The Tragic Story of Willie Williams, College Football's First Celebrity Recruit

The Tragic Story of Willie Williams, College Football's First Celebrity Recruit
Courtesy of Miami Herald

The temptation is to begin every sentence with the words, “If only Willie hadn’t…”

One can’t stop oneself. It’s irresistible, like trying to tiptoe along the edge of a perfectly turquoise swimming pool on a 110-degree day.

You want to speak with insight and depth. You want to offer substance and understanding and slivers of information that help elaborate upon the most complicated and confusing athlete you’ve ever met. You want to explain Willie Arthur Williams in ways that he’s never been explained.

You want to talk about how one of the nation’s top high school football recruits in 2004—a kid labeled “the next Lawrence Taylor” sans hyperbole—went from wearing uniform No. 17 for the Miami Hurricanes to uniform number 253203 inside the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex.

You want to.

But you can’t.

“If only Willie’s father hadn’t left,” you say—then stop.

“If only Willie hadn’t transferred high schools,” you say—then stop.

“If only Willie hadn’t visited the University of Florida,” you say—then stop.

“If only Willie hadn’t discharged that fire extinguisher,” you say—then stop.

“If only Willie hadn’t decided to attend the University of Miami,” you say—then stop.

“If only Willie hadn’t agreed to the recruiting diary,” you say—and then, um, wait a minute. You don’t stop, do you? You think about it. You think about it some more.

If only Willie hadn’t agreed to the recruiting diary, you ask, would we be mourning yet another failed sports superstar? Would we be Googling his mug shot—the one where he looks not like a million-dollar phenomenon, but a lost soul; hair shaved to the scalp, eyebrows unkempt, eyes artificially reddened from the blinding flash of a heartless strobe?

Would we be telling this story? This pathetic story of a kid gifted with athleticism and intelligence, now rotting his life away behind a row of metal bars?

If only Willie Williams, 19 years old and assured of a million-dollar future, hadn’t agreed to the recruiting diary, where would he be right now?

Where would he be?

... 

Blame Jon Beason.

Is that fair to the New York Giants linebacker, a seven-year NFL veteran who has rightly earned a reputation as one of the sport’s truly good guys? Well, no. But such is life.

Back in the winter months of 2003, Beason was a highly touted senior safety/running back at Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory in Hollywood, Fla.

The Sun-Sentinel, the local newspaper, asked whether he would have any interest in compiling a diary of his recruiting trips to Georgia, Tennessee, Florida State and Miami.

“It was great,” says Beason. “But then I started getting flak from the schools I’d already visited, because they thought I was giving the remaining schools a chance to see what I’d liked and disliked. Whatever. It was fun.”

The Sun-Sentinel ran four entries, and they were all sorta kinda…meh. “Coming from arguably the best high school program in the country, I want to play against the best,” he wrote in one typically bland passage. “Practice is where you win games, and I feel like practicing with these guys will raise my game.”

AP Photo/Bill Haber
Miami linebacker Jon Beason (2) reacts after making a tackle in 2005 Peach Bowl.

Beason ultimately chose to attend the University of Miami, and his underwhelming diary was forgotten by seemingly everyone—save Walt Villa, the high school sports editor at the Miami Herald.

A veteran newspaper man with a keen grasp of prep football’s importance in South Florida, Villa was intrigued by the idea of stealing the Sun-Sentinel’s concept, only making it far superior.

“The Beason diary was a good effort, but dull,” Villa says. “What I wanted to do was find a kid who was willing to dig in deeper into the recruiting world and tell us what really happens when these guys are worshipped and treated like royalty.”

There was only one problem: Such a person almost certainly did not exist.

The reason Beason’s diary treaded on the dull side is simple—what benefit would there have been to tell all? To express every emotion? To rip coaches and shame universities?

“Nobody tried to pay me off or bribe me or anything like that,” says Beason. “But even if they had, it’s probably not something I write.”

Villa turned to Manny Navarro, the Herald’s second-year high school beat writer and a man who knew how to relate with pubescent athletes like few others.

Navarro was understated and empathetic—characteristics that appealed to many of the inner-city kids who grew weary of outsiders sticking microphones in their faces and asking overly intrusive questions.

He also looked younger than his 24 years and knew the intricacies of the local scene. Every coach. Every star. Every star’s parent and uncle and grandma. If you wanted information on Miami high school football in the early 2000s, Manny Navarro was your man. Hence, when Villa made his request, the writer barely paused to flinch.

“I told him,” Navarro says, “that I would talk to Willie Williams.”

The scribe had first encountered Williams a year earlier when he was a junior linebacker for Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens.

On the field, Williams was otherworldly, recording 173 tackles and 10 sacks while being named the Herald’s Defensive Player of the Year in Miami-Dade County for Class 3A-1A.

