SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The expectation is to drink. And drink. And drink some more through a hazy Arizona weekend.
Jamaal Williams is free, damn it.
Let's get this dance-at-any-moment, Instagramming free spirit some shots on the company.
That's the plan.
Lord knows he deserves to let loose after the five years he just had at BYU.
Williams chose the school even though he isn't Mormon. He signed its "Honor Code" and became part of its miniscule black population. He endured the endless double takes—classmates making eye contact, looking away, then slowly turning back to hold a stare for one…two…three seconds. He was once suspended for—gasp!—underage drinking, and he was once exiled for a full season for—the horror!—having sex.
In spite of it all, he became the school's all-time leading rusher. But most days, he felt like he was living on another planet.
Now, in the weeks leading up to hearing his name called in the NFL draft, he can play by his own rules. Hallelujah!
"The Henry" off Camelback Road is the perfect place to start this Friday night with dinner and drinks. Williams walks into the restaurant donning a sparkling "GUCCI" shirt with leather patches covering the shoulders and a gold necklace around his neck. Only he's not alone. His uncle and trainer, Luke Neal, arrives with him.
We slide into a booth, and the waitress insists Williams try one of the 15 cocktails.
He looks confused.
"What's a cocktail?" he asks. "Does it have like shrimp in it?"
Not quite. He contemplates.
"Do you have anything with strawberry? Can you put some Sprite in it?"
He's talked into a vodka and pulp, and I roll with the Ole Kentucky. Moments later, out of the corner of his eye, Williams spots an inebriated middle-aged woman stumbling toward the restroom with arms over friends in Kellen Winslow-like glory. "She's lit!" he howls, pretending to shoot a bow and arrow. "She's lit!"
Then our drinks arrive, and something strange happens.
Over the next three hours, Williams takes one-and-a-half sips of his. He hates it. In fact, outside of the occasional drink with Mom at Red Robin, he says he doesn't drink alcohol much at all. "Doesn't taste good!" Nor does he rage until 3 a.m. "I'll take video games over drinking and girls any day." To him, the whole game is exhausting. He and his friends talk big, but he'd rather dance in his compression shorts, at home, alone, than waste all night on the prowl.
Here at The Henry, there's a row of gorgeous women at the bar. Williams ignores them all.
The only person he cares about in Scottsdale is the man sitting to his left.
Indeed, three days in the desert with Williams and Neal will reveal a more profound discovery than the liberation I expected to witness.
While it's true Williams is a free man now, he already has adopted a new code to put edges around that freedom. He traded in BYU's Honor Code for the Luke Neal Code.
He's put his fate—his NFL future—in his uncle's hands.
Why? Because when Williams was on the brink, when he lost faith in everyone around him and his football career was on death row, this is the man who saved him.
This is the man who became dead set on molding Williams into the next Walter Payton.
That's the bar. Payton.
The name comes up often around Williams and Neal. Both use it and do not flinch. When it's 120 degrees out and Williams is attacking the "Thrill Hill," it's to become the next Payton. When Neal is telling the stories that explain his view of the world, the starting point is Payton.
He gets emotional at dinner as he thinks back to a summer day in Illinois. He was 16. It was 1986. Through a program for at-risk youths, he met his hero, Walter Payton. The two talked football, life, raced to the top of the running back's legendary hill, and Neal actually beat him. "You're pretty fast, kid," Payton told him, "but we have 10 more of these." Come again? Payton then toasted Neal, and the message was clear: Life, like football, is not a sprint.
Williams hears it all day every day.
He hears plenty of other made-for-HBO survival stories, too. The ones that aren't so neat and clean.
He hears about the night Neal's best friend, "Frog," literally blew his own brains out. And what it's like to grow up as the son of a prostitute. And about the many nights Neal was beaten mercilessly by his own uncle. And about the time Neal was knocked unconscious and ordered his own cousin to be killed.
He hears about the time he tried to commit suicide. And about the 13 years of therapy.
Williams hears it all.
Through all the bad memories, one good memory prevailed. Payton.
And 30 years after that meeting, Neal was given a chance to mold his own version of his hero.
When Williams was forced to take the 2015 season off from BYU after violating the Honor Code, he moved in with Neal and his life changed.
