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Monday, July 17, 2006
Updated: April 15, 2:56 PM ET
Get A Load Of Me

By Seth Wickersham

It's been a long road for Williams since this photo.

He's not falling for this, is he? The engraved gavel from the judge, the white Stetson from the mayor, the $100 Frenchy's Chicken gift certificate from the preacher, the declaration that June 5—today—is officially Mario Williams Day in Houston … Williams isn't buying any of it, is he?

Well, yeah, he is. Or at least he's pretending to. He stands under a banner that reads "Welcome Our New Neighbor." He stares at the block-long line inside Houston's Ensemble Theatre, 400 people waiting for a chance at penance, and he smiles. He chuckles when someone cracks a joke. He looks people in the eye when he shakes their hand. But on the drive over from his hotel, Williams acted as if he were going to the dentist. He stared glumly at faxes describing homes he could buy. He breathed hard through his nose, clearly distracted, clearly uncomfortable, wishing he could stay home and rest his injured toes. "IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT YOU'RE THE FIRST PICK," SAYS EMTMAN, THE TOP CHOICE IN 1992. "BUT THERE'S PRESSURE ANYWAY. IT'S OUT OF YOUR CONTROL." But look at who's in line now: Mayor Bill White. Harris County judge Robert Eckels. Houston's chief administrative officer, Anthony Hall. There's also a state senator, a state representative, a county commissioner, a city health director, a mullah, a Ford dealer, a junior high principal, four cops, two construction workers, two city council members and a shapely double take named Lisa whose dress fits like a swimsuit. She's cycled through the line at least twice. Everyone is clamoring for Williams' forgiveness.

Welcome to Houston, they say. Glad to have you. Nobody says they'd rather be welcoming Reggie Bush or Vince Young. Nobody admits that they agreed with the fans who watched the NFL draft at Reliant Stadium and yelled, "Overrated!" when Williams, the top overall pick, shook hands with Paul Tagliabue. Houston is stuck with Williams, a defensive end from NC State few had heard of before the draft. And Williams is stuck with Houston. This party is a peace offering.

"Thank God for Mario Wee-yums!" pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell preaches to the crowd. He points to Williams, who's standing stage right on two bandaged and infected big toes, the nails of which were stepped on and shattered during his first Texans practice, three weeks earlier. "Let's pray for Jesus to heal his toes," Caldwell howls.

Heads dip. Eyes close. Mayor White prays. So do Texans owner Bob McNair and coach Gary Kubiak. Williams prays too. He has no choice, just as he has no choice but to stand among fans who rejected him or to appease those undeserving of his appeasement. He's in an impossible position, but all Williams will say is, "I don't worry about any of it."

Well, he should. Lord knows others do.

The Scottsdale photographer is worried. He wasn't in this exact position 17 years ago, but he was picked second overall by the Packers. And of the top-five players in the 1989 draft, he is the only one who is a lock to never be in the Hall of Fame. Troy Aikman and Barry Sanders are in. Deion Sanders will be. The late Derrick Thomas, maybe. But Tony Mandarich, who now owns a photography shop with his wife in Arizona, is forever out.

Mandarich, like many, had never heard of Williams before April. But he'd heard of the draft's stars: Matt Leinart, the Tom Brady of college football; Vince Young, the guy who beat USC for the national title; Reggie Bush, the Heisman-winning electro-back. So Mandarich, like many, was surprised when the Texans drafted a defensive end from the nation's 26th-ranked pass defense. And he knew what Williams was in for.

Fans want stars with their top picks, and 17 years ago, Mandarich tried to become a star. The once soft-spoken Canadian, whose biggest concern as a Michigan State freshman had been finding an on-campus church, mouthed off before the draft about NFL offensive linemen being fat slobs, not athletes like him. He buddied up to Axl Rose, covered his body in tattoos and talked about carrying Rose onstage on his shoulders. Appearances, interviews, photo shoots, signings—Mandarich did it all. "I wanted to get myself out there, and I felt I had an uphill battle," he says. "So I said yes to everything." But on Sundays, Mandarich admits, he "didn't perform one-tenth of what was expected."

Now look at Williams. On the second day of minicamp, he was asked by the team to sign "a few" items for season ticket-holders. He limped into a room in Reliant Stadium—his infected toes had just been drained—and quickly learned the definition of "a few": 113 footballs, 69 helmets, eight jerseys, two hats, two thick stacks of glossy 8 x 10s. He went through 25 Sharpies in less than an hour.