“How good was he?” asks Joe Zaccheo, Pace’s coach. “He was probably the best ever at that position. The kid came to me at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, and the first time I put a clock on him he ran a 4.3 40. I said, ‘Get the hell out of here! Do it again!’ He did it again. And again. The kid was just a freak.”

Off the field, Williams was even better.

As many of his teammates froze before the television cameras, the defensive star morphed into Jay Leno. “He was entertaining, he was funny, he was smart,” says Navarro. “You spoke to him, and you knew you were in for a treat.”

“Every time I’d see him at a game or practice, he’d come up, give me a hug and say, ‘Thanks for what you’re doing for me!’” says Larry Blustein, who covered preps for the Sun-Sentinel. “He was that kind of kid. All charisma.”

Following his year at Pace, Williams participated in the Dade-Broward All-Star Game, an event for high schoolers without remaining eligibility.

As a freshman, Williams had been involved in a car accident that caused him to skip the entire season (he was struck by a vehicle while crossing the street, spent one month in the hospital and missed 90 days of school), but Florida High School Athletic Association rules did not allow for any sort of redshirting of players.

However, at the end of the year, Williams transferred to nearby Carol City High with the hopes that Jeff Paris, the school’s athletic director, would find a way to make him eligible.

It was his sixth high school in five years. “When I met Willie, I knew he had a strong case,” Paris told the Herald at the time. “This was a kid that got hit by a car in the face during his freshman year of high school. He deserves a shot at playing four years of high school ball.”

After a lengthy hearing, the FHSAA (to the shock of many) agreed, and Williams was allowed to take the field for Carol City, the state’s top-ranked team in Class 6A.

In Miami, the news was covered—but not heavily covered. Navarro penned a story that appeared on Page 11D of the Sept. 13, 2003, Herald, headlined "Chiefs' Williams Ruled Eligible.''

In a city where football ranks first, second, third, fourth and fifth on the Most Important High School Endeavor list, Williams was one of many standouts (even on his own team, which featured two future NFL players in safety Kenny Phillips and defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois). His name was known, but his full story was not.

Even as he put together a remarkable run for the Chiefs (18 sacks in nine games; 11 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in Carol City's 13-0 victory over Orlando Edgewater in the Class 6A Florida championship game), there is only so much fame for a high school football player (especially a defensive one) to attain.

To Division I coaches, Williams was a gift from the gods—ranked by most scouting services as America’s top-rated high school senior linebacker, as well as a kid who scored 1070 on the SATs and maintained a 3.0 GPA. To the country at large, however, he was nonexistent.

Then Navarro came along.

The diary idea immediately appealed to Williams. Fame! Attention! An opportunity to be heard! “Oh, he loved it,” says Navarro. “He was a very descriptive person who saw the world colorfully. It was a perfect match.”

Coming off a season that included him earning two nicknames—“The Killer” and “Da Predator”—Williams had top Division I colleges salivating over his services.

He decided to make four visits—to Florida State, Auburn, Miami and Florida—and told Navarro that he’d do his best to be clear and colorful. “I thought it could work well,” Navarro says. “But I didn’t know how well.”

“I had no initial expectations,” adds Villa. “You just hope it’s good.”

Williams’ first stop on the recruiting express was a January trek to Tallahassee, home to Florida State and Bobby Bowden, the school’s legendary coach.

Less than an hour after returning to Miami, Williams met Navarro inside the Carol City gymnasium. The reporter switched on his recording device and asked some questions. What emerged from the football star’s mouth was pure newspaper gold.

From the opening diary …

"Dinner was tight,'' Williams said. "We had our own section in the restaurant, but the only thing that bugged me was that I sat all the way in the back—so I was the last one to get my food. Coach (Odell) Haggins told us to order as much as we wanted. I ordered a steak and a lobster tail. The lobster tail was like $49.99. I couldn't believe something so little could cost so much. The steak didn't even have a price. The menu said something about market value. I was kind of embarrassed so I didn't order a lot. But then I saw what the other guys were ordering, I was like, `Forget this.' I called the waiter back and told him to bring me four lobster tails, two steaks and a Shrimp Scampi. It was good. I took two boxes back with me to the hotel."

After dinner, Williams met his tour guide—defensive back Antonio Cromartie. But he quickly urged the coaches to find him a new one.

"That boy was on crutches," Williams said. "I would have had to hop around campus everywhere. Besides, I wanted somebody who played my position to take me around." Cromartie was immediately replaced by linebackers Ernie Sims, Willie Jones of Carol City and A.J. Nicholson, as well as defensive lineman Clifton Dickson of Miami Northwestern Senior High School.

AP Photo/Phil Sears
Bobby Bowden and his wife, Ann, at the 2013 Syracuse-Florida State game.