"It's so easy to define athletes and non-athletes," Neal says, "but it's hard to define a human being and what the human being stands for and what the human being will do for another human being. For me, it was that Walter Payton effect. He didn't have to take the time out for me, but he did. At 16 years old, I didn't understand the impact then as I understand it at 48 years now. It defined who he was as a person."
So uncle always repeats the same message to nephew: I can see your future in a gold ball. I can tell you what you're going to do.
And these three days become everything I do not expect.
It's a marathon of sweat, horror stories and more sweat.
"If he can be successful in the worst possible scenarios," Neal says, "how successful can he be in the best possible scenarios?"
Williams only takes two bites of his hamburger at dinner, probably because a night out isn't built into his routine. Neal cooks him seven meals a day. At the booth, Williams gnaws apart a toothpick, leaving the pieces in a small pile atop his to-go box.
"He was there when I was at my lowest," Williams says. "He came when I was at my lowest. I didn't have any guidance or nothing. … And since I had him at my lowest, I'm going to keep him at my highest. Those are the ones you keep in your circle, especially when people are looking down on you or they think you won't come back from something."
So tomorrow, at 11 a.m., we're heading to the "Thrill Hill."
Neal's energy is inspiring, yet demanding. Part Tony Robbins, part Russell Westbrook. As he speaks—fast, always fast—his eyes grow saucer-wide, he rubs his hands together, and then he leans forward.
"Are you going to run, too?" he asks.
Williams takes one look at the two empty Ole Kentuckys across the table.
"If so," Williams chuckles, "maybe 12 o'clock."
Eleven a.m. it is.
They were 12 years old, on the streets of South Central L.A, playing with a .22.
Neal's best friend, "Frog," twirled the gun vertically and fired one, two, three shots into the air. Click, click, click. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
"Stop playing with that gun!" Neal said.
"There's nothing in it," Frog laughed.
Frog lifted the gun for a fourth shot, tilting the barrel dangerously close to his temple, and pulled the trigger.
The fourth chamber was loaded.
All Neal saw was a light—a blinding-bright light—and his best friend hit the pavement.
Frog's eyes rolled back into his head, his tongue shook and a gooey substance began to spill out of his head.
"Wake up!" Neal yelled. "Wake up!"
He realized that the substance was Frog's brain, and he ran home in horror.
Right here is where the weak collapse.
This spot—Neal points—is where a handful of players he trained from Texas and TCU in the early 2000s once fell to all fours. "Have you ever seen The Exorcist?" he asks, before dropping to his hands and knees and demonstrating. Head arched back, he pretends to vomit with a demonic "Arghhhh!"
"Water just shot out of their mouth!"
Neal laughs a deliciously evil laugh. Ten yards away, Williams isn't listening. Buds in his ears drown out another tale of the torment that awaits. Welcome to the "Thrill Hill," a massive heap of hell in the Arizona desert.
Neal used to live in the apartment complex next door to the hill and, in 2002, started training players here through his business, "The Athletes' Factory."
When Williams left BYU for the 2015 season, this became game day. From August to December, at least three times per week, Williams was here. He'd run the hill five times each session—three times on this trail (120 yards), once through the "gauntlet" on the more dangerous angle of the hill (210 yards) and once more around the other side (110 yards).
He rips off his shirt, revealing an "EST 1995" tattoo on his shredded abdomen, and doesn't say another word for 90 minutes. Each breath is too precious.
On run No. 1, Williams runs higher…and higher…and higher, with Neal shouting out his time.
The first time he ran this hill, Williams clocked in at 49 seconds. Now Neal wants him up it in the 29-33 range and back down by the 1:07 mark. He gets five minutes of rest in between. It's scorching. It's miserable. It feels like your flesh and bones will dissolve any second.
And that's the point.
"When you're in this environment," Neal says, "you're set to fail. So every step you're taking is accountable. You're not just going to go up there and run carelessly because, yeah, you're going to fall, but if you methodically plot it out—'OK, I see that, I see that, that tree, OK'—you're running boom, boom, boom, boom!"
Walter Payton had his hill, and Luke Neal has this.
He knows the hill like his social security number. Every change in slope. Every crack. Every hole. All the cacti.
