Life in NFL Limbo

Running back James Williams went undrafted despite a standout career at Washington State. But his NFL dream isn't about to die. He'll do whatever it takes to make sure it doesn't.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorAugust 5, 2019

James "Boobie" Williams is sitting on a plush black chair in the Green Bay Packers' players lounge. His hands are clasped, his mind busy. The undrafted running back out of Washington State just worked out for an hour, hoping to impress Green Bay's staff into signing him. A member of the staff tells him make yourself at home while they deliberate—but how can he make himself at home when he does not have a home, a meaning, a team? When all of this could end tomorrow? End in an hour?    

So he sits and waits, sits and waits, here on this afternoon in Green Bay in late July, staring at the five flat-screen TVs surrounding him. The Pop-A-Shot machine in the corner. The pool table in the middle. All of it feels like some strange fantasy: being in the room but not quite being in the room. "I don't know how it's going to go," Williams says.

His mind wanders. Re-plays every drill in his head, hoping it will be enough. Fearing that it will not. You can't think like that. He tries not to think about getting cut by the Kansas City Chiefs in June. About going undrafted in April despite scoring 16 touchdowns and accumulating 1,173 yards from scrimmage last season—and finishing his college career with more than 200 catches.

He thinks about the planes he's been on: two in the last three days. He worked out for the Washington Redskins as well. He's become glued to his phone, to his agent telling him where the next workout will be. He thinks about how cold it will be if the Packers do pick him up. His last game at WSU, he played in a blizzard of 6 degrees, but Green Bay dips to 30 below zero. Can I do this? Of course I can. I have to make a team. I'm going to make a team.

He thinks of his baby son, Rush, whom his wife, Rye, had just seven days prior. It tore his heart in half to leave them to come here. But Rush is a reminder, that in order to move forward he can't move backward—meaning: He can't have Rush live the life he lived. He can't have Rush sleeping in local parks, the way he had to as a teen, making a bed out of a bench as a cold chill covered his body. He can't have Rush know what it feels like to have to sleep in a car, his family's blue Trailblazer, hoping nobody at school catches on that he and his family were homeless.

Williams is soon informed that he's made the Packers' short list. He'll continue working out for other teams, too. He knows everything that he's been through has primed him for what he is going through now: "The odds are against me again."

The odds were against him when he tore his ACL and MCL the second game of senior year at Burbank High School, having just signed with WSU. The odds were against him when he recovered, redshirted and then starred for a team that barely ran the ball because of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. And even before that, many thought choosing WSU was an ill-advised decision. As was leaving school early for the draft, when he was on some draft boards, but not others.

"If you undrafted, you ain't got no time or room to be messing up," Williams says. "I feel like a walk-on, being in a room with a bunch of guys that got drafted.

"Everything is a little bit harder for me."

AJ Mast/Associated Press

Everything has always been a little bit harder for him. He calls disappointments "blessings in disguise." Opportunities. Litmus tests for how tough he is. How much he can withstand. He greeted the news of his torn ACL and MCL in high school by thanking God he didn't tear his meniscus, too. He dealt with not having a home between seventh and eighth grade by thanking God that his family had a car. That he had a family. A family that loved him.

This is how he keeps a smile on his face, as he did back in April. He walked into the Hilton Hotel in Glendale, California, shortly after the draft had concluded, in a gray shirt and charcoal pants, a cross dangling from his neck, buoyed on the outside, agonizing on the inside.

"God gives his strongest soldiers the hardest battles," Williams says. "I feel like I'm one of those soldiers."

He had waited for his name to be called, and it was not. That hurt his pride, yes, but also threatened his plan. I have to make it.

No less than a minute after the draft ended, the Chiefs called to sign him as a UDFA. "Blessing in disguise," Williams kept repeating. Rye, sitting on a chair next to him, nodding her head: "Everything happens for a reason," she said.

Then his phone lit up. The Chiefs had sent over a contract. "Where's the printer?!" he said, practically squealing. "I'm about to go crazy on all these teams that passed on me." It reminded him of playing against Oregon. He was disappointed it never offered him. Oregon was his dream school. "I made 11 people miss that game," he said. He told Rye they should go to Hollywood and Highland mall later that night. He wanted to buy a Chiefs cap from Lids. He didn't care that he'd have to buy it himself. That was the best part about it.