"Coach Bowden was cool, but Ms. Bowden was the bomb," Williams said. "I swear, she must be related to Betty Crocker or something. When we walked into that house, it was like walking into a Publix Bakery—banana pudding, chocolate cake, cheesecake. I had one of everything. I didn't want to leave."

Back at the Herald, Navarro was pleased with the response.

Though the diary had run toward the rear of the sports section, it was the talk of Miami’s AM radio stations. Villa tried to convince Richard Bush, the newspaper’s sports editor, to place the ensuing entries on the front page, but he declined.

In a city with the Dolphins and Heat and Marlins and Panthers and Hurricanes, who really cared about the exploits of some high school kid?

Williams’ next trip was to Auburn…

''I really wanted to go to Red Lobster for some more lobster and steak, but they told me the wait was two hours. So I got me some baby back ribs, Buffalo wings and shrimp,'' Williams said. "Even though I ordered first, somehow, I was still the last one to get my food. It took them like two hours.''

During the wait, several of the female hosts, nicknamed the ''Tigerettes," offered him some of their spinach dip.

''You know how it is, those girls are supposed to be there to cheer you up,'' Williams said. "But I told them, 'I ain't no animal, and I ain't going to eat no plant.'

"But they kept pushing it toward me. It was disgusting. I told them, 'I'm from Miami. I don't eat that. You farm people are used to it, but not me.'"

Later that night, the recruits were invited to a party on campus with their hosts.

"The girls at the party were much better than the farmer girls we'd see all day around campus," Williams said. "I was kind of worried all Auburn had to offer was those farmer girls that talked funny. But the girls at the party weren't farmer girls at all. I thought they must have bused them in from Miami."

The reaction to the Auburn diary entry was even greater.

Clicks on the Herald’s online high school sports page increased sixfold. Auburn supporters were outraged by Williams’ “farm girls” depiction and besieged the newspaper with angry letters and calls. General readers, however, loved it.

“Willie was so smart,” says Navarro. “It gets lost, with everything that’s happened. But this was an intelligent person.” Even Bush conceded the entries were packed with unexpected oomph. He agreed to place the following offerings on the section’s front page.

The next recruiting romp was an easy one—an evening with Coach Larry Coker and his staff at the University of Miami.

Surely, this would be the dullest of the four. It would take place in Williams’ home city, a stone’s throw from his house. What of note could possibly happen?

On Jan. 27, 2004, beneath a headline reading "UM Trip is Paradise for Williams," readers were treated to a merging of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Sin City

"Coach [Coker] looks like an old guys in his 50s or 60s, but he’s real cool," Williams said. "When he talks, he sounds like he’s 18 or 20. And when I saw he was driving the Escalade, I was like, ‘Dang, coach got some taste.'"

Following the campus visit, the recruits boarded a bus with the coaching staff and headed for the Orange Bowl. Williams said he wasn’t aware the recruits had a police escort.

“We’d get to a red light and I would hold on because the bus driver would just take it,” he said. “Coach Coker looked at me and he was like, ‘Are you OK, Willie?’

“I was thinking the bus driver was crazy. Coach Coker was like, ‘Willie, we’ve got police escorts.’ I told him, ‘Thank God. I thought the police were trying to pull us over and give us a ticket.’ That was pretty funny.”

Williams, who wore No. 17 at Carol City in honor of UM linebacker D.J. Williams, had his own personalized jersey waiting for him inside the Canes locker room. In the next locker was jersey No. 52—the number once worn by superstar linebacker Ray Lewis.

Miami Herald
Willie Williams in his No. 17 Miami jersey.

“When I first put on [his UM jersey], I felt at home,” Williams said. “Coach was like, ‘That’s you, Willie.’ To be honest, it really felt like it.”

Following the stadium, the recruits were bused to Monty’s restaurant on Miami Beach. After the recruits were greeted with nachos and crab claws, the main course quickly followed—along with the arrival of UM players, including D.J. Williams and cornerback Antrel Rolle.

“Coach Coker must be related to Cleo or something,” Williams said of the famed TV psychic. “The man knew what I wanted and had it already ordered. I didn’t need a menu. I told him, ‘Coach, how did you know what I like?’

“He was like, ‘Willie, I’ve been reading up on you.’"

Dinner was followed by a trip back to Rolle’s apartment for a few hours of video games. Then it was off for a night on South Beach.

“They took us to this place called ‘The Bed.’ Warren Sapp, Clinton Portis, Jevon Kearse and a whole bunch of really hot girls were all there. We didn’t stick around long. After that, we just went back to the hotel to sleep.”

The feedback was nuclear.

Williams’ Miami experience was cited across the nation, from newspaper to television to radio to Internet. Depending on the perspective, Williams was either the poster child for the spoiled athlete, or Coker was the evil, by-any-means-necessary wooer of children.

