Is D.J. Williams Ready to Emerge?
by Mike Conklin
July 29, 2012
D.J. Williams used to be the big man on campus. In college, he was the team captain and even became a media darling, if such a thing existed in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was visible everywhere. It seemed like everyone on campus, from students to professors to even support staff, knew him and liked him.
His first year as a professional with the Packers was a little different. He toiled in virtual obscurity. He was a role player, and it may even be a stretch to call him that. In many ways, when looking at the Packers roster, he was an afterthought.
But even though he was a star at Arkansas who won an assortment of national awards, this other role was nothing new to Williams either. As the face of the Razorbacks, he was an outgoing leader with a winning personality and million dollar smile. But it wasn't that long ago that he was an insecure, fearful kid who used to be made fun of by the other kids in school.
Back then, he was "Gas Station Boy." The school bus would drop him off at an abandoned gas station, and he would walk from there to the temporary shelter where his mother and two sisters would call home while they were trying to get their lives together. The other kids would make fun of him, and of the old hand-me-down clothes he would wear to school. Amidst the jeers, Williams learned to keep to himself. He was was quiet and withdrawn, and wrote all of his thoughts in a journal. He rarely smiled.
He really didn't have many reasons to smile in those days. As a young child, D.J. lived in constant fear. His mother, Vicky, was a high school cheerleader who fell in love with the captain of the basketball team, David Williams. D.J.'s father was a great high school player who ended up being pursued by NCAA basketball powerhouse schools like Duke and North Carolina. But when Vicky became pregnant, David Williams didn't want to leave her and go away to college. They got married, and ended up having three kids, with D.J. being the youngest. Things weren't always easy, but David and Vicky Williams led a fairly normal life for ten years. Both had successful careers and lived in their dream house in Carrollton, Texas. But when D.J. was two years old, everything changed for the Williams family.
David Williams suffered "two tragic events," as Vicky later recalled, and started drinking heavily soon thereafter. That's when the abuse started. He was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but rather than receiving professional help he tried to self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs. D.J. remembers countless nights of lying in bed listening to his father abuse his mother. Sometimes David Williams would even force his children to berate their mother and call her names. They dared not refuse, or else his rage might have turned on them.
"It made me feel like I was in a helpless position," he recalled. "There was nothing I could do."
In a well-publicized story, everything came to a head on D.J.'s eleventh birthday. He and his dad were supposed to be going on a fishing trip, when David Williams made a pit stop at a crack house to buy some drugs. He pulled out a gun and handed it to D.J., telling him to use it if anybody came up to him. D.J. was terrified, and even gave a passing thought to using the gun on himself to end his life of fear. D.J. later told his mother what happened, and she knew at that point they had to get away. She packed up the kids and left for good, leaving her job, house, and everything she knew behind. That's how a young D.J. Williams eventually ended up at that abandoned gas station in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he was the butt of the other kids' jokes.
Williams eventually found some measure of solace on the basketball court, where he excelled. Little did he know back then that it would be a Green Bay Packers tight end that would play a small role in his development. He received a new pair of shoes through a program for at-risk kids that was launched by Keith Jackson, who was also from Little Rock.
Slowly but surely, things started settling down for Williams and his family. Vicky found a job, began to make friends, and became plugged in at a church where other families lent support. D.J. eventually enrolled as a freshman at Central Arkansas Christian High School, because he knew a lot of kids that went there and had played summer league basketball with them. At first, he was only interested in basketball and playing in the band. The team's football coach, Tim Perry, had to persuade him to play football. Over time their relationship grew, and Perry would become one of the few father figures in Williams' teenage years. By that time David Williams was incarcerated and out of the picture, so Perry helped play a vital role in transforming Williams from that shy little kid at the bus stop to an outgoing team leader.
Williams blossomed as an athlete, and by the time he graduated he was pursued by several major college programs. He ended up staying close to home and attended Arkansas, where he was recruited by another man for whom he had great respect, Houston Nutt. Between Perry, Nutt, and his other college head coach, Bobby Petrino, Williams gained a lot of guidance, and he has attributed each of them as having a major role in his development.
"(Football) has helped me build character as a man," Williams said during one of his many award presentations as a senior in college. "(There was) not a great father figure in my life and a lot of people who have been that figure have been my coaches."
