Willie Williams likes to say that you're not supposed to live your life with regrets. He clings to this belief, despite knowing the outside world looks at him and thinks he should have many.
"I don't look at my life with bitterness," he says. "I look at it with motivation. This is the bed I made and chose to lay in, so I'm going to have to sleep in it."
A linebacker who was once widely considered the nation's best defensive prospect coming out of high school – in the same year Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson was tabbed as the country's best prep offensive player – Williams is less than a week removed from the NFL draft. But rather than sitting in the green room with other celebrated draft picks in New York City on Saturday, he'll watch with a small collection of family, eating some modest home cooking and hoping that some team, any team, will give him an opportunity to play in the league. According to his college coaches, at least 17 NFL franchises have shown some level of interest. Whether any of them are willing to go further will be one of this draft's underrated story lines.
In fact, one NFC personnel man said he expects Williams to go undrafted and that the former prep star will be signed as a free agent.
It's a humble ending to a five-year college career that took him to a handful of schools: Miami (two seasons, one redshirt before transferring), West Los Angeles Community College (one season), Louisville (three games, ending after an arrest for marijuana possession), Division II Glenville State (one semester, before being denied transfer by the NCAA to the West Virginia school), and finally, tiny NAIA school Union College (one season) in Barbourville, Ky.
Indeed, Williams' career has been nothing like many projected. Once considered the next great heir to a Miami linebacker lineage that includes Ray Lewis, Dan Morgan, Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams, his arrival with the Hurricanes was merely the first stop in a spiral that ended in the NAIA. Along the way, Williams' painful history became riveting Internet fodder. Websites like Deadspin delighted in his every misstep. Message boards buzzed with each development. Among the lowlights, which Williams openly discusses:
• Eleven arrests in high school, most for petty larceny or burglary.
• A journal in the Miami Herald which spilled wild details of recruiting visits and caught attention from the NCAA.
• A recruiting visit to Florida where Williams discharged fire extinguishers in a hotel and was questioned by police for "hugging a female student against her will."
• A transfer out of Miami after failing to crack the starting lineup as a true freshman.
• A traffic stop and arrest for marijuana possession at Louisville that ended in his dismissal from the team.
Looking back on it, Williams is apologetic but accepting, saying immaturity and a lack of patience kept him from making good decisions. He admits that he sometimes wonders what could have been had he stayed at Miami, where he expected to bide his time behind eventual first-round pick Jon Beason at outside linebacker. Instead, he succumbed to friends and some family around him, who expected that he would immediately become a college football star.
"At the time, I made the decision that I thought was best," Williams says. "I felt like Miami wasn't getting 100 percent. I wasn't 100 percent focused like I thought I should be, being born and raised in Miami, coming out of high school there."
So began Williams' journey, from Miami to West Los Angeles C.C. to Louisville, which accepted him into the school with the understanding that there would be a zero-tolerance policy when it came to behavior. When he was arrested for marijuana possession, with three other individuals in the car, he was immediately dismissed from the team. Williams eventually pled guilty to the arrest, and coaches are quick to point out that the incident has been his only trouble in his five years in college.
A transfer to Division II Glenville State was denied by the NCAA – a problem head coach Alan Fiddler said was a misinterpretation by the school's compliance department, and not any fault of Williams'. And it was Fiddler who worked the phones and found Williams the landing spot at Union, where Williams arrived eight days before the school's first game, then went out and became the NAIA's defensive player of the week after putting up 13 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries. He finished the season with 150 tackles 19½ tackles for a loss and 11½ sacks.
Look anywhere along the journey, and coaches will gush about Williams – regardless of whether he played for them. Fiddler said his Glenville State team couldn't block Williams in practices. Union coach Tommy Reid calls him the best player he's ever had in his program. Even Coker, who coached dozens of NFL players at Miami, insists Williams' talent is unique.