"Dude, this is crazy," he said. "I didn't get drafted, but it's all right. It's gonna be all right."

Things weren't all right when Williams was six years old. His family's home was broken into seven times that year. All that summer. They were living in Toledo, Ohio, at the time. Williams only remembers fragments from the robberies, like stolen video games, his dad chasing out one of the burglars, his mom saying she didn't feel safe, and a window—a shattered window in their garage, with a hole so big it terrified Williams when he discovered it one afternoon after school. Scared and out of breath, he ran to his aunt's house. As summer lagged on, he grew accustomed to the fear. The break-ins. "It was normal," he says.

Gangs ruled the area, particularly in school. Two rival neighborhoods were combined into one school when the other was closed down. Williams says he never got involved, but he had friends. His home was known as the "fun" house on the block because he and his cousin, brother and sisters would make up games, like playing dodgeball with flat basketballs. It helped that James was exceptionally fast. He'd juke people on sidewalks, in hallways, in stores. His cousins handed him a football, and he'd make everyone miss. He was a natural.

But the violence continued. The week he and his family left for California, in search of a better life, there were three murders on their Toledo block. But soon after they settled near North Hollywood, they were on the move again. A disagreement with family with whom they were staying landed them onto the street.

Williams was 13 when his family began to sleep in parks, in their car and in motels. That summer, his sister was in a play called the Da Hip-Hop Wizard of Oz, and the family would go to her rehearsals and watch for hours, trying to lose themselves in her movements, in the music. They'd also stay for hours at the local library and play games on the computers.

Anything to be off the street.

Closing his eyes to sleep in the Trailblazer, Williams would just try to forget it all. Try to think of not being in the line. They'd find parks that would provide lunch, and they'd stand in line with other people in need, feeling tired, hungry, ashamed. Waiting. It gutted him, watching tears stream down his mother's face. "We almost moved back to Toledo," he says.

He learned to be grateful for everything he had. He grew closer to his family. There was pain and there was fear and there was frustration, but there was love. So much love. A closeness that compensated as much as it could. His parents remained strong, continuing to look for work, doing the best they could.

They found a program that allowed the family to stay in churches for a week, moving to a different one every Sunday. They were provided meals, too. But the rules were strict. Kids weren't allowed to go anywhere but school. An exception was made for Williams: the football field.

Then Williams met Don Ashley, a coach with the Burbank Vikings youth football program. Williams' dad told him their story, and Ashley helped introduce him to coaches at Burbank High.

This could be my way out, Williams told himself. This is gonna be the best chance for me to not be in this situation ever again.

Things seemed to be turning around. The family got their first apartment his freshman year of high school. Money was still tight, though. Williams did random jobs for his coaches to earn cash, such as landscaping, helping with renovations, refereeing local games. One Christmas, he asked one of his coaches, Jim Summy, if he could do extra work to buy his parents and siblings gifts.

He spent the entire day assembling anything Summy needed, from his daughter's dollhouse to kitchen appliances. Williams gave his family all the money he earned to buy what they wanted.

But then the landlord asked his family to move, and the new place they were set to move into fell through, and they ended up homeless again. Williams stayed with a close friend's family.

Few at his school knew his living situation early on. He'd suppress everything. Just show up so early to practice, ready to run, ready to shake someone. He was determined to change his family's circumstances.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

He had tremendous speed, balance, agility, determination on the field. "Vision as good as I've ever seen," Summy says. "Getting hit, being able to contort his body and not go down. Just freakish things. Things you can't coach. He is the hardest-working kid I've ever coached."

Back then, Williams had time. Time to learn plays. Time for extra repetitions. He needed that time. He has ADHD and struggles to memorize concepts quickly. If he sits for a while, he becomes fidgety. He's a visual learner, so Burbank (and later WSU's) hand-signal offense allowed him to soar.

He didn't have time anymore when he got to to the Chiefs. Suddenly everyone was just as athletic as he was, and, being an undrafted free agent, he'd have fewer reps. Learning the playbook was like learning a new language. He felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new installments every day, some 30, 40 plays that needed to be flawlessly executed the next day.

