Williams finds success off the beaten path

DeAngelo Williams' ability to find the right path on and off the field has propelled the Memphis running back into the middle of the Heisman race.

Updated: September 5, 2005, 7:49 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The secret to DeAngelo Williams' gift -- and it is a gift, really -- is his ability to see what's in front of him and pick the right crease, even if no one else sees it. That might seem obvious, given that the senior tailback at the University of Memphis ran for 1,948 yards and 22 TDs last season, if that gift was limited to when Williams is in uniform.

But it's Williams' ability to pick the right hole off the field that has made him a preseason All-American and the first Heisman Trophy candidate in school history.

Twice in his life, Williams has been faced with making the popular choice or doing what he believed was best for him. Both times, he has peered down the road lined with the cheering public, given a head fake, and gone in the other direction.

DeAngelo Williams
DeAngelo Williams rushed for 1,948 yards and 22 TDs in 2004.

In three seasons at Memphis, Williams has rushed for 4,062 yards and 37 touchdowns. He averages 6.2 yards per carry. He is listed at 5-foot-10, 217 pounds, and the height might be generous. He introduced himself as "DeAngelo," but it's more a gesture of friendliness than of one-named ego. Williams is so friendly that every few weeks he has to change his cell phone number. He gives it out and pretty soon, it doesn't stop ringing.

On a summer afternoon in Memphis, so hot and humid that thinking about exercise would make you sweat, Williams stood in the office of his head coach, Tommy West.

"Coach, I didn't know you weren't always gray," says Williams, his voice a little too innocent. "There's a picture back there where your hair is brown."

West took the insult with a shake of his head. He enjoys playing the role of aggrieved straight man for his tailback. Their relationship is somewhere between coach-player and father-son.

"I've never had so good a player with his personality," said West, 51. "He's a pleasant guy who never has a bad day. He's a good student. He likes school, which is really unusual. There's nothing that takes away from him being a great player. I've been lucky, really fortunate with him. The players are always going to follow the good players, I think more so than the coach. This guy is charismatic and he's the hardest worker on the field. He gets after it in practice."

The first time West saw Williams practice, at Wynne (Ark.) High in 2001, Williams ignored him. That's when West knew Williams was special.

"He really didn't care that I was there," West said. "He was more concerned about his workout. He really wasn't bothered by coaches who were there to watch it. Most of them like the attention of a coach watching them. They'll stop working out and come over and talk."

How unusual is that?

"One in a 100," West replied. "The rest of the kids like the attention."

That's what West saw in Williams four years ago. It's just as interesting what Williams saw in West, who took over as head coach at Memphis for the 2001 season. After the 2001 season, in which the Tigers went 4-7, West had been a head coach for seven years. He had a record of 39-42 (.481).

As a senior, Williams led the Wynne Yellowjackets to the 4A title. He rushed for 194 yards in the state championship game and scored four touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving, one returning). He was the offensive player of the year, and if he had signed with Arkansas, he could have been elected governor.

"I came in. Coach West sat me down," Williams said. "He said, 'I can't predict if you'll play for us, or start for us. I can't even tell you if you'll start or play here at all. I can tell you that you have enough talent to at the Division I level. We're interested in you. You can play for us.'

"I'm thinking, 'We just won the state championship. All those other coaches at Arkansas, Ole Miss, Iowa, guys in big conferences, tell me that I have a chance to do this, and you tell me you don't know if I can play for you for four years?'

"I took that as a slap in the face," Williams said. "I also took it as a challenge. He told me what I wanted to hear but what I didn't want to hear."

His principal wanted him to sign with Arkansas. His head coach wanted him to sign with Arkansas. Shoot, everybody in Wynne, a town of 8,615 about 290 miles east of Fayetteville, wanted Williams to go to Arkansas. On the day before signing day, Williams committed to become a Razorback.

"Everybody was excited," Williams said, "but me.

"On signing day, my mom brought me the national letter of intent to Arkansas. I should feel like I'm making the right decision. You get that many people telling you that. I had been dreaming about it. I signed 'No' where I was supposed to sign my name and put an exclamation point.

