BOCA RATON, Fla. — This is what it’s like to be bullied for being bigger than everyone else. You’re called a tub of goo. Fat boy. Stupid. Lazy. You’re ignored and shunned.
As he recounts those memories, Williams runs his fingers through his jet black hair, still glistening from the sweat of a 90-minute workout while training for the upcoming NFL draft. He breathes deep and hesitates because this is where the conversation becomes intense.
“I never hurt myself,” he begins slowly, “and I never really heard about kids cutting themselves and things like that until about my senior year in high school. I didn’t even know it was out there. If I knew it was out there, I might have resorted to that. I can see how kids get to that point.”
Today, Williams, who is 20 years old, is a mere six years removed from staring in the mirror, mentally replaying the bullying and wondering if things would ever get better.
This 6’5”, 305-pound mountain of a man is in the best shape of his career. In the first two weeks here at XPE Sports, where college players train for the NFL combine, he lost 20 pounds and gained a layer of muscle.
He is in peak professional shape, and an NFL scout told Bleacher Report that Williams “has the highest ceiling of any lineman in the draft. … He has 15 years ahead of him and a body built for the game.”
A body built for the game. The irony of that statement is not lost on Williams.
“I was so self-conscious of my body. I was bigger than everyone and heavier than everyone,” Williams continues. “Not only was I being bullied, but I was internally bullying myself.”
How intense did that bullying become? he is asked. Did he ever think of taking his own life?
“No, never. Because once I got home to my family, I could lean on them,” Williams says.
What if you didn’t have that? he’s asked. “It would be a completely different story.”
There’s an uncomfortable silence, and then Williams says: “Now I think, what about kids who don’t have the family support I had growing up and are going through the same thing? I want to tell them it gets better. Don’t give up—it gets better.”
Nationally, suicide is the second-most likely cause of death for individuals 15-24 years of age. Homicides are third.
Long before their three children were born, Jimmy and Debbie Williams agreed to one unshakable rule: If you hide the world from your kids, one day they’re going to hide their world from you.
So instead of fighting Connor’s battles, Jimmy and Debbie had to tactfully decide when to engage in what they felt was inappropriate bullying and when to let Connor handle the situation himself.
When he was nearly twice the size of kids his age in elementary school, it wasn’t easy intervening. Other parents wouldn’t understand.
When Connor was in fifth grade, when he had size 11 shoes and weighed 160 pounds, they allowed his brother, Dalton, who was in 12th grade, to take him to wrestling practice to release some aggression.
No one could pin him.
“You see it all the time. Kids are raised in artificial environments, and one day they have to live in the real world and the real world is different from the environment they’re raised in,” Jimmy Williams said. “I was big on just letting them handle their own stuff. We learn from adversity. If kids never suffer, they’re not going to learn much.”
So as the bullying took place, Jimmy and Debbie offered Connor support at home but tried their best to step in only as a last resort.
Invited to a sleepover by two schoolmates, Williams was picked on unmercifully until he called his parents to pick him up.
Ordered to leave the table in the cafeteria in middle school when the football players arrived, Williams ate alone in the library.
Made fun of by classmates for the way he talked, as he rolled his R’s when speaking his mother’s native Spanish, Williams eventually decided to say nothing at all.
The truth is, Connor doesn’t regret being bullied. It forced him to take a serious look at himself, his life and who he wanted to be. “It made me want to prove everyone wrong,” he says. But that doesn’t mean he had to like it.
He was the boy who had to choke down being the giant in elementary school. That’s because those purposely mocking him and calling him names knew if he were to fight back, he’d be sent to the principal.
Early on he fought back a number of times before the inevitable sunk in: He had to absorb all that bullying because there was no other option.
“I can remember sitting in the principal’s office and asking him, ‘How do I defend myself?’” Connor says. “He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. You can’t raise your hands to anyone.’ So I just had to take all that s--t day after day, year after year.”
“I wanted to go after every one of those kids,” Debbie says. The emotion is building and she turns quiet, reflecting on what her youngest son went through. “He was a boy, you know? Just a young boy trying to fit in.”
But she resisted.
When asked to name those who bullied him, Williams recoils. He doesn’t want to expose anyone.
It has nothing to do with putting things in the past, moving on or letting go. It has everything to do with protection.
Imagine that—the boy who was tormented and bullied for years is trying to protect the people who made his young life miserable. “Because the last thing I want to see is social media turning on those guys,” Williams says.
So he gave names but asked that they remain anonymous in the story. Two of three schoolmates contacted wanted to talk and didn’t mind having their names used. Another asked for anonymity.
All three learned of Connor’s story from a video piece two years ago on the Longhorn Network.
