(Photo courtesy of AP Images)
MOBILE, Ala. – Growing up in a rough and tumble neighborhood in the North County area of St. Louis near Natural Bridge, Sylvester Williams found himself surrounded by temptation.
As with most temptation, giving in wasn’t going to lead to anything good. As he watched friends say yes to taking drugs or selling them, stealing cars and a variety of other criminal activities, Williams marched to his own beat.
While those around him followed the wrong path, Williams turned to sports. He loved them all growing up but was a huge fan of the Rams and the ‘Greatest Show on Turf.’ Those games and many more helped him say no to the aforementioned temptations.
“It was a calm neighborhood,” Williams said. “It had bad areas. I did my best to stay away from those areas. I had friends that took the wrong path in life which I didn’t follow. It was a rough neighborhood but you knew how to stay away from trouble and I was able to do that.”
In no small part because he was able to do that, Williams find himself here for this week’s Senior Bowl as one of the game’s top prospects. A strong, mass of humanity playing defensive tackle and representing the University of North Carolina, Williams is not only one of the most physically impressive prospects in attendance but perhaps its most mature.
Something of an old soul, Williams has lived a little more life than many of his teammates here this week. That he’s even been able to make it this far is something of an accomplishment though it will pale in comparison to when he hears his name called in April (scouts peg him as high as the second round).
“I appreciate everything I have gone through,” Williams said. “It’s a blessing to be here today. I look back on my life and five years ago I never would have pictured myself being here so being able to make it to this step in my life I am extremely happy and appreciative of everything going on.”
Let’s rewind back even a little further than just those five years. Growing up in a single-parent household with his father, Sylvester Sr. – his mother left when he was young – Williams did his best to keep up in school but it simply never worked.
Williams frequently missed class and those missed classes led to spotty grades, the types that would keep him from playing sports. Combine that with the things surrounding him in his neighborhood and an illness for his father and Williams picked up and moved somewhere he’d figure to have a better shot.
So Williams headed about two hours down the road to Jefferson City, where he lived with his older sister Sylia. The move represented a fresh start for Williams but it didn’t necessarily transform him into a 4.0 student or even a top athlete.
In fact, Williams was kicked off the freshman basketball team for poor grades. The same issue cost him his sophomore basketball season as well.
It’s not that Williams was a bad kid but by his own admission he was lazy. To that point, football wasn’t even in the picture though he’d eschewed opportunities presented to him by the coaching staff to join the team.
By the time Williams was a senior, he’d grown tired of simply going to games and watching his friends play games on Friday nights. A new coaching staff, led by head coach Ted LePage, took special interest in Williams and gave him the discipline he needed but never pined for.
That meant early morning wakeup calls and extended workouts. Williams was finally a part of something and at 6’3, 290 pounds, he looked every bit the part of a star football player in the making.
Except he wasn’t.
“I just wasn’t very good in high school,” Williams said. “I didn’t have a chance to play at the next level so I had to take the slow route.”
The slow route for Williams was a bit slower than most. Upon graduation from high school, he surveyed his options and decided his best move was to find a job that would give him a chance to earn some income.
Williams worked at Taco Bell and Wal-Mart but in August of 2009, he accepted a job doing the grunt work at Modine Manufacturing Company. There, he worked on machines that made radiator parts for, as he says ’18-wheelers and other big trucks.’ His work didn’t stop there; he also found himself occasionally sweeping floors and other random tasks throughout the day.
Although there was nothing fancy about the work, it was the first time he’d had a consistent work ethic that forced him to be accountable. He even began to like it.
“It was a grind but I loved every minute of it,” Williams said. “I’m a person that loves to grind. I love the grind of football and I love to work hard so for me it was fun.”
That love of football had begun in earnest his senior year of high school but it had grown considerably since. Williams was working hard in the factory but he was also putting on weight. He’d grown to more than 360 pounds and found himself wondering ‘what if?’ when he’d watch college football games.
Williams decided to find out.
“I guess the biggest thing for me is I wanted to do something great in my life,” Williams said. “I knew I wouldn’t have been able to do that working at the factory so I told myself I needed to take the next step in my life and to go to junior college. I knew I didn’t want to (work at Modine) but at the time it was the best job I ever had. I was making a nice amount of money but I knew I wanted to do something different.”
That something different meant attempting to walk on to the football team at Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College. Williams went to the coaches and asked for an opportunity.
Although he was out of shape, Williams did enough to get an opportunity. Armed with a work ethic he’d never had when playing a sport previously, Williams went to work on getting into shape.
When his first season at Coffeyville arrived, Williams was down to 315 pounds and had earned a scholarship. By the time his two years at Coffeyville were up, he walked away with a boatload of scholarship offers from major Division I schools and had an Associates Degree in art.
“I was getting scholarship offers and that’s when my dreams started to become reality,” Williams said.
Williams was taken with the Chapel Hill campus in North Carolina and opted to become a Tar Heel. He knew what it took to work hard but he had to adjust to facing better competition in games and in practice.
But Williams made the most of his chance. The guy who would regularly skip class started to watch more film than Ebert and Roeper and he was always in the gym doing cardio early every morning.
Williams’ hard work paid off as he started all 25 games in his two years on campus and became a dominant force in the middle of the Tar Heels defensive line in posting 42 tackles, 13.5 for loss and six sacks as a senior.
At this week’s Senior Bowl festivities, Williams is considered one of the top prospects in attendance. He weighed in at a solid 6’2, 313 pounds and was one of the better defensive linemen on the field in each of the North squad’s practices.
Off the field, Williams has a renewed relationship with his mother and even stronger bonds with his father and siblings.
When his name is called in April, Williams will be one of the better stories in the draft but he’s already thinking long term about what that story can do for others. He harbors dreams of coaching young players some day or perhaps working as a motivational speaker.
One way or the other, at the age of 24, Williams has already learned perhaps life’s most important lesson.
“It’s just about wanting to be great, wanting to do something better in this life,” Williams said. “I think everybody is put in this world to do something and I feel like I was put in this world to do great and inspire others whether it be through football or something else.”