Here, for one of the first times, was a no-holds-barred glimpse into a seedy world where wealthy white men (often in their 40s and 50s) dipped their claws into the projects to pull forth those holding the golden ticket of athletic brilliance.

“The process is disgusting, only most people have no idea,” says Xavier Lee, the former Florida State quarterback who was recruited alongside Williams. “All these amazing promises are made, all these gifts are offered. But, often, as soon as the player struggles, those same people making promises forget all about you. It’s a common story.”

...

One trip remained.

On the evening of Friday, Jan. 31, Willie Williams boarded a small prop plane and flew to Gainesville—home of the University of Florida Gators.

In the aftermath of his joyful Miami adventure, what with the dangling jersey and the police escort and the beautiful women—this was an unnecessary journey. He had made up his mind, and even told his family and friends.

Come fall, Willie Williams would play football for the Miami Hurricanes.

And yet…Williams committed himself to the diary.

Hell, he loved the diary. It made him look smart. Important. Influential, even. He fed off the buzz and the jolt. So, he went to Florida, and compiled his last—and most uninspired—diary to date.

''I ate so many meatballs, the people there started looking like meatballs...'The first night I was OK with eating at the stadium. But when they told me we're going to eat there again, I was a little disappointed. I was like, `Take us to Red Lobster or something.' That's when I pretty much made up my mind. I can't live in a place that don't have any restaurants. What am I going to do—fly home to eat shrimp?''

“They had girls come out, all dressed nice, but it took a while,” Williams said. “It was weird because there were some people talking about black history the whole time. Then it got worse. They had guy models come out.”

 

Miami Herald
Willie Willliams in the Carol City High library moments before announcing he had decided to sign with Miami.

The material was quirky, but forced.

Williams hadn’t wanted to be a Gator, and his writing reflected such.

On Feb. 4, three days after the publication of the final diary entry, Williams held a signing day press conference inside the Carol City High library. It was a lighthearted affair, with Williams striding to the podium and announcing, “I feel great about today!”

He first donned a throwback Deion Sanders Florida State jersey and hat—then tossed the garments aside and switched to Hurricane garb. “I’m gonna go to UM!” he said to loud cheers.

As soon as he jotted his name on the letter of intent, he called Vernon Hargreaves, Miami’s linebackers coach, to deliver the news. Coker then got on the line—unaware he was being heard via speaker by a room filled with Williams fans.

“Willie Williams?” Coker said.

“How you doing, Coach?” he replied.

“You know what, everyone’s going crazy down here, man,” Coker said. “I’m doing cartwheels over here. I’m doing great, and let me tell you something: You’re going to do great, too. You’re committed to us, we’re committed to you. Let’s do a couple of things­—let’s win some championships and let’s get your degree. You’ve got that three-year plan. Let’s get it done!”

With that, a room filled with friends and family members swooned.

With that, the bombs began to fall.

Within hours of the press conference, the Gainesville Police Department filed three criminal complaints against Williams for incidents that allegedly occurred within a five-hour span during his visit.

According to reports, Williams allegedly punched Akeem Thompson, a 22-year-old local man, in the face multiple times inside Royal Blue nightclub “for no apparent reason.” He also hugged Joanna Braganza, a female University of Florida student, from behind without permission, then refused to immediately let go.

Most serious, Williams allegedly discharged three fire extinguishers at the UF Hilton, where he was staying.

The first two charges were misdemeanors, the last a felony.

Bruce Feldman wrote in Cane Mutiny, his book about the Miami Hurricanes: “Could this be? The devilishly charming linebacker who had played the Machiavellian recruiting game for all its worth had risked crapping out by going all Mike Tyson?”

Some who know Williams remained convinced that, had he decided to become a Gator, none of the alleged incidents would have come to light.

“Do you really think any of this would’ve come out if Willie signed with Florida?” Bradford Cohen, his attorney at the time, now says. “No way. It was retribution.” (University of Florida officials have long denied any ties to the incident.) Others simply wished he’d never traveled to Gainesville—a place that didn’t interest him.

...

Willie Williams was a thug.

That’s his word. He chose it, he applied it, he used it to describe himself in multiple interviews.

“I’ve been in jail, I was locked up,” he once told Matt Shodell, who covered University of Miami athletics for CaneSport.com. “I was in a program for juveniles in middle school. Back then we didn’t care about the grades, the teachers, we just went to school for a big fashion show, for entertainment only.”

Willie Arthur Williams III was born on Dec. 14, 1984, the second child to Donna and Willie Williams. His mother worked as a corrections officer. His father was a security guard and assistant football coach at Carol City High, his alma mater.