Williams really began to find himself and gain confidence throughout his college years, and was a beloved figure by teammates, coaches, students, and professors alike. Even the real top dog on campus, University Chancellor G. David Gearhart, came away truly impressed by Williams' leadership abilities.
“I just see students rallying around him when he comes into a room,” Gearhart said. “And the one thing about D.J. that I have noticed is he’s a good person to everybody. He doesn’t try to pick favorites. He’s not involved in cliques. I’ve seen him talk to any student and be engaged with any student. He’s the kind of person that can talk to anybody and wants to be engaged with any student, regardless of who they are and what they do.”
Vicky Williams thinks that is a byproduct of his difficult upbringing, and knowing what it was like to be an outsider.
"I just think he just tries to, no matter who it is, he tries to really embrace everybody," she said. And she believes that same attitude extends beyond just relationships with other people. "D.J. knows in a heartbeat you can lose everything you have. And that's why he takes every day and just embraces it."
One unlikely friendship that illustrates Williams' willingness to cross boundaries and make friends with people from all different backgrounds was when he hit it off with one of the band directors at Arkansas, Jeremy Pratchard. They first met at a men's basketball game when Williams was a sophomore. Pratchard didn't know who Williams was at that time, but even if he did he would be unlikely to recognize him beneath the face paint and cape he was wearing to support his team. Pratchard was drawn to Williams' boundless energy and magnetic personality. They maintained their friendship over the next three years, fueled by Williams' love for music, and even ended up collaborating on the Arkansas band's spring spectacular. Williams enlisted several of his football teammates to help out the band, and they had a drum battle of sorts. The show was an unmitigated success, as evidenced by these YouTube highlights.
“There have been a lot of lovable figures come through this program,” said Pratchard in an interview last year. “This was my 10th year here at the U of A. I’ve seen a lot of football guys that were stars on the field and kind of stars in our hearts too. But, gosh, anybody that can compare to what D.J. has meant...I just can’t think of anybody. D.J. has so much charisma (that) everybody just gravitates to him. We all meet people throughout their lives and you just get to talking to them and there’s so much charm, so much charisma that you just get pulled in. He’s like that. He’s the opposite of too cool for school. He’s the most gregarious personality. He wants to be in the middle of it and I think he is the best example of student-athlete that there is.”
Quotes like that make Williams sound like a poster child for "Packer People." And he may finally be starting to let his hair down now in Green Bay too. Just this week, he was offering tales of cow tipping to the media. Some of the beat reporters seem unsure what to make of it, and don't seem sure whether he is being serious or just having fun with them since Williams played it straight the whole way through. Reporters in Fayetteville became used to Williams' sense of humor, which was on display frequently back then. He appears to be starting to let loose now in his second year.
His play on the field has been showing signs of development as well. He has had a strong start in training camp this year, and is showing many of the attributes that allowed him to win the Mackey Award (given to the best tight end in college football). The Packers are deep at tight end, and Williams will be challenged to earn playing time. Even so, Mike McCarthy has shown over time that he will put the best players on the field. If Williams continues to shine, he will be given an opportunity. When asked about Williams after Saturday's practice, McCarthy did not hesitate to offer praise.
"D.J.'s a stronger man," McCarthy said. “He’s doing a really good job playing the inside part of the field. D.J. – he and Ryan Taylor both – are much stronger, moving better, more athletic. I see it in their balance, not getting knocked off their feet. And it’s probably more that they have a clearer understanding of their role. They’re both very competitive and very much part of our special teams unit. You look at the linebackers and tight ends, the amount of work they have during the course of the practice, there’s not another position that takes as many reps as those guys. Those guys have a really hard workload for their particular body type, 250 pounds, for as much running and the number of reps they go through. D.J. is doing an excellent job with that."
As discussed previously, much has been made of Williams' size, which caused him to slip to the fifth round in last year's draft. What often goes overlooked is that he has the same measurables as New England's Aaron Hernandez...if not a little bigger...and Hernandez is considered one of the best pass catching tight ends in the NFL. If Williams can continue to "stack successes," as McCarthy likes his young players to do, he might end up being one more weapon on an already stacked Packers offense.
Williams has persevered through more difficult circumstances than this. He is ready to embrace the challenge, and his continued development will be watched closely.
"It's a great opportunity," Williams said. "I'm not letting it go to waste."
Photo Credit: US Presswire