MACOMB, Ill. - When more than one-third of the NFL's 32 teams invite you to their house, somebody is doing something right.
The final semester as a student-athlete for Western Illinois senior Jason Williams has been filled with ups and downs. And frequent flier miles. By the end of this week, the 6-1, 241-pound linebacker will have visited more teams than any other draft prospect, taken nearly 30 flights and traveled more than 13,000 miles in the last four weeks. That's a lot of job interviews for a college senior.
This week's itinerary: Jacksonville Tuesday to Cleveland Wednesday to the New York Jets on Thursday and Dallas on Friday.
Last week's schedule: New England to Tennessee to Seattle, then to Oakland which was added as the 12th team while he was interviewing with the Patriots.
Other visits since March 23: Miami, Tampa, Indianapolis, Green Bay.
"The whole process started out kind of rough because of all the travel, but the longer it has gone on the easier it has become," Williams said from a hotel room in Jacksonville, Fla., late Monday evening. "It's a lot more fun now than it was at first."
Fun? Not unless you actually enjoy being put through a job interview. But maybe a little more so than the cross-examinations of the corporate world.
From his Twitter account (twitter.com/jwill6) on Wednesday morning he shares with his 69 followers that he is rubbing elbows in Cleveland with likely first-round draft selections Aaron Curry and Andre Smith... "oh yea, and Brian Orakpo" one hour ago... and "now Chris Beanie Wells" one minute ago.
NFL teams are allowed to host 30 players on pre-draft visits before April 17, during which time the team doctors will examine them, the front-office personnel will interview them, and the position coaches will test them, physically and mentally, all in an effort to assure the team is getting the right fit in its draft selection April 25-26.
"They just want to get a feel for who I am and what I can bring to their organization," said Williams. "It really is no different than any other job interview."
Path to the Draft
Two months after his collegiate career came to an end Williams began to attract a lot of attention as one of only a handful of Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) players chosen for January's East-West Shrine Game, an annual showcase of some of the nation's top collegiate talent. By the end of the week in Houston, which included practices in front of scouts and interviews with team personnel, Williams was appearing in articles by NFL bloggers and draft experts.
"I wanted to go into that week and make a name for myself," Williams said. "I wanted people to know who Jason Williams was. I had real good practices and then the people who were somewhat indifferent about me in the beginning of the week seemed to change their minds, which is what I set out there to do."
Williams' path to the draft this semester took an unexpected turn in February when his invitation to the NFL's scouting combine never arrived. Every year hundreds of college players have the right to complain about not being one of the 300 or so hand-picked prospects, but instead of complain, Williams welcomed the challenge of proving his critics wrong. All he has done since is impress every scout that passed him up in February.
"I quickly got over the initial disappointment of not being invited, and I took it as a challenge to go out there and do that much better than the players who were at the combine. I wanted to prove that I deserved an invitation," remembered Williams.
The Leathernecks held their annual NFL Pro Day in early March, providing Williams with his next opportunity to impress 14 judges in Macomb. Donned in a black t-shirt with white letters reading "NUMBERS DON'T LIE," Williams not only turned in the best 40-yard dash time and vertical jump mark of the day, but he recorded numbers that bettered every linebacker at the February combine. His time of 4.46 seconds was equal to the fastest defensive players invited to Indianapolis and was a full tenth of a second faster than the quickest linebacker. His vertical jump of 39 inches was two inches better than any of the combine’s linebackers.
Still his critics were loud, explaining Williams' impressive numbers away by mentioning the hardwood basketball court in Western Hall, to which they typically add .10 seconds.
So Williams arrived 10 days later as the main attraction at Northwestern University's Pro Day to find 17 NFL teams, this time including several linebackers coaches, awaiting his arrival. He helped his stock tremendously, running the 40 in 4.42 seconds on a much slower indoor artificial surface.
Then the personal requests began pouring in. At first eight, then nine, then double digits.
As the nation's most-traveled college senior continued his trek to all four corners of the country, web sites and newspapers started to tout Williams' name and numbers.
He was recently listed by The Sports Network as the eighth-best overall FCS player, and second-best FCS defender, in the draft. Josh Buchanan's NFL Draft Bible listed Williams as the seventh small-school prospect. NFL Draft Scout, the official scouting service of USA Today, said Williams is the ninth-best outside linebacker in the draft at any level. Several publications have written Williams will be the first player not invited to the combine to be drafted, some predicting he will go as high as the third round, and nearly all saying he will be selected by the fifth.