Coyotes venture out in the a.m., he explains, and a family of rattlesnakes slither out of that protruding rock at the tip-top in the p.m. Nobody else even thinks about walking any of the trails in the middle of a summer day, when temperatures reach 120 degrees and the Thrill Hill is more of a Kill Hill. Those days, cars from the street afar honk their horns, begging and pleading for Neal and Williams to take shelter.
But stop? Yeah, right. Those days are perfectly uncomfortable.
Neal views himself as the Mick to Williams' Rocky, and it's no exaggeration. From meals to massages to lifting to this hill to three total workouts per day, he pushes his nephew every way imaginable. Williams is the only player he's training right now.
"It's personal," he says.
The two do butt heads, but as Neal puts it, they fight to agree.
"He's strong-minded, but I'm stronger minded," Neal says. "I'm trying to pull out that little bit of weakness in his mind so there is none. I'm your worst nightmare. I want to give you that environment, that platform to fail."
He calls it mind over matter.
"I don't mind," he chuckles, "and it don't matter."
Even if it is, uh, double room temperature?
"You can call me crazy. …
Neal repeats that Williams was "done, done, done" at BYU. First in 2014, when he tore his ACL and other ligaments in his knee so badly he was in tears. Neal turns to ask his nephew how many CLs were torn, and Jamaal can't even remember. Then again in 2015, when Williams disappeared.
As Neal speaks, two runs complete, Williams is on all fours but not puking. He never pukes.
Neal would love to see Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey last one session here. Those are the three running backs B/R's Matt Miller projects to go in the first round this year (Williams is projected in the fourth). Walking around to the "gauntlet," he pictures such a four-man race and points back at Williams.
"I'm sure he's coming out on top."
The hill isn't just about physical dominance, though. It also has changed Williams' running style.
He already ran pissed off. Since ninth grade, anytime he put his head down, he had one objective: obliterate. On his first varsity touchdown, he crushed a safety and then stepped over him with AI-over-Lue swag. As a senior, he was once flagged for harming too many defenders on a play, with officials citing "excessive use of his helmet."
On to BYU, the abandon only intensified.
But on this hill, he has learned finesse. Learned to channel his mysterious inner rage.
"Right here," Neal says, juking branches around the hill, "it's like you're dodging linebackers."
Not to mention, one segment of the hill is fall-to-your-death terrifying. Miss one step and you spill into the cacti below.
"You'll be dead," Neal half-jokes. "Or you'll wish you were dead."
Going full Conor McGregor on your own lungs while tight-roping up a cliff will definitely give you a mental edge over the competition.
But this is how Walter Payton became Walter Payton. Neal and Williams know that. When the other 21 players on the field were hyperventilating, he grew stronger. Neal looks down at his nephew who's about to start run No. 5.
How many times, in all, has Williams cleared this hill? North of 500.
Williams finishes exactly the way he started—eyes locked in a scowl, legs churning in a violent stride—and then he decompresses underneath a tree. He can talk now. When he spots an older woman power-walking up one of the safer paths on the hill, he finally speaks.
"Your turn," he says to me. "Granny's doing it!"
His advice is to power through the final 10 yards when it's steepest. Gear down then, and that knifing pain shooting through your glutes will only worsen. He's right. Surprise, surprise, this hill is as cruel as it appears. When I hear an inaudible Neal scream below and slow down just a tick to look back, the pain is something like a machete slashing my ass.
Back at the base, I ask Neal what was wrong.
"I was calling out," he says, "because you were running right to where those snakes hang out."
That split-second before impact, before he closed his eyes and prayed for a miracle, Neal could always make out one word: "Dexter." It was written on the bottom of his uncle's boot.
The boot then crushed his skull repeatedly.
Neal was all of 10 years old and 70 pounds. Whenever he misbehaved—whether it was turning the F's on his report card into D's or refusing to eat his vegetables—he got a thorough beating.
Neal never knew his father, and his mother was a prostitute. One man Mom was with—A pimp? A john? He's not sure—once grabbed him by the jugular at night and said, "I could rip your f--king life out right now." No, Mom didn't care if he lived or died, so Neal spent his entire childhood in South Central L.A. with an adopted grandfather and in Chicago with his grandmother (by blood) and uncle.
An uncle who was ruthless.
