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Life on the Mississippi: Tramon Williams Remembers Growing Up on the Bayou

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMay 21, 2015

USA Today

Growing up in Assumption Parish, Louisiana, there wasn't much for Tramon Williams to do.

"Playing sports: That's all you can do," Williams said. "There ain't that much to do down there. It's an old country town."

Assumption Parish ("parish" is the Louisiana term for "county") is 365 square miles of sugarcane plantations and bayou 70 miles west of New Orleans. Napoleonville, the parish seat and location of Assumption High School, is a town of about 700 people on the banks of Bayou Lafourche.

Z28 Scrambler (Wikimedia Commons)

Napoleonville has a 19th-century courthouse, an above-ground cemetery in the courtyard of St. Anne's church, one red light, a bank, a hardware store, a gas station and a few government buildings and churches. Belle Rose, Williams' hometown 10 miles up the road/river, is slightly more populated but has even fewer amenities.

When Williams was in high school 15 years ago, the Dairy Inn on the outskirts of Napoleonville was the only local restaurant. A highway truck stop offered sausage and biscuits for breakfast, hamburgers and shrimp burgers for snacks after football practice. For "real" fast food, Assumption High students like Williams had to go to Popeyes in not-so-nearby Donaldsonville. The nearest movie theaters were in Thibodaux, 18 miles to the south, or nearly an hour north in Baton Rouge.

"There's only two highways to get in and out: Highway 1 on one side of the bayou and 308 on the other side of the bayou," Williams said of his hometown. "That's it. It was as simple as that."

"We don't have any metropolitan areas, not even close to urban, in the whole county," said Dan Torres, Williams' now-retired high school coach. "There's no McDonald's, no Burger King, no Walmart, nothing."

With little else for teenagers to do, perhaps it's not so surprising that the Napoleonville area produced two Super Bowl starters in one high school class. Williams and Brandon Jacobs, teammates since pee-wee level, led the Assumption Mustangs to the Louisiana state 4-A level semifinals in 2000. Jacobs, the superstar of those teams, went on to win two Super Bowl rings for the Giants. Williams, starting cornerback and punt returner for the Super Bowl champion 2010 Packers, attracted far less attention than his battering ram of a teammate.

While Jacobs made high school headlines, the young Williams lived a life on the Mississippi River that Mark Twain might recognize: grueling work on plantations and barges, fishing trips in gator-filled lakes and a small-town experience that showed no signs that it was slowly meandering toward Super Bowl glory.

Born on the Bayou

Sugarcane is the lifeblood of Assumption Parish. The Mississippi and its many slow-moving tributaries are the region's arteries. There is no big business, little retail and only a few river-driven industries.

"You either work in a plant along the Mississippi or in the cane industry," Torres said.

Williams did both as a teenager. His uncle was the foreman at a sugarcane plantation. Williams was his uncle's assistant in the shop, doing odd jobs and washing down the huge tractors every evening when they came in from the fields.

Williams also worked with his father at a nearby coal plant in the summer.

"We had to clean off the barges," he said. "We had to shovel rocks off the railroad in 90-degree heat."

It could be treacherous work. "You had to wear a life vest, because if you fall off, you fall into the Mississippi River," he said.

Williams also held down some conventional teenage jobs, like stocking shelves in a nearby grocery store and mowing the neighborhood lawns. "I was the kid in the neighborhood. Everybody knew everybody. So I'm the one who had to cut all the neighbors' grass. I had to do it all."

Most of the land around Napoleonville that is not dedicated to sugarcane is lake, swamp or bayou. When not going to school, playing sports or cleaning tractors or barges, Williams and his father went fishing. They caught catfish, crappie and "choupique," a type of bowfin that can be blackened Cajun-style, and whose eggs are sometimes harvested as a kind of country caviar.

"Me and my dad used to be the ones that would go out when the fish were really bitin' and catch a hundred fish, have fun doing it and then realize we had to go home and clean the fish," Williams said. "So we would go home, clean all the fish, put 'em in Ziploc bags and put 'em in the freezer. We'd eat some, and when people would come to our house, we would also give some away."

Robert Francis/Robert Harding/Associated Press

Gators were a constant presence during fishing trips. "They don't typically come up to the boat, which is a good thing," Williams said. "But you're always aware of them."

Modern times didn't totally pass Assumption Parish by as Williams finished high school and the 21stΒ century dawned. Williams and his friends piled into cars for long trips to the movies. They played Madden video games; Williams was a Cowboys fan, but he dominated his friends with the Randy Moss Vikings. ("I didn't lose much," he said.) Classmates pitched in to watch pay-per-view Wrestlemania.

But for Williams, like most teenagers in his area, life revolved around school, work and sports. "When I wasn't playing football or basketball, I was working," he said. "Once I was finished with practice, I had to make some money."