"I panicked every time they put me in because I don't like going in and not knowing," he says.

"You thought you knew football, but I came in here like, Oh, God. I don't know anything."

Young Kwak/Associated Press

He'd stay up for hours every night, studying the playbook. He didn't want to tell his new coaches about his struggles, how his mind would sometimes be everywhere, scattered, dating back to his days in Burbank, where he had an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

"I don't try to bring it up to my OC. I'm not gonna say that because I don't want to make no excuses. I want to try to fight through it," Williams says. "I know I will be able to do it."

He can't redshirt this time, as he did his first year in college. No. He has to know the plays now. Run it perfectly now. Perform now. So he can get paid now.

It's made him more motivated. It reminds him of his freshman year in high school, when a counselor told him there was no way he'd go Division I with his grades, his classes. Academically impossible. Maybe you should try JUCO. "That set him on fire," says Richard Broussard, his Burbank coach and teacher. "That's why he has that resiliency. He wants to prove to any and everyone who said he couldn't do it."

Williams was in his teachers' offices during lunch, constantly asking questions. Studying late into the night after practice. He finally finished all of his requirements to become NCAA eligible, including a difficult math class and a marine biology class. And he had the biggest smile on his face. "Coach," he told Broussard, beaming, "I got the grade!"

He'd work just as hard in college. He began to find his niche on the Cougars, too. But just when he did, one of his best friends was taken away from him.

Williams and WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski would talk for hours about their dreams, their goals. They'd fantasize about being Pac 12 co-MVPs. They had known each other since high school. "We had a lot of things we wanted to accomplish," Williams says, his voice trailing off.

Hilinski took his life in January 2018 and was diagnosed with CTE posthumously by the Mayo Clinic. It's still hard for Williams to grasp, let alone talk about.

He remembers the day it happened. Earlier that morning, Hilinski came to the team's run session. Usually at the end of every run he'd say: "Cougs on three. One, two, three, Cougs." Williams remembers seeing Hilinski ask another teammate to do it that day. That struck Williams as odd, but he didn't think anything more of it at the time. It wasn't until 4 p.m., when Hilinski didn't show up for lifting, that he began to worry. Where's Ty at? everyone kept asking. "He never misses a lift," Williams says. "Ever."

When the team found out, they were bawling crying. Williams, too. He was shocked. Something in him changed. "He was very quiet for a while," Rye says. "And he still had to get through school."

The team dedicated the season to Hilinski and won a school-record 11 games, capped with an Alamo Bowl victory. "I really believe that he was with us every single game, and every time I scored, I put up a 3 every single time because we were both going to do it together," Williams says.

Sometimes Williams thinks about how many hits he himself has absorbed. Hits that have knocked the wind out of him. Hits that have caused Rye to call him a "jack-in-the-box" for the way he miraculously bounces back up.

That still terrifies her.

Maybe him, too. "It's scary," Williams says. "There are bigger guys. But I'll take those hits to feed my family."

Young Kwak/Associated Press

He thinks of Hilinski's story and his own but doesn't merge the two. He doesn't think of the risks. Right now he is thinking about playing. Playing to feed his family, even though waiting, not making a team, sometimes chips away at his confidence. "I can't work a regular 9-to-5. I'd rather do something I love."

Since the birth of Rush, James has thought about football, about life, differently. James has been a father figure to Rye's daughter from her previous relationship, Breez, but this is a different experience in a way. This is their firstborn. He worries that every flight he is on for another NFL workout is precious time away from his son. What if he doesn't remember me? No, he tells himself, quickly washing away the thought. He is always there. But every second he is away on these trips, he misses Rush. Misses the little noises he makes, the way his face scrunches up when he's hungry.

"I fell in love with this little boy instantly," Williams says. "There is nothing I wouldn't do for him."

Sometimes he looks at Rush, then back at Rye, in awe: We created that. It's beautiful and scary and it fills him with so much motivation and happiness and fear. He doesn't want to miss a moment.

He doesn't want to say goodbye to football, either.

There are times when he feels like he wants to quit. But he can't. He won't. So he hops on another plane, walks out of the terminal and tells himself: This is a blessing in disguise.


Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.