— Austin Michaelis, a schoolmate of Connor’s: “I do remember in elementary school, I was a captain on the football team and wasn’t mature enough to understand that I was leaving him out. If things he said were going on and I didn’t notice, that makes me just as bad or guilty even if I wasn’t the one who bullied him. It kind of really hit me when I saw his story. I just reached out to him on Twitter and said, ‘If that was me, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do it.’”
— Jace Kennedy, another schoolmate: “I was the only one who would, I guess, play-fight with him. It got intense here and there. We got into it before a football game one time. I knew what got under his skin. He knew what got under mine. I guess I never really thought of it as bullying because Connor was just so much bigger than all of us and could have crushed us. I will tell you this: When Connor is drafted, I will be the first to buy his jersey and wear it proudly.”
— The schoolmate of Connor’s who chose to remain anonymous: “It was bullying. It was. It’s hard to say that now. It wasn’t just Connor; there were others who got it, too. I guess kids will be kids, but that’s really just an excuse. But yeah, Connor got a lot of it. It was wrong, and I feel horrible about it. I was watching his story on the Longhorn Network and thought, Man, we were assh--es, punks. I can’t imagine the courage it took for him to talk publicly about it. Hopefully one day I’ll have the courage to apologize to him.”
But it wasn’t just Connor’s schoolmates. Since Connor spoke publicly about his problems with bullies, his own siblings have had to reassess childhood interactions with him.
— His brother, Dalton, who is seven years older and set school records as the University of Akron quarterback in 2012: “I was probably hard on him, too. Maybe I contributed to it in some ways. I’m seven years older and he wants to hang out with me and my friends, and he’s just my little brother. So we’d kind of gave it to him. I remember those things happening, but as a kid, you’re not aware how much an impact it’s making on your brother. For him to have gone through that and be where he is today, it’s an unreal story.”
— His sister, Morgan, who is six years older: “I was not a huge help. It was not uncommon for Connor to be the butt of a joke. I feel bad being part of it, but that’s what siblings do. When I was in college, when he was starting to really go through hard times, that’s when I started being there for him and helping him. He went from this kid that everyone ragged on to someone who is doing everything right. He is such a good person now. I don’t think he fully understands what the metamorphosis looks like from the outside.”
They all talk about Connor’s ability to focus on what’s important, how once he makes a decision, it becomes all-consuming. Like losing weight. Or becoming an honors student. Or doing what many thought he shouldn’t have done this past season at Texas: return from a knee injury suffered against USC on Sept. 16 and play the season’s final three games instead of shutting it down and preparing for the NFL draft.
Late last year, in Connor’s first game back after his injury, Texas was playing at West Virginia, and Dalton, in the skybox as a WVU graduate assistant, looked down on the field during an early timeout.
“The Texas players were shuffling around. Everyone on both teams is waiting for the ready whistle—and there’s Connor at the line of scrimmage, in his position, standing and slowly rocking back and forth and looking straight ahead,” Dalton said. “I thought, Man, he’s ready. The whistle blows, Connor doesn’t move, bends, gets in his stance and is ready to roll. He was dominant in that game.”
Williams’ father says he’s seen that same fierce determination a few other times as well, most significantly the day Connor walked up to him and said he was sick and tired of being bullied.
He was 14 years old when he declared he had walked around the track at middle school for the last time while others were picked to play football. So his father put up two pullup bars in the garage, threw on the P90X workout series and began taking Connor on daily trips to the YMCA.
The weight came off, puberty kicked in, and life began to change in a matter of months.
“I never told him he had to work out or he had to get in shape or he had to change who he was. He had to come to that realization himself,” Jimmy says.
It didn’t take long for Williams to begin reshaping his body and changing the dynamic of his life. By his sophomore year, the boy who was tormented for much of his young life was Big Man On Campus. A year later, every major college program was offering him a scholarship to play football.
Four years after that, he’s on the verge of making millions playing a game bullies kept him from not so long ago.
When he was young, Williams would stare at the ceiling late at night and wish once, just once, he wouldn’t be standing there humiliated when the last pick was chosen for a football game. In late April, he’ll be in the green room at the NFL draft, surrounded by his family and friends. Jimmy and Debbie and Dalton and Morgan.
Connor’s uncle, Ray, will be there, too. He was a star quarterback in high school in Texas, a position of royalty if there ever was one. But he was paralyzed during his senior season and has never walked again. Now he’ll see his nephew walk on stage and shake hands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and join an elite group of men.
Suffering and persevering. Growing and learning.
This has been Williams’ life. And it’s only just beginning.
“I wouldn’t trade what happened to me for anything,” he says. “It made me who I am today.”
It also left him with a strong desire to help other kids deal with bullying.
“That’s why this story is so important,” he says. “It would be great if other young kids didn’t have to go through it.”