One beating kept Neal out of school a full week. He looked into the mirror, saw a blood clot in his eye and thought right then, "I'm going to die." In time, Neal learned to hold his hands out about a foot from his face. That helped. But then his uncle whipped him with a dog leash.
If Neal cried for help, his uncle growled back, "No one can help you."
Grandma never stepped in because, well, this was how their generation was raised.
At 13, Neal tried to run away and made it all the way to the Chicago train station. A police officer found him, and Neal begged for mercy. "Please, please, please, officer," he cried, "don't make me go home." The grandmother and uncle were called in and, to Neal's shock, perfectly calm. Kind. All three ate dinner together, and Neal slipped into bed at 9 p.m., for once, at peace. He fell asleep.
He woke up to another beating. This time, his uncle used a belt. He feared for his life. He asked to move back to L.A. for good.
Back at the base of the Thrill Hill, Williams sits on a foam roller and explains the "mistakes" that led him here—the "mistakes" that had NFL coaches laughing during his interviews at the combine.
Reliving it all, Williams can't help but laugh himself.
First, as a freshman, he was caught in the girls' dorm too late and was scolded, he says, "like a kindergartner" by BYU's dean of student housing. Then, in 2014, he was suspended one game for underage drinking, turned in, he says, by a teammate who was caught stumbling home in the middle of the road and told head coach Bronco Mendenhall who all had been drinking that night.
Then, yes, Williams spent a night with a co-ed in 2015. Her roommates told on him.
He was getting a haircut when he received a phone call from the assistant to the dean of students. Over dinner, he met with a handful of people in power.
"We're eating," he recalls, "and they're like, 'Is there something you want to tell me?' They were trying to interrogate me."
Williams confessed to the sex and publicly "withdrew" from the university and redshirted. He says now he was "kicked out." However you term it, his football career was on life support.
He was getting the boot for living like a college student.
"When you're mad," he says, "you're like, 'f--k this, f--k that, f--k all of them.' You're mad. But at the same time, you signed the Honor Code. So there's nothing you can really be mad about."
He could've transferred. Neal spoke to two SEC schools and three Pac-12 schools, but his nephew's mindset was, Where were they day one? He valued loyalty. BYU wanted him originally, so he wanted to finish at BYU. Williams decided to stay, move in with Neal, take online classes and continue to strengthen a knee at 60 percent. One of Neal's tricks then was to throw cones at a cuttin' and dodgin' Williams down the Thrill Hill.
When he returned to BYU, Williams told the woman he was caught with—and had been considering a relationship with—"I ain't f--king with nobody."
He didn't drink any alcohol and didn't party, instead speaking to Neal every night at 7:30 p.m. The result was 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns, a breakout season that made him BYU's all-time leading rusher.
|Jamaal Williams' Career Stats|
Mendenhall had left BYU after the 2015 season to become Virginia's head coach. The coaching staff for Williams' senior season only knew the new Jamaal.
"He'll forever be a legend here at BYU," running backs coach Reno Mahe says, "because he came back and finished what he started."
Offensive coordinator Ty Detmer adds, "There are things here that guys get suspended for or put on probation for that don't even get talked about at other schools.
"It's a tribute to him that he hung in there, didn't look to transfer and wanted to see it through. It would've been easy to walk away and say, 'Ah!' He got himself right and stuck it out.
"He's loyal. He'll work."
So does he want to drink? Rage? No and no. Want to go to a Phoenix Suns game tomorrow? Williams looks like he just took a bite of a lemon and scoffs, "Ew. I ain't watching no basketball." Do anything, period, in Phoenix? "I told you! I don't go nowhere." True, he only seems to play video games during his downtime.
Which provides him with a perfect segue. Williams starts ripping his uncle for not knowing how to handle all of the buttons on a controller. Neal kindly responds by reminding him who wins in college football.
Neal is notorious for bleeding the play clock to one second all game in monotonous run-run-pass succession.
"That's all he does all day, and it's boring!" Williams yells. "Who wants to play that stupid game?"
"If I know what your strength is," Neal says, "I'm not going to play into your strength and just give you the ball back so you can score more points. That's ridiculous. That's absurd. You sat down to play. I'm playing the game the way I know how to play the game."
Williams is incredulous.
"That's because you're weak!"