Appearances, interviews, photo shoots, signings—Williams does them all. But this isn't him. Marvin Trott Jr., the 66-year-old mayor of Williams' hometown, doesn't think of Williams as the first D1 footballer in Richlands, N.C. (population: 1,001), history, but rather as the kid who made "the perfect turkey sandwich" at the local Subway. Kevin Wilson, Williams' high school coach, remembers him less as the phenom who drew crowds big enough to finance the school's new weight room than as a grinder who graduated in three-and-a-half years with a 3.3 GPA.

And Todd Stroud, Williams' defensive line coach at NC State, remembers him not just as the kid whose size and speed "separated him from any player I've ever seen" but as the man who offered to drop out of school when the Williams family was in trouble. It was Stroud who pulled Williams aside after a spring scrimmage in 2004 with the news that Williams' brother-in-law, Marine sergeant Nicholas Hodson, had been killed in Iraq. Williams immediately left to care for his older sister and Hodson's widow, Michelon, who had one child and was pregnant with a second. He considered leaving school for good to move in with them, but he'd dreamed of being the No.1 pick and saw his future in football as a chance to set up his family for life. "I knew there would be better days," he says.

Never did Williams think he'd be as rich as he is today. And never did he expect pressure to lift his jersey sales from 11th leaguewide into territory now occupied by Young (first), Bush (second), Packers rookie A.J. Hawk (third) and Leinart (fourth). So Williams, on his aching toes, never says no. "They tell me to sign it," he says, "I sign it."

Mandarich sighs when he hears this, remembering a rookie year filled with interviews … and special-teams action. He remembers being released by the Packers in 1992 after just 31 starts, no Pro Bowls and no impact. He remembers being lost. "I blamed the team, blamed the media, blamed the fans, blamed the expectations, but I had to come to the realization that I was the problem." He pauses. "I never said no."

The Spokane landscaper is worried too. He was the No.1 overall pick, a defensive lineman, the new face of a franchise. And he failed. The player picked second in the 1992 draft—Quentin Coryatt—never lived up to the hype either. But Coryatt faded away. Steve Emtman can't. No one forgets the No. 1 pick. No one forgets that title. "It's not your fault you're the first pick," he says, "but there's pressure anyway. It's out of your control."

The first pick always comes supersize, always comes transcendent. Emtman could bench 475 and squat 700. He had 7% fat on a 284-pound body. Growing up on a farm in Cheney, Wash., he worked his way up to anchoring a national championship Huskies team. He dreamed of being the first pick, dreamed of that aura, so he left college after his junior year, as Williams did. Emtman was a can't-miss, a Hall of Famer. Colts coach Ted Marchibroda drafted him, claiming he'd never seen a player like him.

Charley Casserly feels the same about Williams. Last November, the Texans GM flew to Tallahassee for the NC State-Florida State game because he heard Williams might be leaving school early. Casserly saw that Williams was tall (6'7") and lean. As he flipped to the player's bio, Casserly expected to see that Williams weighed 240. Try 290. Williams assisted on only three tackles and half a sack that day, but when Casserly landed in Houston, he told McNair, "I've been scouting for 29 years, and I've never seen a player like him."

He'd repeat it over and over during the following months, especially after the February combine, where Williams' 4.66 40 and 40.5" vertical were the best for any defensive end his size. But deserving of the top pick, with Bush and Young available? With the Texans coming off a 2—14 season and attendance dragging? It seemed like a long shot after Casserly and Kubiak attended Texas' pro day on March 22, skipping NC State's that same day. Even after Casserly and Williams finally met in Houston on April 17 and the meeting went well, Williams' agent, Ben Dogra, still thought, it's a smoke screen. IF BUSH BECOMES SANDERS, IF YOUNG TRANSFORMS INTO ELWAY, THEN WILLIAMS' STANDARD IS REGGIE WHITE. Casserly knew this pick would be the last big decision of his Houston career. After McNair reportedly offered Jimmy Johnson complete control of the team in December and hired former coach Dan Reeves as a consultant, Casserly understood his time was waning. He wanted to finish this draft, then take a job with the league office. This choice would define his legacy.

In early April, the Texans narrowed their picks to Bush, Young and Williams. Young was the first to be dropped. Kubiak told McNair that he believed David Carr could lead the team to a Super Bowl. Then Casserly and Kubiak took a hard look at Bush. Sure, Bush could change directions—and games—on a dime. But he weighed only 203 pounds and had never carried the load on his own. In USC's biggest game of the year, against Texas, Bush had just 13 carries, while backfield mate LenDale White had 20.