“The funny thing about Willie Sr. is he didn’t even play football,” says Rudy Barber, his longtime friend and also a Carol City coach. “But he knew and loved the game very much. It was a passion for him.”

Very little has been written on the early boyhood of Willie III.

He grew up in a medium-income neighborhood of Miami, with hardworking parents and involved grandmothers and aunts. There were expectations—grades, chores, homework completed on time, participation in sports.

Sherria Williams, Willie’s older sister, was especially bright, and went on to earn a law degree from Florida State.

Willie was young when his parents divorced, but little of note seemed to happen during his first eight years of life. Members of the Carol City football staff fondly recall him tagging along with his father to practices, a little tyke wearing an oversized helmet. It was a sight to behold, especially because Willie II weighed between 300 to 400 pounds.

“The kids loved big Willie,” says Barber. “Everyone used to try and watch him climb the stairs to the press box. It was all out of love. He was embraced.”

In 1992, however, Willie II divorced Donna, left the family and drove off to Texas, never to return. “I’ve never understood it,” says Barber. “He abandoned them. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. He abandoned his family.”

Seven years later, Willie II—obese and alone—died of a heart attack. Many erroneously cite that as the moment when things began to go wrong with the son. Barber disagrees.

“As soon as he lost the contact of being under the control of a man, something began to turn a bad way,” he says. “It would have been nice had his dad checked in, even to see how his son was doing. But he never did. Willie needed guidance and understanding. I don’t think he ever got that.”

From the day his father left until the trip to Gainesville, Willie endured a wayward existence.

He bounced from one relative’s home to another to another. He skipped classes and ran the streets and ignored his mother. He was arrested 11 times before turning 18—six were petty theft related, four were for burglary or possession of burglary tools.

“He wasn’t afraid to get caught,” Kamanski Burton, a childhood friend, told the Herald. “He didn’t have any money. Back then, when he saw something he really wanted, he would be like, ‘Yo, I’m going to get that.’ We’d be at the house and the family would be like, ‘The police is bringing Willie home again.’ Most of the stuff he was stealing was stupid—like candy bars, toys.”

His most recent arrest prior to having the criminal complaints filed against him in Gainesville had taken place on July 11, 2002, for stealing $3,800 in stereo equipment from a Senor Stereo store in Pembroke Pines.

Though only 17 at the time, he was tried as an adult, and pleaded no contest. He was placed on probation for 18 months. “Too often he thought he was smarter than everyone else,” says Zaccheo, his coach at Pace. “He always thought he could get away with stuff.”

“There was this persistent need with Willie to try and make everyone happy,” says Shodell. “Well, you can’t be a kid like that and make everyone happy. It doesn’t work out.”

With nowhere else to turn, before her son’s sophomore year, Donna Williams enrolled Willie at Bay Point, a local boarding school for teenage juvenile delinquents. He shared a room with five other teens, and according to staff members, began to see the light.

“Willie was always being silly, always smiling,” Robert Hipolite, a Bay Point counselor, told Feldman. “But after a few months he got serious.”

Williams attributed his revival to daily readings of the Miami Herald sports section, which highlighted the football accomplishments of his peers. Before long, Williams was pulling down A's and studying the dictionary in his spare time. “He’d be using words staff members didn’t even know,” said Hipolite.

The school appointed Williams a counselor named David McGhee. Prior to leaving, Williams approached the religious man and said, “Mr. McGhee, when I get up into the NFL I’m going to build you a church. Whatever size you want, I’m going to do it for you. Trust me.”

“I believed him,” McGhee told Feldman. “I knew he meant it and I knew he believed that’s exactly what would happen.”

Miami Herald
Carol City players douse Coach Walt Frazier after a victory.

From that point, the stated narrative was rose petals and trumpets.

Williams enrolled at Monsignor Pace, dominated, then went to Carol City and dominated even more. Coaches raved. Teammates raved. The local media raved.

“Willie was a model student,” says Walt Frazier, the Carol City head coach. “He worked hard and he never complained.” He was the happy-go-lucky kid who overcame hard times and a difficult background to emerge with maturity and decency.

So what if he was allegedly expelled from Monsignor Pace over an altercation with a substitute teacher? So what if he still hung with an iffy crowd? So what if few people trusted him?

The kid could play football.

...

Here’s the thing.

Yes, the kid could play football. He could run sideline to sideline in a blur. He could toss aside offensive linemen like dishrags. In that state championship win over Orlando Edgewater, Williams didn’t merely register a pair of sacks—“he put their first two quarterbacks out of the game,” says Frazier. “One kid dislocated his shoulder, the other kid broke his arm.”

Playing football, however, isn’t always enough.

As soon as the nation learned that the University of Miami’s star recruit—the one who enjoyed crab claws and a snazzy hotel suite, all expenses paid by a self-anointed institute of higher learning—had a Capone-length rap sheet, the news cycle changed.

