The Fall of Willie Williams: College Football’s First Celebrity Recruit (Part 3)
BY: John “Hennry” Harris
The last trip remaining on Willie Williams’ recruiting visits was to the University of Florida. He had already made up his mind about going to the University of Miami. He had already told his family and his friends he would be a Hurricane. Yet, Williams felt committed to his diary and decided to take the unnecessary trip.
”I ate so many meatballs, the people there started looking like meatballs…’The first night I was OK with eating at the stadium. But when they told me we’re going to eat there again, I was a little disappointed. I was like, `Take us to Red Lobster or something.’ That’s when I pretty much made up my mind. I can’t live in a place that don’t have any restaurants. What am I going to do—fly home to eat shrimp?”
“They had girls come out, all dressed nice, but it took a while,” Williams said. “It was weird because there were some people talking about black history the whole time. Then it got worse. They had guy models come out.”
His journal entry was very uninspiring, he did not want to be a Gator and it resonated in his writing.
On February 4, three days after his final journal entry, Williams held a press conference inside the Carol City High School library to announce his big decision. Williams announced, “I feel great about today!”
With his Willie Williams flare for the dramatic, at first he had on a throwback Deion Sanders jersey and matching cap. He quickly tossed them to the side and put on some Miami Hurricane attire. “I’m gonna go to UM!” he said to loud cheers.
“Willie Williams?” Coker said.
“How you doing, Coach?” he replied.
“You know what, everyone’s going crazy down here, man,” Coker said. “I’m doing cartwheels over here. I’m doing great, and let me tell you something: You’re going to do great, too. You’re committed to us, we’re committed to you. Let’s do a couple of things—let’s win some championships and let’s get your degree. You’ve got that three-year plan. Let’s get it done!”
It was a joyous moment for Williams and his family, but it did not take long for the raindrops to start pouring.
Within hours of the press conference, the Gainseville Police Department filed three criminal complaints against Williams.
According to reports, Williams allegedly punched a 22-year-old local man in the face multiple times for no apparent reason. He also hugged a female University of Florida student from behind without permission and then refused to immediately let go. But the most serious charges alleged that Williams discharged three fire extinguishers at the UF Hilton, which was a felony.
“Do you really think any of this would’ve come out if Willie signed with Florida?” Bradford Cohen, his attorney at the time, now says. “No way. It was retribution.”
Once these charges came to light, it opened a virtual can of worms into Willie Williams past.
One of Willie Williams’ Carol City High coaches explains that when Willie Williams father left their family things began to change for Willie.
“As soon as he lost the contact of being under the control of a man, something began to turn a bad way,” he says. “It would have been nice had his dad checked in, even to see how his son was doing. But he never did. Willie needed guidance and understanding. I don’t think he ever got that.”
He was arrested 11 times before he was 18. Six of those charges were petty theft related and the others were for burglary or possession of burglary tools. As his childhood friends explain, Willie Williams was not bad, he would just steal stupid things like candy or toys because he felt like he would not get caught. He would begin to turn his life around after he given the chance to play football at Carol City High School.
Everyone raved about Willie Williams’ ability on the football. It didn’t matter that Willie Williams allegedly got expelled from one Monsignor Pace over an altercation with a substitute teacher. Nor was it a problem that he hung with a questionable crowd or that few people trusted him.
Willie could play some football.
The charismatic, funny and super-talented Willie Williams’ press started to change after the media learned of his rap sheet. The All-Star recruit that loved shrimp and the all-expense paid recruitment trips now was being shown in a different light. Funny, how things can switch up.
Willie was able to avoid jail from his charges at the University of Florida and was officially accepted into the University of Miami. Critics hounded Miami.
Lenox Rawlings wrote in the Winston-Salem Journal: “Even without confirmation of his time in the 40-yard dash, we already know [Williams] is one of the fastest criminals ever enrolled at an ACC school.”
Regardless, he was there and ready to play.
“His raw ability was unbelievable, like nothing I’d ever seen before,” says Beason, a fellow Miami linebacker. “The way he ran wasn’t perfect, but he was the fastest. The way he lifted wasn’t ideal, but he was lifting tons of weight. He was an absolute specimen.”
Williams was so gifted physically, that in high school, he just “freelanced” his way through games, not really learning the fundamentals and techniques that would help him on the collegiate level. Trying to tell “Da Predator” how to play football became a chore and usually he would just ignore his coaches.
“He couldn’t get it right,” says Don Soldinger, Miami’s longtime running backs coach. “His skills—unmatched. But he just didn’t give a s—. He was a dog. He didn’t care. That’s the frustrating part. I mean, wake the f— up. You just wanted to slap the s— out of him.”
The player that everyone pegged as a shoo-in for the NFL was now being tagged a bust by local reporters.
Williams would transfer from the University of Miami, which was fine with Coker who had grown weary of Williams’ practice antics – as long as he did not transfer to any school on Miami’s schedule over the next four years.
There weren’t many takers for Willie. “When you’re coming up, everyone wants a piece of you, everyone wants in on the action. But when the fall begins, you’re often alone.”
First it was Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Miss. But Williams refused to get his information in on time for registration and he was turned away. His next stop would be West Los Angeles College. Unable to play the first five games, Williams still made first-team all-conference, all while he and his stepfather, Leonard Pressley, lived in a spare bedroom of his coach Craig Austin‘s home. Can you say NCAA violations? But the kid sure could play some football!
Austin convinced Tom Jurich that Willie was worth taking a chance on at the University of Louisville. Williams was enrolled at Louisville the fall semester of 2007. Williams told the press an all to familiar story,
“I feel like I’ve made a 180-degree turn,” he said. “I’ve learned from my situations, and I grew. Yes, I did some things in the past, but all I can do is grow from here and not let it bring me down. If I’m not putting myself in those situations or hanging out with the wrong people, nothing possibly could happen. All that’s behind me.”
After three games he was kicked off the squad for possession of marijuana and was kicked off the team within 24 hours.
There were more college stops, many more, but they all seemed to end up the same.
In 2008, it was Glenville State College in rural West Virginia, but that did work because he was ruled ineligible because of transfer rules.
At Union College, a NAIA school in Barbourville, KY, Williams dominated on the field setting a single-season record with 144 tackles.
Scouts came around but by now, the word was out about Willie Williams. The risk far outweighed the potential reward. He first showed himself to be a risk on that trip to the University of Florida and never could seem to shake that brand he placed on himself.
After college, Williams found himself living in Kentucky working as a fitness center membership salesman. After a string of small burglaries, based on his past misdeeds and a burglary conviction in Georgia in 2010, Judge Patricia Summe handed down a 15-year sentence for being a persistent felony offender.
His expected release date is January 8, 2023. Willie Williams was a star, now no one cares. He will be nearly 40 by the time he gets out of prison in Kentucky. Tragic story of all the potential but no drive to reach it.
On this signing day, I hope these high-school athletes realize that nothing is promised, not even your scholarship. More likely than not, when you can’t do anything on the field, your chances will disappear, but why would you want to live like that anyway?
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