Chad Williams, like many NFL draft prospects, is spending a lot of time on his college campus this week, putting in work, waiting for his dream to come true.
“I am in that weight room,” he says over the phone with a soft laugh.
The weight room is not just any weight room. Williams went to Grambling. And during his first season there in 2013, he and his teammates refused to play a game because of the conditions of that weight room and other issues facing the football program.
“The lockers had mold, the ceiling had mold, the floor was ripped up,” Williams remembers.
Those conditions raised concerns over possible staph infections.
Williams was only a freshman receiver, and so he wasn’t among the leaders of the strike, but he had no hesitation.
“I was going to go with my team,” he says. “That’s what a brotherhood is. You have 100 brothers on the team. I’m glad I did. Things turned around.”
The episode is more significant than many give it credit. We are now in an era of player organization and activism, whether at Northwestern, in the WNBA, in women’s soccer and even with some of the New England Patriots deciding not to attend the White House celebration for the team. But back in 2013, a players’ strike was bold, highly controversial and very rare (at least in the modern era). The New York Times wrote about it. So did Jesse Jackson, saying, “Perhaps the strike by the football team of a legendary program will begin to wake us up.”
At the very least, it woke up the Grambling football program, and Williams’ story is part of that triumph.
His impact in high school is arguably even greater than what he means to his college. Williams went to a charter school called Madison Prep in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that launched in 2009. He was a part of the first football team, which had only 25 players to start the year and 17 by the end. The school was so new that when he was in eighth grade at a sister school, he was part of the group that was selected to give Madison Prep its nickname (Chargers), colors and logo.
He played quarterback and safety only a short drive from Southern University and LSU, but he was not recruited there – in part because of the newness of his school. (Madison Prep didn’t field a varsity team until Williams was a senior.) He got only one real look, from former Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams. He became the first Madison Prep kid to get an athletic scholarship.
“If Coach Doug didn’t come get me, honestly I don’t know where I’d be,” Williams says. “I cannot even imagine where I’d be.”
The coach sat Williams down in his office and asked where he’d like to play. “Just put the ball in my hands,” came the reply, and then “Coach Doug” made another good decision: He put the Baton Rouge product at wideout. He hadn’t played there since middle school, but it worked out better than either could have imagined.
In the short term, though, things were beyond bleak. Grambling lost 18 of 19 games under Doug Williams, and the coach reportedly tangled with the school over that weight room. The coach raised the money to fix the flooring without going through official channels. Meanwhile, players were upset with the facilities and inordinately long bus rides to road games.
Things came to a head soon after the NFL legend was fired, as players refused to board the bus for a game against Jackson State. That caused a forfeit – and national headlines. There was a bigger story here: The lack of state funding for Grambling and, more broadly, a lack of financial support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Chad Williams could have distanced himself from the strike or even transferred. It was a lot to deal with for a teenager. He didn’t waver.
“I wasn’t nervous,” he says. “Just focusing on what needs to be done. They [administrators] responded quickly. Things started happening.”
Broderick Fobbs took over as head coach and the team went from 1-10 to 7-5 to 9-0. Williams, along with everyone in his still-young class, became a veteran leader. In the 2014 Bayou Classic, he had 207 receiving yards.
“We didn’t treat younger guys like baby freshmen,” he says. “Some might make it harder for younger guys, but we made them feel like they were one of us. Their mindset changed.” Fobbs puts it plainly: “Our players were out there by themselves. They had to bind together because of that. They were all going in one direction together.”
Williams says the improved facilities helped on the field. “Little things are major factors on the field,” he says now.
There was one hiccup: Williams was arrested for possession of marijuana and possession of a firearm when police came upon a parked SUV early one Sunday morning on the LSU campus last year. Williams and two others were detained at gunpoint, according to a media report.
Williams was suspended for one game. “I will never make that mistake again in my life,” he says now. “I talked to my mom, my brothers. It was a bad situation. The minute it happened, knowing all the hard work I put in, to see it all [possibly] thrown away, it hurts.”
Williams roared back from his suspension, with 90 receptions and 11 touchdowns in his senior season (including 13 catches against Arizona). He then made a name for himself at the Senior Bowl not only for his pass-catching but also for his fearlessness against big-school defenders. He even got into a scuffle with Miami defensive back Rayshawn Jenkins.
“I play with an edge that most guys really don’t have in my opinion,” he says. “Everything I got I had to earn it. I do a lot of dirty work. If there’s an interception, I’m the guy who’s going to make the tackle.”
Williams wasn’t invited to the NFL scouting combine, but as a show of loyalty to his old school he attended Grambling’s pro day as a spectator on the same day as his own, which was held at Louisiana Tech. He ran a 4.4 in the 40 and bench-pressed 225 pounds 21 times. The phone calls rolled in, and Williams ended up visiting 15 teams. Early projections in the sixth or seventh round are likely quite low; he may go as high as the third round.
“He will not be happy if it’s past the fifth round,” Fobbs says.
None of the sudden buzz surprises Williams, who is still miffed over his lack of recruitment. (He had only one other offer, and no visits.) “I felt like I was one of the best athletes in the state,” he says.” He’ll have some evidence for that after this weekend. He will be the first player from Grambling drafted since Jason Hatcher in 2006.
Williams will be watching the draft in his hometown, and he made sure to invite his high school principal, Alisa Welsh, to his draft party. She nearly cried when she got the call.
“I could die happy,” Welsh says. “I’m very happy. He’s just a good kid. He’s a great kid.”
And he’s a loyal kid too. Grambling is a big part of who he is, and he has helped rebuild it in his own small but significant way.
“I’m in that weight room,” Williams says. “And now that weight room is nice.”
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