NEWARK, N.J. – This Sunday he'll line up and go to work, with men on his right and on his left. He'll be alone with his thoughts and his task. In that way, it's the same as it was after high school for Sylvester Williams.
In every other way, it's completely different. Williams is starting on the defensive line for the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. A little more than five years ago, he was on an assembly line in Missouri, building radiators. He weighed 360 pounds. He had started one football game in his entire life.
The story of Peyton Manning, one of the best to ever play the game, has been told and retold for years. The story of Sylvester Williams, Manning's teammate, is one that is far more remarkable – almost impossible. "Never in my career," said Broncos defensive line coach Jay Rodgers, "have I seen something exactly like it."
Williams was, by his own admission, a poor high school student and embarrassingly out of shape. He took a job out of school at Modine Manufacturing in Jefferson City. It paid $400 a week and Williams figured that was pretty good. For six months, he packed his own lunch – almost always leftovers – and got to work for his shift after the sun had set. He put on his safety goggles and his headphones, then he would pull tubes out of stacks and insert them into radiators for 18-wheelers. He didn't speak to anyone, he wasn't spoken to, and he didn't sit down, for eight hours, until the sun came up.
For Williams, this was the rest of his life.
It wasn't that he had been passed over as a football player. He simply wasn't that good. His day-to-day motivation was to be like his dad, who was also a factory worker. Most athletes feel they're better than everyone gives them credit for. Williams felt he was worse.
"I've always thought less of myself," Williams said, "than others did of me."
Soon after starting at the factory, Williams' high school teacher and basketball coach, Andre Solomon, had tickets to a Kansas football game. They drove about 200 miles to Lawrence on a Saturday morning to see the game and a former high school teammate who played there. "On our way back after getting a chance to go in the locker room, I think he started getting a little inspiration," Solomon said. "He was thinking, 'My gosh, I'm the same size as a lot of other guys around here.' "
On the long and quiet drive back, Williams turned to Solomon and said he wanted to go to college.
He enrolled in Coffeyville Community College, where he had a friend from high school. It was a risk: Williams was a poor kid from a poor family who was giving up a good job. "My aim in getting to college was to get a degree," he said. "Football just came along."
He arrived early in 2009 and walked on to the football team.
A young man who never paid much attention in school started to study intently. He spent his nights playing pick-up basketball and doing push-ups. Williams lost 60 pounds. He made the team in his first season. Then came his first recruiting letter, then another, then another.
Butch Davis, who was then head coach at North Carolina, recalls a visit he paid Williams, where he sat on the floor because there weren't enough chairs in Williams' apartment.
During that conversation, Williams spoke about his childhood, his siblings and his dad. "He said, 'Do you know when the happiest times of my life were?'" Davis recalled. "He said, 'When I was 12, my dad wanted to get us out of the projects. He bought an old, condemned, dilapidated farmhouse across the river in Illinois. We'd scrape the paint off, fix some of the windows.' He said they worked on this house for six or seven months. A week before we moved in, it burned to the ground."
Williams went on. He said his dad bought an old, beat up car, which was on blocks. On the weekends, the family would piece it back together, finally getting it to run. Then it was stolen.
"My greatest moments," Williams told Davis, there on the floor of his home, "were those two events, because we did those two things together."
Davis started to well up with tears.
"What my dad did to keep us together," Williams told Davis, "I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world."
Williams went to Chapel Hill, packing up all his stuff and a 3 x 5 notecard he had written at Coffeyville, which read, "I will become the best defensive tackle and I will become an All-American."
He became the Broncos' first pick in the 2013 draft, and he's now starting in the Super Bowl in his rookie season.
Williams is 25, old for a rookie – he's the same age as Matthew Stafford, who has already completed five NFL seasons – but nobody with the Broncos is complaining. A struggling high school student has become an outstanding student of the game.
"He's very humble," Rodgers said. "He eats up information. I'm glad we got him."
Back in Jefferson City, this weekend brings a rare kind of inspiration. A kid went from a manufacturing plant "making radiators from scratch" to the world's stage. "It just gives you chills all through your body," Solomon said. "Seeing this young man go from where he started to where he is."
There will be no more packed leftovers, no more safety goggles. All Williams took with him from the assembly line to the defensive line was the dedication to put in a good day's work.