Neal laughs about the time he once held the ball for nearly an entire half against one of Williams' friends as Williams mutters "turd…turd…turd…" under his breath.
"Take advantage of the time you have the ball. Be productive!"
The topic turns back to the Thrill Hill. Williams had tunnel vision on his workout earlier and didn't hear his uncle say that Fournette, Cook and McCaffery wouldn't last on the hill. So I ask him now if they would.
Williams scoffs that the trio could "try" but probably have photo shoots to attend.
Says Neal, "It ain't for everybody."
The kid who was once in tears in the training room after tearing his ACL beams with confidence.
The two climb into a vehicle full of BYU decor, but not before Neal makes one fact clear.
"We're building something special."
He snorted cocaine…but didn't like it. He drank alcohol…and threw up. He tried pot…and his heart beat so fast he thought he'd die. He never drifted into a gang. Instead, Neal was the respected athlete of the neighborhood, a human rocket with a football in his hands.
A Latter Day Saints member himself, he attended Ricks Junior College (Idaho) and was kicked out for having sex. He did get NFL workouts with the L.A. Rams into his early 20s.
Still, he was back in South Central L.A., a traumatic childhood sending him into adulthood broken. Then, as a 21-year-old, he refused to get a pager for his 17-year-old cousin, Wayne, and in retaliation Wayne devised a plan. He baited Neal into conversation during one of Neal's workouts and had his 6'4" pal, Steve, knock him unconscious with a .38. The two took $1,500 and jewelry and left Neal in a pool of his own blood.
On the spot, he snapped. Years of anger were pent up inside of him. Enough was enough. Neal would have someone kill Wayne, kill Steve, kill everyone in Steve's house. Wayne's own uncle agreed to do the deed. It was a done deal. "I want you to spray the whole f--king house up," Neal told him. "I don't give a f--k who's in the house."
Everyone in the neighborhood knew Neal's plan. This was no secret. So there was Wayne peering out of his window in terror, waiting, and there was Neal walking right to Steve's home so his mother could get a good look at his face. You know, before she was murdered.
Wayne spotted Neal at an El Segundo Park function and sprinted away. The date was set. Neal had spotters telling him when Wayne and Steve were both in their homes.
And that's when his adopted grandfather, the longtime pastor of First AME Church of Los Angeles, Earl Green, stepped in. Rev. Green helped Neal realize he already earned his $1,500 back, replaced the jewelry and that his injuries, in time, would heal. Kill all of these people, and there's no turning back. He'd spend the rest of life on earth in prison, and his soul would be lost. Green convinced Neal he had a greater purpose in life.
So Neal called off the hit. He headed to Wayne's house and spoke to his cousin directly.
"I had the opportunity to get you," he told him. "But at the end of the day, I'm OK with it all. I'm good. You all ain't worth it. You all ain't worth me going to jail for the rest of my life. There's so much more things for me to do the rest of my life."
Wayne was free to go. Steve was free to go. Neal felt renewed. Then, a few years later, he tried to kill himself.
From the second floor of the Scottsdale Combine gym off E Tierra Buena Lane, Neal looks down at his nephew.
Williams is ready to get this Sunday lift started. Those buds in his ears block out the heavy metal playing in the gym and pump in the Migos, Kevin Gates and Tee Grizzley. He thumbs through his cellphone, likely hash-tagging "loyaltyiseverything" somewhere on social media.
That's his mantra.
Neal has trust issues, and so does Williams.
"That's why we get along," Neal says.
Neal is kicking himself for Williams' subpar 4.59 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. He's still wearing his official combine wristband, two weeks later, almost as a form of self-punishment. Those workouts before Indianapolis, Neal now knows he agonized over the 40 too much. Drifted away from what got them here. The Thrill Hill. Thinking like Walter Payton.
Neal takes a deep breath, hurries downstairs and starts loading 45-pound plates onto the barbell.
They start at 225 pounds, with Williams pumping rep after rep. When Neal reaches to rerack the bar after seven, Williams doesn't stop. He gets to 15, and, laughing in excitement, Neal wraps an arm around his nephew.
"Where'd that come from!?" he says. "Where'd that come from!?"
Another 10-pounder is added to each side, and the workout continues.