"I didn't know she was going to fax it back to them. I thought, 'Oh Lord, what has she done now?'"

West thought about that time, and looked at Williams.

"How long did you let me hang? A month? 26 days?"

"It was 26 days, 23 or 26," Williams replied. "I was young. Too much pressure on a young kid."

Williams visited the schools again, and waited until it felt right.

"The University of Memphis didn't have the flashy profile or the national exposure," he said. "It's a great university. I love the offense. I love the atmosphere, the big city. They have everything I want. The only knock against them is they are not a great team. My [Wynne High] head coach came in and told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life. I was going to a graveyard and I could never help them win.

"When I go home now, he tells me, 'You made a good decision. Good luck in all your endeavors.' You know how it is."

Last January came the second time Williams found his crease. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft has become nearly as important on the college football calendar as signing day. News is made, careers are changed, teams grow suddenly stronger or weaker.

The NFL let Williams know he would probably be drafted around the end of the first round or the beginning of the second. How do you put off the realization of a lifelong dream? How do you tell millions of dollars to wait a year? All your life, you've wanted to grow up. There's the door to adulthood. Walk through it.

"It's a private decision gone public," Williams said. "People told me, 'You should get paid for injuries, get paid for your time on the field.' Who cares about a million dollars? I didn't see it then. I won't see it now."

Williams figured out you can't put a price on friendship, on an offensive line that serves as his posse on and off the field, on the only chance you'll ever have to be a college senior.

"I'm really close to the team," Williams said. "This team is really, really close. We horseplay and wrestle all the time. We feed off of each other. Going to another team, or an organization, if I leave, everything changes now."

He snapped his fingers.

"If I stay, everything stays the same."

West understood all the forces tugging at Williams. He tried to serve as a conduit. Even when Williams tried to engage West's emotions, the coach resisted.

"My thing was that he be totally educated to all sides, and not just to the Memphis side, the agent side, or the NFL side," West said. "I knew if he had all the facts, he would do what was right for him and he would make an educated, rational decision.

"He told me, 'Coach, I'm coming back.'

"After the bowl, he told me, 'Coach, I'm going.'

"He tried to meet with me for two days after that. I didn't meet with him. 'No, I am busy.' One of them was Christmas Eve! 'Coach, we need to talk.'

"Man, it is Christmas Eve! We are not going to talk.

"It was important to him that I put my blessing on it. Hey, I'm OK either way. If you want to go play, I'll back you 100 percent. If you want to come back, we'd love to have you. I don't want you, if that isn't what you want to do."

Williams received an unlikely assist. After last season, he went to Los Angeles as a finalist for the John Wooden Cup, an award that honors teamwork, character and citizenship. While out there, Williams met USC quarterback Matt Leinart.

"I just bumped into him," Williams said. "I asked him, 'Are you going to go or are you going to stay?' He said, 'Are you going to go or are you going to stay?'

"I thought, 'You're the No. 1 draft pick and you're having a hard time on whether you're going to go or stay?' It hit me. He's going through the same thing I'm going through."

Said West, "[Williams] just wants to have fun. It stresses him when he has to get serious. That's not him. But he can do it. He did it with signing day. Right, wrong or indifferent, he can do what he needs to do."

West might be wrong. Williams wants to have fun but anyone who can handle those kinds of situations with maturity is, beneath the smiles and laughter, dead serious.

"You'd be amazed how much attention $1 million will get you," Williams said. "I've lived by this quote: If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. I'm going to stand up for what I need to do, not what everybody else wants me to do."

As Williams prepares for his senior season, he waits for another crease to open, the one that leads to New York and the Heisman Trophy. The odds of a player from Conference USA winning the Heisman are slight. On the field, Williams has done everything he can do. Off the field, Memphis media relations director Jennifer Rodrigues developed the ingenious idea of promoting Williams with a NASCAR-like scale car, done up in Memphis colors and the No. 20.

The rest begins on Labor Day at the Liberty Bowl against regional rival Ole Miss.

"If you've never had anything, and you get something, it changes you," Williams said. "If you've never had anything, and you never want anything, then you never let it get to you. All the hype is nothing if I don't do anything on my end."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com