But Williams, upon closer inspection, seemed to have no drawbacks. Defensive ends have a longer career span than tailbacks do, and the Texans envisioned the 21-year-old Williams on Peyton Manning's back for the next 10 years. They saw a player who, unlike Bush, would eagerly sign the six-year, $54 million deal Houston was offering, averting a holdout. Then Casserly polled every Texans assistant coach and scout: Williams or Bush? Williams won the majority of the votes. Coach and GM called McNair on speakerphone with their pick. "I was really surprised that Kubiak decided Mario was more valuable to our team than Reggie Bush," McNair says. "But I guess that speaks well for Mario."

On April 27—two days before the draft—Casserly called Dogra, who was with Williams in New York. They talked contract for several hours, then Dogra dialed Williams. "Come back to the hotel right now," the agent said. When Williams walked in, Dogra asked, "How'd you like to be the No.1 pick?"

"That'd be cool."

"Congratulations, Houston is picking you."

"Get out," Williams said before hugging Dogra so hard he nearly emptied the agent's lungs. Williams' dream had been realized; his family would be set for life.

But fans booed. And threatened to cancel season tickets. And wrote to the Houston Chronicle: "Fans do not go to games to watch a defensive end make one or two good plays," a typical letter read.

So how good does Williams have to be? Emtman knows. He remembers sitting at his locker after games, having been called a bust as he walked off the field, knowing he played well but needing to explain why he wasn't getting sacks. "Being a defensive lineman, 90% of football fans can't tell whether you played well or not," he says. "Being a No.1 pick, you have to justify yourself over and over. You have to be Reggie White, or it was a wasted pick." He pauses.

"Mario, I wish you luck."

The Lexington horse breeder is worried too. He's the biggest punch line, the biggest draft-day mistake in sports history. His crime? He didn't become the most famous, most dominant, most marketable athlete ever. And Sam Bowie is worried that he might soon have company.

Actually, Bowie thinks Williams might have it worse than he did. In 1984, nobody knew Michael Jordan would become Michael Jordan. And Bowie, selected by Portland second overall between Hakeem Olajuwon and Jordan, didn't become a joke for a few years, until injuries relegated him to journeyman just as Jordan ascended to His Airness. But Bush and Young have already breached our consciousness. They were 1 and 2 for the Heisman, leading their college teams to 1 and 2 in final rankings. They were both Next. Bush's celebrity in New Orleans is already helping to mend the discord between a sinking franchise and its sunken city. Meanwhile, more than 22,000 fans have purchased Young's No. 10 Titans jersey.

Run, Tom, Run.

So what happens if Williams gets four tackles in the season opener but Bush rushes for 131? Says Bowie: "Fans will say, 'Why didn't they take Bush?'" What if Williams faces constant double-teams but frees up other defensive linemen for sacks and glory while Young rewrites the rookie record book? Says Bowie: "Mario will hear it from the stands." If Bush becomes Barry Sanders, if Young transforms into John Elway, Williams' standard is, as Emtman says, Reggie White. But if Williams lets fans eat away at his confidence because he's not meeting their expectations, he will become Bowie II. "When you do all you can and still get booed, it gets the best of you," Bowie says. "You snap. You blow up. You don't want to say, Why me? You want coaches to change schemes so you can put up numbers, just to lessen the heat."

Which is why Williams is trying to build up so much goodwill now. To change people's minds, he has to open them first. So he shakes hands with a line of well-wishers who booed him. He won't diva his way out of autographs, won't concede that his toes will be his undoing, won't think about what happens if Bush's and Young's careers surpass his. Not yet.

As he stands at his own welcome party, he does the classy thing: He accepts the apology. None of these fans knows how Bush or Young would have dealt with boos upon their selection, but everyone knows that Williams walked across the stage proudly, gently waving his index fingers in the air—a subtle act of defiance.

When today's party ends, when Williams is finally sitting and off his toes, he speeds away in a white Expedition to Frenchy's, already his favorite Houston spot. Nobody knows exactly who he is while he orders his 10-piece meal, but the patrons know he's somebody. As Williams grabs his food, a girl no older than 10, wearing a green "Aloha, Princess" T-shirt, points and says, "There goes Vince Young!" Then she asks for an autograph.

What does Williams do?

He signs the girl's scrap of paper. And walks away smiling.