"I think he could have been a great player at Miami, I really do," said Coker, who is now the head coach at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "He has a lot of ability. He can run, he's got size, he's strong, he's a very good athlete. If he can go into the league, I would think he would have been humbled a little bit by now in his career, if he can just go into the league and [say] 'Give me a shot, I'll be on every special teams [unit].' If that's the attitude he goes into the league with, I think he could be a special player."
Whether that shot comes, Coker shrugs. He says he hasn't been contacted by any NFL teams. However, multiple league scouts traveled to Union to see Williams practice, including the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and New York Giants. Many others called or asked for film to be sent, including the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins. The Packers, Browns and 49ers also watched Williams at his pro day, which was held with Eastern Kentucky University.
Williams put up solid numbers in that performance, too. According to the numbers released by the school, he measured in at 6-3½ and 230 pounds, showing the size to be a weakside linebacker in the NFL. He did 26 reps at 225 pounds (one more than Wake Forest's Aaron Curry), ran his 40-yard dash in the mid-4.5 second range and showcased NFL-caliber agility in the cone drills.
But numbers and workouts and practice visits are a long way from a sure thing. Ultimately, with the current climate in the NFL, it's just as important that Williams proves he can be trusted. Many of his troubles have been explained away in the media by family and friends – the bad crowd he hung around with in high school, his father's sudden death from a heart attack when Williams was 12, the unchecked affection and expectations he received as a national football recruit.
Yet, when Williams is asked to spell out his own answers for his issues, he instead chooses to talk about the things that have happened that have changed him for the better. These are things he relates in events: the birth of his daughter, Willaysia, in Jan. 2005; learning of the murder of longtime friend and Miami football player Bryan Pata, who was shot to death in 2006; and finally finding a place at Union, which seems too remote and small – antithesis of everything he knew in Miami. These are things he also wants NFL franchises and fans and onlookers to know.
"I want teams to know that I'm all in, I'm focused, and this is what I want to do with my life," Williams said. "I look them in the eye and say 'Yes, you can trust me.' Five or six years ago, I probably would have looked away a little bit when I answered that. But I definitely learned from all my mistakes. A lot of my past mistakes were so immature. And I'm not blaming it on me being younger or because my dad died and all that. It was my fault. I had to learn from that."
Coaches are quick to come to his defense, too. Reid said that Union had standard drug screening for its athletes and that Williams never failed a single test in the time he was there. Fiddler said that when Glenville State pushed Williams about his past, he was remorseful and open, admitting that he had made mistakes and that he didn't want to push the blame anywhere else.
"You have kids come in and act like they've never done anything wrong," Fiddler said. "He didn't do that."
Fiddler said Williams was never a behavioral problem, either – a sentiment backed up by Coker.
"We never had a problem with him at Miami. It wasn't an issue at all with us," Coker said. "… I'll tell you what, there's no doubt about it, he's a very bright kid. The intelligence factor, that's not an issue with Willie. I think the thing that was a problem with Willie as a youngster was he was probably a little immature. He was a follower, and it's one of those things that sometimes many kids do, you want to please those people around you. I think that was tough for Willie."
Now Williams will have to please some NFL team, proving that his largely unharnessed talent is worth what it will bring in tow. Inevitably, any team that brings him in will be forced to confront the issue of character, and how Williams has proven to them that his is in the right place. And Williams will be forced to re-live the last five years, answering how such a promising start could fall apart so completely.
And while he tries not to live with regret, he admits there is one thing he would change if he could.
"My record," Williams said. "I'm not lying, I did some really stupid stuff when I was younger.
"All I want is a shot. If I get my foot in the door, I'm going to give 185 percent. I'll do anything. I'll help the film men set up and pack up. I'm going to put my all into it. One day, I want to be one of the greats. No matter what it takes. I just want to play. I don't care if they tell me 'Willie, we just want you on special teams.' I'll say 'Coach, no problem. I'm going to run down like I'm running a 40 every time, until you tell me to slow down.'"