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So I got the opportunity to watch the Motor City Bowl in the stands, with Sandra Hill, mother of All-Universe Memphis tailback DeAngelo Williams. I was pretty excited about it. Instead of just calling for a press credential and entering through back doors, I would get to watch football the way it was meant to be watched on the day after Christmas -- in the crowd, with families.
When I reached Section 104, what I saw looked like a delicious mix of Mardi Gras revelry and parental concern. I was greeted by a pacing Cindy Gostkowski, mother of All-American Memphis kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
"It's G-O-S-T " she began, launching into the spelling of his name. As her son was lining up to kick his second field goal of the game, near the end of the second quarter, which would put Memphis ahead 13-3, she said, "I'm very superstitious. I never wear school colors, and I have to be up moving around while he kicks." Gostkowski drilled the kick, and another 50-yarder in the second half. Gostkowski, who also sent every kickoff out of the Akron end zone, has been invited to the Senior Bowl and will probably be this year's Kicker Who Rockets Up the Draft Board (a la Mike Nugent and Seabass).
After a few moments of looking through Section 104 (and being called "hon" three times -- I love Southern hospitality), I found Hill, the de facto mayor of the parents section. She was decked out head-to-toe in Memphis gear -- wearing DeAngelo's white road jersey amidst the sea of blue, so that "he can find me when he looks in the stands."
I immediately found comfort in the Memphis Tigers' parents section. First of all, I had left the press box, in the upper reaches (drop your pen and it could go into orbit) of Detroit's Ford Field. It's a beautiful, modern press box, don't get me wrong. Free food. A TV every 6 inches. Young PR assistants hair-gelled within an inch of their lives with glossy team publications of every imaginable kind. The Akron Media Guide, the Akron Bowl Guide. The Memphis Media and Bowl Guide. The DeAngelo Williams Guide. The MAC and Conference-USA Guides, in which you can look up important information like the name of the Akron team manager in 1989 (Jim Winkleman).
Sandra and her husband, Odell, made the trip to Detroit from Wynne, Ark., to take in DeAngelo's last college game together. After a slow first quarter, he made up for lost time, ripping off several long runs and eventually breaking the NCAA record for 100-yard games with 34. It's eerie, watching him here, in Detroit, in a blue jersey bearing the number 20. The similarities to Barry Sanders are many, right down to Memphis' trendy/cutesy shotgun offense where Williams takes handoffs deep in the backfield, often starting with the football from a dead standstill. Like all great backs, he can go from a standstill to warp speed in the blink of an eye, and he changes direction through the Akron defense like they are standing still. And a 67-yard run in the fourth quarter dispelled any concerns about his top-end speed.
"I knew he would be an NFL player in the seventh grade," Hill said. "That's what he decided he wanted to do and when he sets his mind to something, he does it."
But what about the other 85 kids on the Memphis sideline, who also set their minds to it and wouldn't get there?
"DeAngelo knows that what he can do, no man can teach you," Hill said. "He knows it's a gift he's been given by God."
"It" is the ability to change direction. The ability to run fast -- forward, backward and sideways. There are other kids that want it, that work hard. But it is Williams that has "it."