFL. A month later, he was in New Jersey to check out the program at TEST Sports Clubs and sign up for it. A month after that, the funds for what was supposed to be part of his down payment on a future home were sunk into the combine program.
By day, he's learning the game. Not surprising, he's among one of the first ones at the TEST facility in the morning, perhaps to escape the cold of a long night in the minivan. He has gotten bigger and stronger during this whole process and he spends his lunch break with the other players, learning the basics of a game he hasn't played since high school. If someone is willing to play catch with him and have him run routes, he's out there with them. Every moment he hopes, brings him a step closer to being able to support his family.
He said that the facility has helped him grow as a player and he has already put on muscle during his few weeks in New Jersey.
“I would never say that it wasn't worth it. Whenever I have doubts, I try to keep a positive mind. I don't want this to all go to waste. I try to stay positive,” Williams said. “I haven't thought about asking for help because I don't want this to be wasted. I appreciate the opportunity just to do this. I ask myself, 'Why not?' and I know someday it will be worth it.”
(Photo by Kristian Dyer)
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Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York and also contributes to Yahoo Sports. He can be followed for news and random tweetings on Twitter @KristianRDyer
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