Had Coker and his staff been aware of Williams’ past?

LOU TOMAN/Associated Press

The coach initially said no, then admitted he was “partly” aware of some infractions. “I was aware and not aware,” he said meekly. Would Williams still be allowed to attend Miami? (No one was quite sure.) How could a university justify the admittance of such a person? (Silence.)

At the time Williams allegedly let loose with the three fire extinguishers, he was but two weeks away from completing probation.

Now, thanks to an act that Frazier rightly calls “stupid,” he was placed under house arrest, forced to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet on his right ankle and remain incarcerated inside the home of an aunt, Adriana Rutledge, in northwest Miami-Dade County.

"What was sad was how quickly everybody turned on this young man," Frazier said. "One minute everyone is asking him where is he going to go—Miami or Florida State. Then the next, all anyone was talking about was the mistakes he had made as a child.”

On July 5, 2004, Williams avoided a year in jail for the probation violation.

He instead was placed on three years' probation and was ordered to perform 250 hours of community service. He also was banned from consuming drugs or alcohol.

“I just feel so great right now,” Williams said after Broward Circuit Judge Michael Kaplan’s ruling. “I feel magnificent. Words can’t express what this means to me.”

Three weeks later, Williams was officially accepted into the University of Miami, and Coker exhaled a deep breath of relief.

The Miami football program had been the butt of repeated jokes—another year, another felon allowed to join a program that seemed to place far greater emphasis on defense than decency.

Wrote Lenox Rawlings in the Winston-Salem Journal: “Even without confirmation of his time in the 40-yard dash, we already know [Williams] is one of the fastest criminals ever enrolled at an ACC school.”

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Top Miami recruit Willie Williams follows head coach Larry Coker into news conference announcing his signing.

Now, however, the critics could say whatever they wanted.

The best prep recruit in America was a Hurricane. His coach crowed. “I believe in this young man,” Coker told the press. “I never wavered on the recommendation. I do take it very personally, and I do take it with my reputation on the line.”

The Hurricanes' first practice of the season was held on Aug. 10, 2004, in Coral Gables, and Williams was the talk of the afternoon.

After so many highs and lows and ups and downs and lefts and rights, he was finally here, wearing an authentic No. 17 jersey; sliding the familiar white U helmet over his head.

In the flesh, he was everything that had been advertised. “His raw ability was unbelievable, like nothing I’d ever seen before,” says Beason, a fellow Miami linebacker. “The way he ran wasn’t perfect, but he was the fastest. The way he lifted wasn’t ideal, but he was lifting tons of weight. He was an absolute specimen.”

As the early days passed, however, coaches and teammates began spotting imperfections.

In high school, Williams was a freelance artist. If he wanted to chase the running back, he chased the running back. If he wanted to rush the passer, he rushed the passer.

“He was one of the three most talented players I’d ever seen,” says Glenn Cook, a Hurricanes linebacker who now scouts for the Green Bay Packers. “When you’re that talented, you can take over high school games. Which he did. But college is different, especially Division I. You have to play instinctively. And, to be honest, Willie didn’t have great instincts.”

Williams’ arrest record frustrated Miami’s coaches.

His play in practice, however, drove them to drink. He went hard, then half-speed, then slow. He would listen to a coach’s instructions, nod knowingly, then ignore what had just been said.

Williams had spent much of his life as a masterful bulls--- artist.

He told people what they wanted to hear, and usually was believed. Miami’s coaches, however, were used to working with kids from the ghetto and projects. They knew fast talk from real talk, and called Williams’ repeated bluff.

 “He couldn’t get it right,” says Don Soldinger, Miami’s longtime running backs coach. “His skills—unmatched. But he just didn’t give a s---. He was a dog. He didn’t care. That’s the frustrating part. I mean, wake the f--- up. You just wanted to slap the s--- out of him.”

During an Aug. 24 practice, Williams’ right leg was caught in a pile of players.

He fell to the ground, screaming and reaching for his knee. Though the initial suspicion was a sprain, the diagnosis was much worse: Williams would need surgery to repair the lateral collateral ligament. His season was over before it began.

Two months later, while driving toward Atlanta to join the Hurricanes for Peach Bowl preparations, Williams lost control of his Chevrolet Tahoe. The car flipped seven times, then slid nearly 100 yards. He emerged unscathed, as well as unbowed.

"Everything I've gone through has definitely matured me,” he told the Orlando Sentinel. “[The accident] definitely made me look at life real differently, and appreciate things because any second the best things in life, the things you love and care about the most, might be taken away from you."

It was, regrettably, a lie.

Or, perhaps, merely an exaggeration. Whatever the case, the Willie Williams who returned for his redshirt freshman season was not matured. Or improved. Or particularly good.

