DULUTH, Ga. -- A few hundred yards from an elementary school in a genteel Atlanta suburb, eight men-rigged up to body harnesses with specialized bungee cord attachments run sprints on a spectacular spring morning. The training session that lasts an hour involves a variety of bizarre pulleys, harnesses and even an electronic reaction machine. On some sprints, the men run with a partner in tow, where they blast out 10 yards and then the partner squeezes a handle releasing the resistance, uncorking the sprinter for the next 20 yards. On other runs their partner pulls them forward at the end of a longer sprint. It's all done in the spirit of super-charging the athletes bodies and nervous systems.
The eight men are a mixture of established NFL vets, like the Stinchcomb brothers, Matt and Jon, and some free-agent longshots like one-time Bloomsburg (PA) University returnman B.J. Thomas, an eye-popping 6-foot-3, 215-pound specimen capable of blazing a 4.3 40.
The most talkative-and youngest-guy in the workout is the towering wideout wearing an UnderArmour skullcap. This is Mike Williams, who by some accounts had vanished from the face of the Earth after his announcement almost two months ago that he was bolting USC after two years to go to the NFL.
Because he had been keeping such a low profile, rumors had spread that Williams might have pulled a Clarett, blowing off any conditioning programs and would show up for pro scouts overweight and out of shape. Instead though, the Trojan all-American has actually been doing just the opposite. Williams relocated here to northern Georgia to undergo a boot camp of sorts known as Competitive Edge Sports run by performance specialist Chip Smith, a one-time small college running back who was one of the first Americans to study Soviet speed training after the Iron Curtain fell. Over the last decade, Smith has established himself as the combine guru, having trained 15 first-rounders in the past five years, including three of the top six picks in last April's draft.
Williams enlisted Smith because he knew rumors had been circulating that he'd probably run a 4.75 at his "pro day" (April 8) or that he'd weigh 245. Williams concedes he was "heavy as hell" when he left California. He weighed 238 when he arrived in Georgia. Sarah Harris, the wife of Ken Harris, one of Williams' agents at AHS Management, even moved up to Duluth from Tampa to help with the specialized meals prepared by Smith's nutritionist for the big receiver so he could focus solely on his conditioning. The new strict diet was a drastic change for a guy who practically lived off McDonalds, Wendy's and late-night runs to Del Taco. So were the workouts, but Williams knew all about Smith's success stories. (One of the more recent ones was Florida State wide receiver P.K. Sam who went from being a guy who ran in the mid 4.5s to clocking a 4.40 at FSU's "pro day" after two months with Smith.)
"It's been balls to the wall every day," Williams said. "That first week I couldn't even sit down my body was cramping up so much. My body had never trained so hard without the junk.
"That first week was going to mentally make me or break me. It got to the point, where I was like, 'Maybe I should go down to Boca Raton or New Orleans (sites of other prominent speed camps) where they aren't as intense.' But the more I thought about it, I was like 'Hold on, I have a short period of time so it's gotta be intense. I need this."
Williams winces as he details his diet: "I get up and eat oatmeal with fat-free soy milk and throw in a few blueberries to give it some flavor, because if you don't, it's like eating damp dirt. Then, I have 12 egg whites with some magical seasoning that you don't taste.
"After working out, I come home and have some chicken unseasoned with potatoes with no butter. My snacks are green peas fresh out of the can. For dinner fish or chicken again. And that's it. Seven days a week."
Williams' drive has been revved up now that he's seen the results. He said he didn't have any specific goals when he started this program, only to get better, but it's clear the numbers Larry Fitzgerald put up at his "pro day" last week may have changed that. In fact, even after Friday's workout-featuring the hour of running and an additional hour of lower body weight training, Williams easily eclipsed Fitzgerald's mark of 35 inches in the vertical jump. "I can't wait for that day," he said of his audition for teams. "I'm gonna run a million times faster than people think."
In truth, Williams' real diet has consisted of the skepticism he feels is out there about him. The greeting on his cellphone burns with it: "They think I can't do it... HA HA AH ... we'll see."
Williams' departure from Los Angeles wasn't a smooth one. A February story in the Daily Trojan, the student newspaper at USC, quoted him ripping his teammates' work ethic. Williams said the article "got mixed up."
"I wasn't bad-mouthing my teammates. I just said, 'the difference between the team I'm on now and the team I was on, is the guys just don't burn.' And it was totally different. Troy (Polamalu), (Justin) Fargas, BKU (Kenechi Udeze), if you had any ounce of get-over-on-them, they went nuts. But with this past season, the mindset was 'Guys, we won a national championship, we're up here (raising his hand above his head.) You don't have to work as hard,' And was it me? Hell yeah, you could throw me right in that group. I was getting heavier. I was a fat, lazy guy who wasn't committed to playing top level. We had guys weaseling around the work."
Then, Williams shocked many, especially around USC when word leaked out that he was thinking about entering the draft. He said the seed was planted after hearing Fitzgerald was planning on coming out. But it was just an idle thought until a high school friend back home in Tampa told Williams he'd be "an idiot" if he didn't consider it because he had come close twice to breaking his ankle while at USC. "And he was right," Williams says, "I had two bad sprains, and I was like, it might not be a bad idea to start calling some people away from school, people who cared about me way before I was 'something.' They carry way more weight than people who have something invested in me. Am I doubting people at USC cared about me? No, I feel like they cared about me. But was my best interest their best interest?"
Many factors went into the decision. On one hand, Williams wanted to stick around to help nurture the young receivers that USC had stockpiled. On the other hand, it was troubling to know that Will Poole and Marcell Allmond, the Trojans rugged cornerback tandem that Williams battled with everyday, were off to the NFL. And perhaps that challenge on the practice field that had dragged the best out of him wouldn't be as great. Williams also did feel indebted to USC because the Trojans had given him the chance to play wide receiver. Of course, he did help them win a national title.
"The best advice I got was from (veteran NFL personnel man) Rich McKay," Williams said. "My mom's good friends with his wife and I know he shoots straight. He said you could be anywhere from the 12th to the 15th pick overall."
McKay told Williams he based that on his film, his age and reports out of L.A. that the 6-5 receiver weighed around 245 and would run, at best, a 4.65. "I figured, 'Alright, my floor is 12-15, and 12 is not that far from 10. And that's if I show up at 240, and obviously that's not happening."
Smith, Williams' trainer, agrees, saying he expects him to vertical jump between 36 and 38 inches and possibly run in the 4.5s. "He has been extremely focused," Smith says, "especially after Larry Fitzgerald gave us a gauge to shoot for."
Williams, who weighed in at 229 on March 27, still speaks to many of his former teammates, especially the young wide receivers. "Me and Mike talk every night," says sophomore Whitney Lewis, the wideout being counted on to replace Williams. "He's always encouraging me about stepping up and how this is my time."
It is Williams' time too. And for a while that made some of this jump-to-the-NFL so delicate. He has heard about people ripping him on call-in shows and around town for not showing up at USC's "pro day" last week. "BK (Udeze) and Keary (Colbert) told me people out there are saying 'see, that's even more proof that Mike has animosity towards his teammates.' Are you kidding me? What the hell are they talking about? Who is gonna be ready in 20 days if I'm flying around? Nobody. You can't win."
Williams pauses for a few moments, and then breaks into a big grin. "You know, I just can't wait till April 8 so people can see me run," he says. "I'm gonna look down at the finish line of that 40-yard dash and I won't see any faces. I'll just picture of bunch of question marks standing there."
And if things go well, surely those question marks will turn into a bunch of dollar signs.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book "Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment" comes out in the fall of 2004. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.