He bench presses. He works his shoulders. He rips through ab crunches.
When Williams takes a quick break, Neal displays two photos on his phone. In the first, from Jan. 2, Williams has a one-pack. He's toned, not ripped. In the second, taken two months later, there's an eight-pack. The drastic before and after doesn't seem real.
Two others working out at the gym shout, "Let's go Jamaal!" throughout the 90-minute session, but two messages from Neal ring loudest. When it appears fatigue is setting in, he repeats "Uncomfortable, uncomfortable, uncomfortable!" And right when Williams could wither, should wither, should sprawl and quit through a final round of push-ups, Neal leans in close to his ear.
"Deal with it! Deal with it!
"Deal with it!"
Job to job, city to city, Neal tried to stay in football. In 1994, he returned to Ricks College as a coach and lasted three years. He moved to St. George, Utah, to give Dixie Junior College a shot but resigned midway through his first season. The money wasn't what he expected, there weren't many scholarships available and all the bad vibes told Neal to head back to L.A. to start over.
Only first, his longtime girlfriend who was also from L.A. broke up with him. With no job, no girlfriend and no hope, he spiraled from demoralized to depressed to suicidal. He checked into a hotel off St. George Boulevard and chugged a combination of liquor and muscle relaxers to end it all. "Nobody loves me. Nobody wants me," he told himself. "I can't provide financially for anybody, so what's the purpose for living?"
His girlfriend knew everything about his past. He had opened his heart to her as he hadn't to others, and she left him. That hurt. Neal figured he'd go comatose, die, and few would care.
His plan failed. He didn't die.
Instead, he awoke in a hospital bed, saw his ex-girlfriend and asked, "What the heck am I doing here?" She explained that after not hearing from him for two days, she called the police and they found his vehicle at the hotel.
Neal rose out of bed and bolted the five miles home. Ashamed and defeated—now he was even failing at suicide—he left all of his belongings in Utah and returned to L.A.
Back in L.A., his grandfather helped him latch on as an assistant principal at a school for first-fourth graders. Three months into the job, he disappeared. To this day, he says he doesn't know what happened. He wasn't high, wasn't drunk. He thinks he might have actually slept for three days straight.
Someone found him balled up in his car in a sketchy part of town. When he met with the principal to explain himself, he scrambled and made up a story about getting into a car accident on the freeway. It didn't take long for the principal to figure out he was lying.
One, Neal smelled like death. She blared a fan directly on him to get through the conversation. Two, her husband worked for the California Highway Patrol.
Neal was fired. He failed again.
Video games are scattered everywhere. Madden. NBA2K. Call of Duty. For Honor. Poster shots from Williams' senior season are tacked on the walls. There's a plate of pancake crumbs and syrup on his nightstand.
Clothes, clean and dirty, litter the carpet.
There's even a Book of Mormon resting on one shelf.
When he's not training—oh, he also gets in 1,500 push-ups and 1,500 ab extensions a day—Williams is here in this bedroom at his uncle's condo. After that Sunday lift, he quintuple-tasks. He simultaneously rips through a game of Ghost Recon: Wildlands, talks to a friend on his headset, watches an episode of Workaholics on a laptop, takes the occasional Snapchat and (introspectively) answers questions.
"I'm a nerd," Williams says.
He neither conformed nor lashed out against The Man at BYU. Williams simply evolved into the eclectic character he is today.
He's Christian, not Mormon, but learned to appreciate many tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The kindness. The treating others with respect. The knocking another player down, helping him back up, but assuring, "I'm going to put you back on your ass again."
Of course, Williams was also transitioning from a high school of practically all blacks and Mexicans to a population that was 83.2 percent white and 0.5 percent black, according to Forbes.
Before we met, Williams believed all white people were Mormon. Really. He's shocked to learn I'm not.
Cultures were bound to clash.
"I'm always going to be myself," Williams says. "Honestly, I feel like everybody acts the same at BYU. I don't want to say 'robots,' but they all have the same movements. Everything. So it's different. The way they talk. The way they look at you.
"You know what I mean? Some people act like they've never seen a black person in their life."
There weren't "parties." There were "gatherings." And all anyone did at such gatherings was…talk. Music played, but nobody danced. "They just talk!" he says.