Forces of Nature

Brandon Jacobs was a superstar for the Assumption Mustangs. Tramon Williams was not.

"Of all the forces of nature the Plaquemine High School football team had to contend with Friday night, including a bone-chilling combination of wind and rain, Assumption running back Brandon Jacobs was the most destructive," wrote Carl DuBois in the Advocate in November of 2000, after Assumption beat Plaquemine 34-0 to go 12-0. Jacobs was listed at 6'6" and 240 pounds at that time. He ran for 211 yards and three touchdowns before coach Dan Torres called off the dogs in that game.

Williams was not listed in the Advocate article. He was never mentioned in any article during my archive search, even as Jacobs' football and track exploits were well documented.

It was easy for Williams, a normal-sized cornerback-receiver-returner, to get overlooked. Not only did Jacobs dominate the offensive game plan, leaving little for Williams the receiver to doβ€”"We ran the ball all the time," Torres saidβ€”but he ate up so much game clock that the talented Assumption defense was rarely on the field.

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

"It was a catch-22," Torres said. "Our defense didn't get any notoriety because they were never on the field. When they were, they gave it back to the offense real quick."

Torres remembers Williams as a dedicated player and a team leader. "Stellar young man," Torres said. "One that you were proud to be associated with, proud to call your son."

But Torres did not see a future NFL player in Williams, for logical reasons. "Actually, I didn't even see an NFL player in Brandon, because we didn't know what an NFL player looked like!" Louisiana Class 4-A football (the division for schools with enrollment of around 1,000 students: a smallish suburban high school for most of the nation but a countywide regional school in the state's Acadian parishes) is not a recruiting hotbed. Assumption had only previously had two players make it to the NFL. The small bayou towns of the parish were a long way from anywhere, particularly the NFL.

Algebra with a Smile

While recruiters came a-calling for Jacobs, Williams concentrated on his studies. His favorite subject was biology, but he singled out a pair of math teachers who had a significant impact on him. Roland Moore, now retired, helped him survive geometry. Donna Hebert, Williams' math teacher for three years, kept the subject from becoming a bore. "When you go into certain classes, you are like, 'Ah man, this is gonna be a boring class.' But I knew Ms. Hebert was going keep us interested."

Hebert remembers Williams well. "I remember him most from his smile," she said. "He had a beautiful smile, and he always smiled." As for keeping kids interested, Hebert shared a common math-teacher sentiment: "I hope I keep them awake!"

Williams described himself as a "dedicated enough" student. "Four-point-oh student? No. Three-point-oh student? Yep, I was right there." Hebert, who taught him algebra in ninth grade and trigonometry in 12th grade, remembers differently; Williams earned A's and B's in some pretty tricky subjects. "He was an example of that good student that every teacher would want," Hebert said.

GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 10:   Wide receiver Dallas Baker #81 of the University of Florida Gators can't make a catch against the defense of cornerback Tramon Williams #22 of the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 10, 2005
Doug Benc/Getty Images

But no colleges were offering scholarships to A-B math students who never got the ball at wide receiver and rarely got to show what they could do on defense because a teammate cut down opponents like a sugarcane tractor. "We tried to get him to Nicholls State, the local Division I-AA, but they didn't recruit locally that much," Torres said of his effort to interest colleges in Williams.

"He knew what he was capable of doing and walked on at [Louisiana] Tech. The rest is basically history."

"Everything Is Family"

Coach Dan Torres is math teacher Donna Hebert's uncle. The families live two houses apart in Napoleonville. Hebert is an Assumption High graduate. Torres was born and raised in the parish. Tramon Williams' mother was a school bus driver for the district for many years; folks at Assumption High knew Tramon long before he entered a classroom or took the field.

"Everything is family," Torres said of Assumption Parish. "There's no secrets in our community."

Williams said something similar several times when talking about his teenage years. "Everybody knows everybody in the town."

Napoleonville and Belle Rose are the kinds of small towns America has passed by, towns where families settle for generations and backyards butt against plantation fields, towns built on sugar, coal, river barges and Friday night football games that pit rural county against rural county. But while folks in Assumption Parish can still list their fast food options one by one (Subway and Pizza Hut have moved into the region since Williams' graduation), they can boast three recent NFL players. Williams will play for the Browns this fall. Jacobs retired last year. And Jordan Mills, a third-year tackle for the Bears, recently followed in Williams' footsteps from Assumption to Louisiana Tech to the NFL.

Maybe it's because there is little else to do, or because a close-knit community supports promising student-athletes, but the little bayou communities of Assumption parish are over-represented in the NFL. "For our community," Torres said, "I guarantee it defies statistics."

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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