He continued to miss tackles and ignore coaches and fall for fake handoffs like a blind dog chasing a squeaky toy. He led the team in special teams tackles with 19, but accumulated just 17 tackles as a linebacker.

Total starts: 0. The inevitable NFL superstar was beginning to be tagged with the “bust” label by local writers.

LUIS M. ALVAREZ/Associated Press
Randy Shannon, bottom, is embraced by Jon Beason (center) and Calais Campbell after Shannon was named Miami's head coach in 2006.

“He’s got to know the plays,” Randy Shannon, the exasperated defensive coordinator, told the Palm Beach Post. “He’s got to know the situations. He’s got to know the assignments.”

“He kept getting extra chances, and he kept blowing them,” says Soldinger. “He was a kid who was nice to your face, and seemed to be accepting your help, but then—no. He had no interest. He got opportunity after opportunity, and did s--- with it all.”

Says Beason: “You want to know the truth? Some guys need to leave Miami to succeed. They need to go far away, to a nice campus with none of the distractions of home. When you come from the inner-city like Willie did, too often it’s about fast money. It’s not about hard work, about maintaining. Everyone tells you how great you are, everyone feeds you lines, but they don’t pull for you to keep striving. They just feed off you. If you’re not careful, it brings you down. I’m not sure he could ever focus.”

On July 11, 2006, one month before Williams was due to arrive to school for his third year, Orlando Alzugaray of Miami’s WQAM reported that Williams told the Hurricanes of his intent to transfer.

Coker, three years removed from doing cartwheels over the phone, was unmoved. The kid was a high school comet. The kid was a college nobody.

“Whatever is best for Willie,” he said dryly, “I will be in favor of.” He then promptly refused to allow Williams to transfer to any school on Miami’s schedule over the next four years.

Williams wanted to attend West Virginia—an idea that was quashed when Rich Rodriguez, the Mountaineers coach, said he had no interest.

Williams wanted to attend Tennessee—an idea that was quashed when Phillip Fulmer, the Volunteers’ coach, said he had no interest.

Fresno State, Troy State—both colleges Williams considered attending, both colleges that refused to engage.

Division I schools, after all, are often willing to overlook a potential star’s transgressions when he’s a potential star. “But as soon as you have scars, it’s tough,” says J.R. Bryant, Williams’ friend and a former cornerback at Florida State. “When you’re coming up, everyone wants a piece of you, everyone wants in on the action. But when the fall begins, you’re often alone.”

On Aug. 14, Williams finally settled on a school—Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Miss. All the right things were stated. Tim Hatten, the Wildcats’ coach, was thrilled to add a player with Williams’ abilities. He would be treated with respect and admiration and…and…

“He seemed into the idea of being here for one year, then returning to Division I,” says Hatten. “He arrived on campus right before the season began, and he always showed up late. Then he couldn’t get his information in on time for registration. We were closing in on the deadline, and he refused to do it. I was sitting there, trying to get him in school, and he was making me late. It was the tail wagging the dog. Finally I decided enough was enough, and we turned him down. My defensive coordinator wasn’t happy, but you have to have some pride in yourself.”

One week later, Williams enrolled at West Los Angeles College, a community college that played in the Western State Conference.

Craig Austin, the second-year head coach, was a believer in second, third and fourth chances—as well as a believer in 6'3" pass-rushers. Not only did he recruit the kid—he put Williams and his stepfather, Leonard Pressley, up for the year in a spare bedroom in his Ladera Heights home. Surely this violated at least, oh, 1,001 rules, no?

Hmm,” says Austin. “Maybe.”

Williams was unable to play until the Wildcats’ fifth game of the season, and he didn’t disappoint.

Shifting between linebacker and defensive end, Williams bulldozed overwhelmed offensive linemen and blocking backs.

The stadium was in Culver City on an unremarkable street called Overland Avenue.

Metal stands had to be rolled in, and 200 people was an enormous crowd. It didn't matter. “Willie would just annihilate people,” says Austin. “He was like a leopard. The guy played five games and made first-team all-conference. What does that tell you?”

Austin worked days as a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy.

He had seen the worst of the worst, and he ended the season convinced that Williams was ready to turn the corner and regain his status as a future NFL standout.

One day, Tom Jurich, the Louisville athletic director, called Austin. The two knew one another from their time together at Northern Arizona in the mid-1980s. “Craig,” Jurich said, “I need to know if you think Willie Williams is worth us taking a chance on?”

Austin had no doubt. “He’s a great player,” he said, “and a better person. I don’t know what went wrong in the past, but he’s the real deal.”

...

Ed Reinke/Associated Press
Williams at Louisville.