No one else on the roster would have considered taunting the opposition with a "Come get some!" wave midrun, as Williams once did against Wyoming. (But that defender gave him no choice. He wouldn't stop yapping.)
Williams loves rap, but Mendenhall would only allow the clean versions of songs to play in the locker room.
For the most part, Mendenhall did let his star running back be himself. But Williams calls him more of a "bishop" than a "coach."
"He was more churchy than he was football," Williams says. "It's OK to put God in things, but I always felt like I was in a church. We had a scripture every day. Every meeting. We knew when somebody got in trouble because he made us read the Honor Code rules out."
When it's suggested to Mahe that such restrictions must be difficult for all 19- and 20-year-olds, the coach doesn't hold back.
"When guys decide that this is the kind of life they want to live, it's not hard," he says. "It's not hard to get rest. I'm not going to say our boys are perfect, but they've made the decision to come to a school that does ask a lot of them.
"I absolutely disagree. I think it makes life easier when they don't have to worry about all that extra stuff."
So that's what Williams did his final year. Eliminated it all. The Williams that Mahe remembers is the one who ran with raw "emotion," who found someone to play catch with in the stands before every game, who played with Mahe's seven kids, who was there for him when his three-year-old daughter tragically died in an accident involving the cord of a window blind, who has 18 stars tattooed on his forearms for the 18 women who helped him through his life.
This is the Jamaal Williams present in Arizona. But he needed the help to get there.
He's only recently begun to connect the dots of why. Why he ran so hard, so angry for so long. Why he always tried to "hurt" defenders on the field and pulverize all debris in his path.
"It's stuff you hold on to," Williams says. "Use it as fuel. I've used it forever."
Williams' father deserted him when he was in ninth grade. Tales of the absentee fathers run in high, sad supply, but his is different. Growing up, Williams and his pops were tight. Inseparable. Williams says, "He was my man." Inside the house, they'd watch Family Guy together and all the wrestling they could handle. Goldberg. Stone Cold. The Rock. Undertaker. The Dudley Boyz. As Williams lists all the wrestlers they'd cheer and boo, he glows. Outside, Dad taught him how to shoot a jump shot.
His parents were divorced. But Williams and his sister still spent quality time at Mom's, Dad's, Mom's, Dad's, Mom's, Dad's, back and forth, until suddenly they started seeing Dad every few weeks. Then they drove to his house one day and he was gone.
He left to Arkansas without providing a reason. The two still haven't spoken.
"What can you do about it?" Williams says. "You just move on."
When Williams' collegiate career took off, his father sent him text messages, but he ignored them. He doesn't want to face those demons quite yet.
"It's not something I really try to dwell on," Williams says. "I'm just taking it a day at a time. I'm still learning how to be a man. But at the same time, this is my dad. I'm not trying to shut him out or anything. I'm just working on me and making sure I'm stable first."
Neal enters the bedroom with two glasses full of a blue liquid.
"Ghetto wine!" he says, laughing.
"Oh, that's just Kool-Aid," Williams says.
Neal is always quick with a joke, always making Williams roll his eyes. Moments earlier, after the gym session, he had said he needed to pick up some Kools.
"Oh yeah," he assures here. "I've got my Kools."
Williams loses it.
"Get outta here! You ain't got no cigarettes."
Neal howls and heads back outside to finish cooking steaks.
Williams' problem was Neal's problem. After his dad left, he couldn't trust people. So don't take his ignoring your texts and phone calls personally. He admits that's his defense mechanism. He hardly even uses his cellphone to call anyone. In Scottsdale, though, he grew to trust again.
Instead of watching Family Guy with Dad, he's now watching clips of Walter Payton on YouTube and the VHS tapes Neal recently dusted off.
On the screen in his bedroom, Williams' character slays a slew of enemies with a samurai sword.
Williams removes his headset and closes the lid of his laptop.
"I trust him," Williams says. "I'm not going to go against it and do my own thing. What Luke is doing is working.
"I feel I can be great. I really do."
Neal and Williams do have one disagreement that'll never be settled.
Neal loves country music. Williams hates it.