A Blue-Collar Mentality
NFL teams love speed and they love character. Williams has both. His proven athleticism combined with his lack of off-the-field troubles, two things that can't be taught, have made him an ideal interview.
His strong work ethic and character have been put to good use over the past three summers teaching football fundamentals to grade school and junior high children at the Chicago Bears Youth Football Camp. What started out as a summer job turned into an enjoyable experience for Williams, who says his heart for kids and for coaching made for a good fit.
"I can see myself doing some similar work in the NFL," he said. "something with inner-city kids and coaching for sure.
"Being a Leatherneck means being a blue collar guy, taking your lunch pail and helmet to work and getting the job done. We work hard at Western. We may not have the bright lights and the budget of a lot of other programs, but we take what we have and we play hard."
Hard work and football are what allowed Williams to grow up through the challenges of an inner-city Chicago neighborhood that most people would call rough.
"Football kept me grounded and kept me focused on something other than what was going on around me. I wouldn't say that's what necessarily kept me out of trouble, but it gave me something else to focus on when things were pretty rough all around me."
Williams was faced with the toughest challenge of his life as he prepared to enter his freshman year at Chicago's DuSable High School - the tragic loss of his father.
"I was naturally in shock for quite a while and I didn't really accept it right away. But it became a source of motivation for me."
Motivation is innate in Williams and surfaces immediately when he is challenged.
When Western Illinois defensive coordinator Thomas Casey was hired four years ago he began searching for an identity for Williams, keying in on the one place where the tremendous athlete could be used most effectively. A high school quarterback, Williams had been signed by the Leathernecks as an athlete, on a partial scholarship. He spent his redshirt season on the scout team as a running back, then was moved to strong safety for his freshman season. It was as a sophomore linebacker that Williams started to blossom, becoming the only linebacker that season to start all 11 games.
It was then that a little attention began to be turned Williams' way. In his second season ever playing linebacker, he was named to all-America teams by the AFCA, the Associated Press and the Sports Network, and was the runner-up for the Gateway Conference Defensive Player of the Year Award after leading the league in sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles. But there was still some unfinished business.
Casey had been riding the junior about the school's forced fumbles record, a mark which had been set by a teammate one year earlier. Every time Williams began to swell with pride ever so slightly about his accolades, Casey was right next to him to remind him of the record he didn't yet hold.
The result was a staggering 11 forced fumbles in his final two college seasons - numbers which earned him a plaque from the NCAA which reads "2008 STATISTICAL CHAMPION." His 14 career forced fumbles set an FCS record and tied the all-time all-division NCAA mark.
The NFL has always been a dream and a challenge ahead of Williams, so much so that he can't come up with an answer to what he would do if professional football was not an option.
He is now looking forward to the challenge of being a true linebacker in the NFL, having bounced from position to position and having only three years of experience at linebacker to his credit.
Williams hopes to follow a large number of Leathernecks who have had success in the NFL, including safety Rodney Harrison (New England), linebacker Bryan Cox (retired), offensive guard Rich Seubert (NY Giants) and punter Mike Scifres (San Diego). Thirty-three have been selected in the NFL Draft. Nine have won Super Bowl titles. And four have earned Pro Bowl status.
One Last Challenge
The last five years at Western Illinois have provided Williams with a building experience for sure. The cultural challenges of moving from the inner city of Chicago to rural central Illinois are many. And the challenges associated with a Division I football career and academics are countless.
"Being here has helped me grow a lot as a person and a football player," said Williams. "My independence has grown since I have had to make decisions for myself, being away from my family. And the level of football was obviously a lot higher than what I was used to, and it's going to translate very well to the NFL."
Through it all, Williams has taken a head-on approach, developing a strong work ethic that will prove beneficial for the challenges of the next level.
All of his travel has provided Williams with one last challenge in his college career - graduation. This month he has had to keep in touch with his professors, who have been very understanding and accommodating, through e-mail, contacting them on Sunday nights to discuss assignments for the week. He has done the majority of his work on-line in airports and hotels, and turns in any other assignments as soon as he returns to Macomb at the end of the week.
Williams will graduate in May with a degree in exercise science and a minor in nutrition, fulfilling a promise he made to his mother a long time ago.
"Momma Williams does not play," Williams said with a laugh. "Not graduating has never been an option.
"I really don't know what I have to do for football (after all the official visits end April 17), but I know I've got two comp tests next week and another one I have to make up.
"I'm leaving Western on great terms. I hope to still have a positive relationship with them and the community in the future."
By the way, J-Will's number of fans on Twitter has climbed to 78 by the time this article is complete - numbers that are piling up almost as fast as his frequent flier miles.