On a weekend when the NFL Draft is going on, James Williams can reflect a year later how he had sat in front of the television set waiting for his name to be called in 2019.
It never happened. Perhaps it was a combination of timing and bad luck. Williams said pulling a hamstring on his Pro Day workout just weeks before the draft certainly didn’t help.
The former Burbank High star running back, who will turn 24 next month, signed as a free agent with three teams and also worked out with an additional three NFL teams.
He played in one preseason NFL game last summer and that inspired him to continue with the sport he has always loved.
For now, much of what goes on in his career is contingent upon the emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officially a running back, Williams became a dual threat at Washington State University.
He finished his career with 1,540 yards rushing on 316 carries, scoring 19 touchdowns. He also had 202 career receptions for 1,437 yards and eight more touchdowns.
He has signed a one-year contract to play with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, which was scheduled to get underway next month.
“I was supposed to leave on May 11, but that’s not happening any more. They let us know that it might be postponed,” Williams said from his home in Idaho, just a short distance from the Washington State campus.” They aren’t letting anyone in. They aren’t opening the borders to any non-citizens. We were supposed to practice for two weeks and then we were going to have our first game.”
So in the meantime, Williams has continued to stay in shape and is helping work as a private trainer for aspiring high school football players who hope to move to the collegiate level. He said social distancing restrictions in Idaho are not as strict as in California.
“It is probably good that I’m here because there’s not that many cases up here. Right now to make money I’m training kids. Basically what I’m doing is getting them to that next step,” Williams said. “I’m doing a lot of stuff that I was doing in college and a lot of personal stuff, like footwork. I have some running backs and a couple of linebackers and I’m fixing form and running techniques.”
He said the element he brings is the experience to the local kids that they usually have to travel long distances to find.
“Instead of spending $2 to $3,000 to fly to LA or Orlando or Seattle, the kids can do it here for a lot cheaper,” he said.
But before he started the private coaching, Williams has gone on an adventure over the past year that saw the NFL Draft come and go, but most importantly, the birth of his son, Rush, who will turn one in July.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time with my son. Despite everything that has happened as far as my career goes, I’m kind of glad it happened. I would have been gone all this time and my son probably wouldn’t have known who I was,” Williams said. “Anyone that knows me I’m a super family-oriented person. I don’t want to have anything come between me and my kids. I told my coach, I’m not missing my son’s first birthday.”
Within hours of not getting drafted last spring, Williams immediately inked a free agent deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, who are coached by former Glendale Community College offensive lineman Andy Reid.
But he soon realized his baptism into the NFL was a lot more difficult than he had anticipated.
“The Chiefs have the hardest playbook in the league. The rumor was that I didn’t get the playbook down. I was like you gave us 55 plays a day for a month,” Williams said. “I’ve never had that many plays in my life. When I was in college and high school, I was in a no-huddle, fast-paced offense all my life. I got cussed out because I was a long way away from the huddle. I said coach, I’ve never been in a huddle before. Not even in junior high when I was playing for the (Burbank) Vikings. That’s not something I came to camp thinking. I was running with a bunch of guys from LSU, Oklahoma and all these SEC schools that huddle every time. Watching the NFL, I don’t pay attention where they stand when they huddle. That’s an honest thing that I had never done before.”
Williams, who said he didn’t believe his hamstring was fully recovered during his stint with Kansas City until the very end. He was waived on June 13.
Just days later, Williams’ phone rang again. This time it was from the Washington Redskins.
“They told me to pack like I’m staying. I’m working out with two or three veteran backs that have been there (in the league) for five years. I don’t have those footwork drills,” Williams said. “You knew these guys knew what they were doing. It was crispy, it was tight. They knew exactly what the coach was going to ask them. It was unfortunate for me because I was a rookie and I was still new. I only know as much as what the Chiefs told me.”
Williams left Washington without an offer from the Redskins.
“When I came back from Washington, the next day Green Bay called me. I hadn’t even unpacked yet. They told me to get the next flight. I get there and there’s a couple of running backs from UCLA, which I’m really good friends with now,” Williams said. ”They (Green Bay) had already signed a running back so I asked my agent why am I coming, this makes no sense. He said it Is just to get you exposure. I got sent home and they said they put me on their short list.”
Still settling in after the long flight, Williams gets another call.
“The next morning Indianapolis calls me. I got lucky with that one because somebody (else) missed their flight. I had a really good workout. They said we’re going to sign you and I got cut two days later because a defensive lineman got hurt and they said it was a numbers game,” Williams recalled. “There was already nine running backs in the room, so I knew I was going home when I saw that. When people get hurt they have to make room, so they may have to get rid of people that are fresh or people that they don’t think are going to make it. I was a fresh guy because I was only there for two days.”
Having already gone through workouts with four teams, Williams got a call that was certainly an eye openeer as the most successful organization in the league over the past two decades called.
“Two days later the Patriots called me. I was like this is a great fit for me. I knew they were going to call me at some point because James White and I play the same. We have the same type of game. The offense is no different than coach (Mike) Leach’s (Washington State) offense, it’s just more plays basically,” Williams said. “I get down there and they liked me but sent me home.”
Tired from a number of trips to the East Coast, Williams is feeling luck isn’t going his way.
“I fly into Salt Lake City before I get to Lewiston I had a three-hour layover. Detroit calls me and says we want to you to (come here). I called my agent and said I’m not going to Detroit. I had been on like 20 flights and crazy amounts of time and my son was just born and I didn’t want to be away from him,” Williams said.
Making the tough choice, Williams decided to not give up on his dream and flew into the Motor City.
“The Lions did it exactly the way I wanted it to happen. They gave me a script with about six or seven plays and he was like get these plays down. They worked with me until I got it down. They were super convenient about everything. Everything was super professional,” Williams said.
It was at this point that Williams said he was surprised to actually get into a preseason game on August 29, as the Lions played the Cleveland Browns.
He had four carries for minus 1 yard rushing. He had one reception for five yards.
“Everything was the same just like in college. We went to the hotel and all that stuff until the game started. Then it felt like a movie, everything after that. Just putting on an NFL uniform made everything I went through worth it. That’s why I’m still going now. If I didn’t get in that preseason game I would have been done. I was going to get into coaching.”
Although he didn’t stick with the Lions, Williams is hoping that he can some experience in Canada, with hopes of getting a second crack at the NFL for the 2021 season.
“I don’t have any film right now, so the NFL isn’t about to pick me up if they haven’t seen me play,” he said.