As a portable speaker on his third-story deck plays a Tim McGraw-Faith Hill ballad, then Darius Rucker's "Come Back Song," Neal leans back and closes his eyes. Such soulful lyrics slow down a world he never imagined could slow down. The pinging of drives on a golf course and a mother teaching her son how to ride a bike fill the air below as we eat dinner.
Neal is married with a daughter now. Those two are currently in Belize as he trains Williams through this stretch run. He's no longer running from abusive uncles, plotting murders or contemplating suicide. He found closure.
For the most part, he keeps old family members at a distance. It's safer that way. Moving to Scottsdale, starting his business, seeing a therapist for 13 years and connecting with his nephew has given him a new life.
He's scared that if he dips a toe into his old life, another "downfall" is inevitable.
"I'm 48 years old," he says, "I can't go through another downfall. A lot of my family members in L.A. know how I am. They won't call me. They'll text and see if I respond back. But I don't really call them. I'm the recluse."
Yet, time to time, he calls them.
The last name of one childhood friend escapes him. There was his buddy "Frog," of course. But there was also a "T-Bone," a Terry, who's been in jail since he was 14 for a double murder. Neal calls a friend to ask about T-Bone and is shocked to learn he's actually coming home in a month. That life sentence was overturned.
Neal chats briefly with this person on the line, both say "I love you," and immediately after hanging up Neal reveals who was on the phone.
"That's Wayne's uncle," he says, "the one I was going to have do the killings."
"Watch this, watch this. You'll crack up."
Neal punches in another number on his phone, and whose face pops up on FaceTime? None other than cousin Wayne. He has warm, beady eyes and a jovial voice.
"Remember that whole situation that went down between you, me and Steve?" Neal asks him, pearly whites cracked ear to ear.
"Life," says Wayne, "and the things you go through. You evolve."
The two talk about Jamaal and the NFL draft. They laugh. They reminisce. They gaze at each other all along. Wayne notes that Neal was the one who gave him his nickname, "Mouse," and that Neal was downright dominant back in their pickup football games as kids. Neal was one "crazy motherf--ker," he says, who'd eat raw eggs and boil chicken in the microwave.
Wayne takes one final long look at his cousin.
"You're looking young, except for that white hair!"
"You know me," Neal says. "I've got to always look young and stay ahead of y'all.
"You've got to preserve that sexy."
The conversation winds down with a gust of chilling irony cutting through the Arizona heat. Wayne tells Neal they should all take a family vacation to Cancun. His wife. His daughter. What a time that'd be after Williams gets drafted.
No way in hell could these two have imagined such a trip back when Neal wanted Wayne dead.
"Turn the screen around to my man!" Wayne tells Neal, wanting to speak to me. "Listen. One thing that life taught me, man, when it comes to family, you can go through hell and high water, but family is always there."
It's dark out now.
Neal says goodbye to Wayne and starts thinking aloud again about his nephew. They've developed a father-son relationship.
"It's filling gaps," he says, paraphrasing Rocky Balboa. "He's got gaps. I've got gaps. Together, we fill those spaces."
Neal has come to believe that something his grandfather told him was right: His purpose in life was to preach on a pulpit. It didn't have to be to a class or a congregation. Right now, Neal has a congregation of one. That's his sole focus.
"My life is my life. I lived it," Neal says. "At the end of the day, it's not about me. It's about him. It's what can I give him? I had opportunities I didn't seize because I didn't have the support around me. But he does. I can give it to him.
"I've got to keep him going."
So Neal takes full accountability for his nephew. Not surprisingly, Williams' 40 time would improve to 4.53 at his pro day.
Neal repeats a Walter Payton quote aloud: When you're good at something, you'll tell everyone. When you're great at something, they'll tell you. Neal believes Williams can be great. Will be great. He promises an old-school player in a new-school world, someone who'll "change the perception of what an athlete is."
Williams emerges from his bedroom and wraps a python-sized arm around his uncle.
"To see that Luke handled his life so well and is so strong about it," Williams says, "it makes me want to work harder and be the best person I can be."
The shackles are off. He's free to party. But he's not heading to the bar tonight, no. Williams has to wake up early for a 6 a.m. workout. Then, he'll train at noon. Then, he'll train at 6 p.m. Then, he'll fall asleep. Then, he'll do it all over again.
He's living by the Luke Neal Code.
And that's all the liberation Jamaal Williams needs.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.