Powered by Austin’s recommendation and Jurich’s well-known craving for a top-shelf football program, Williams enrolled in Louisville for the fall 2007 semester.

In the past, he had uttered the familiar phrasings of the unreformed reformed. I’ve changed. I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m not going to waste this opportunity. I’m a new man.

His first meeting with Louisville’s beat reporters was no different. “I feel like I’ve made a 180-degree turn,” he said. “I’ve learned from my situations, and I grew. Yes, I did some things in the past, but all I can do is grow from here and not let it bring me down. If I'm not putting myself in those situations or hanging out with the wrong people, nothing possibly could happen. All that's behind me."

After appearing in just three games for the Cardinals, Williams was pulled over by a police officer for driving a car with the music playing too loudly. As the vehicle was searched, Williams allegedly tried hiding a small bag of marijuana—by swallowing it. Within 24 hours, he was kicked off the team.

There were more stops. Heck, with Willie Williams, there were always more stops. He began 2008 on the campus of Glenville State College in rural West Virginia, but was ruled ineligible by the NCAA because of transfer rules.

“He went through spring ball with us, and he’s the best I’ve ever been around,” says Alan Fiddler, the team’s coach. “One time we ran a speed option at him. He didn’t just tackle the quarterback—he headbutted him and gave him a concussion. It was just a tap to Willie, but he was so dang strong…”

Next came Union College, an NAIA school in Barbourville, Ky. Williams dominated the opening game against Lambuth, compiling 13 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries, and went on to set a single-season team record with 144 tackles.

There was discussion of some NFL team taking a shot; talk of a late-round selection or, just maybe, a free-agent contract.

Scouts came by to sniff around. They heard all the familiar refrains—turned his life around…just needs a chance…tons of talent…misunderstood—but refused to bite. The potential risk far outweighed the potential reward.

Beginning with his trip to the University of Florida, Williams had branded himself a cancer. “He had NFL talent, no question,” says Xavier Lee. “There are lots of guys in the league who aren’t in his athletic class. But athleticism isn’t everything. It just isn’t.”

... 

Miami Herald
Willie Williams in happier days as a Miami Hurricane.

On July 3, 2011, a woman in Fort Mitchell, Ky., returned home from vacation.

Upon entering the garage, she was shocked to find the family’s safe cracked open on the floor—not in its proper place upstairs. Uncertain if a burglar was inside the house, the woman used a neighbor’s phone to call the police.

When the three officers arrived, the home was empty, but ransacked. A side window was smashed. All the bedroom drawers and closets were opened and emptied. Two heirloom watches were missing.

Apparently unbeknown to the robber, the home was fitted with a video security system. Captured on tape was a tall, black man with a thin mustache. He was first seen repeatedly walking around the house two days earlier, then later inside, traveling room to room.

In nearby Fort Thomas, police were investigating a similar crime.

On July 1, a suspect entered through the rear door of a house that appeared unoccupied. When confronted by the homeowner, who had merely been upstairs, the tall, black man with the thin mustache claimed to be a salesman. He pointed to his name tag (W-I-L-L-I-E) and his stack of papers. When the resident threatened to call the police, W-I-L-L-I-E bolted for the door and drove off. A neighbor heard the hubbub and scribbled down the license plate number.

This car belonged to a person who lived in Edgewood, Ky.

He was neither tall nor black nor sporting a thin mustache. His daughter, however, was dating someone who fit that very description: Willie Arthur Williams—former college football player, current fitness center membership salesman.

When the police arrived to arrest him, Williams fessed up. Sort of.

"He admitted he was at those residences," said Fort Mitchell Police Detective Tim Berwanger. "At the residence here, he said he never went in, but was just canvassing the area trying to sell subscriptions" to the fitness center. "At the residence in Fort Thomas, he said he wasn't trying to break in, but may have knocked on the door too hard."

Less than one year later, a Kenton County jury found Williams guilty of second-degree burglary and being a persistent felony offender. Based upon his past misdeeds, as well as a burglary conviction in Georgia in 2010, the jury recommended a 15-year sentence. Judge Patricia Summe agreed.

As you are reading this, Willie Williams is in a Kentucky prison.

The world doesn’t smile upon those who have it all, only to throw everything away. The world doesn’t sympathize with the gifted when the gifted reject what the gods have offered.

Williams’ expected release date is listed as Jan. 8, 2023, and few people care.

His friends have moved on. His coaches have other phenoms to worry about. He will be nearly 40 years old by the time he is out, a shell of the athletic marvel who produced the most memorable diaries in the history of college recruiting.

Upon returning home to Miami, he will surely hear about what was and what could have been. The tackles. The sacks. The wins. The glory. The NFL games that were never played.

“If only Willie hadn’t…” people will say.

And, no matter what words follow, they will almost certainly be correct.

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