Sly Williams wavered, never fully wilted
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Sly Williams wavered, never fully wilted

North Carolina defensive tackle Sylvester Williams played one year of high school football, didn't think he was good enough and was ready to give up. Six months of factory work motivated the then 360-pounder to make a change and he has spent the last three days increasing his draft stock.

To see the product now and read the backstory on Sylvester Williams feels like a mix of non-fiction (what is easily viewable now) and fiction (what was the first 18 years of Williams' life).

He is the author of the turnaround story, the kid that hits bottom and – eventually, but not quickly – works his way to the top. He is also the main character in his story.

Sylvester Williams is a hot NFL draft prospect. Sylvester Williams used to be the sloth that wouldn't get out of bed to attend high school classes. What he was six years ago is nowhere near what he represents today as a star defensive tackle ready to realize his NFL dream. What started in South St. Louis and moved to Jefferson City, then to Coffeyville, Kan. and North Carolina is now in Mobile, Ala. preparing for an even bigger stage in one of 32 NFL cities. He could be the feel-good story coming to your favorite NFL team soon.

"The thing that just got me here the most is just hard work. I worked hard every day – just eat, sleep and drink football all the time," Williams said after a practice at the Senior Bowl all-star game this week in Mobile. "I watch football, I watch film, I read articles, all type of stuff to just better myself at the game of football, and for me this is not just something I rolled out of bed and said I was going to be good at. I had to work for where I'm at and that's one thing I'm going to keep with me for the rest of my life is hard work. I'm going to work hard in everything I do because I understand that's what makes you successful is hard work."

Tell that to his high school teachers and they might laugh at the sounds of that coming out of his mouth … if they even knew who he was. You see, to get this point where Williams is the guy impressing NFL scouts with his work ethic and hoping to rise from a Day 2 NFL draft prospect to a first-round possibility, he had to hit rock bottom.

That came in high school, before he even played football. First it was basketball, and he couldn't stay eligible for that. Grades were an issue because his attendance was spotty, to the point where his father had to call the police to drive him to school one day in an attempt to scare him into attending classes, according to a Sporting News report.

These days, Williams is driving the dream and there doesn't appear to be a harder worker on a field of highly driven overachievers. But in order to dominate highly touted offensive linemen at a week of practices for an all-star game, he had to overcome tough circumstances growing up, some of them self-inflicted.

"I appreciate everything I'm going through. It's a blessing to be here today. When I look back on my life five years ago, I never could have pictured myself being here," he said.

Back in South St. Louis, Williams was growing up in a single-parent home (his mother left when he was young) and he had friends that too often made poor decisions, but even then there were signs he had the potential to make something impressive of himself.

"It was calm neighborhood. It had bad areas in there and I did my best to stay away from those areas. I had friends that took wrong paths in life, but I didn't follow obviously. It was a rough neighborhood, but at times you knew how to stay away from trouble sometimes, and I was able to do that," he said.

He said some of his friends were using drugs, others selling them and some of them were stealing cars.

"That was just never in my personality. I was never a bad kid. That wasn't my personality. And I was never a follower. I did what Sylvester wanted to do," he said.

That was the reason for the turnaround. When his father became sick, he moved to Jefferson City to be with his older sister. Eventually, his father followed him there, and his early high school troubles were given the first dose of anti-venom when a high school coach he had yet to actually play for helped him become academically eligible in his senior season.

Jefferson City provided him with a cleaner environment, but the transformation was complete yet, and the picture of his life wasn't in focus because he wasn't focused just yet. It took six months of a job after high school at Modine Manufacturing Company making radiator parts for 18-wheelers before he realized that wasn't his life's work and the only way to become "great" was to work for it.

Football wasn't the obvious choice at that point.

"I just wasn't very good in high school and didn't really have a chance to play at the next level, so I had to take the slow route and actually walk on at junior college. I guess that was one of the things that led me to hanging up the cleats," he said.

"I just wanted to be great. I wanted to have myself do something better in life. Everybody was put in this world to do something. I felt I was put in this world to be great and inspire others, whether that be through football or something else. Right now I'm focusing on football and I want to be the greatest player at my position to play."

Five years ago, he was an out-of-shape, 360-pound factory worker who decided there was something else he needed to be doing.

"I had nothing to look forward to and at that point it was like – I was at the bottom and I never wanted to be there again and I knew that feeling, so I worked hard every day," he said. "That's why I work as hard as I do because I knew I don't want to go there again."

It's oversimplifying all the dedication it took, but that heavy factory worker transformed himself into a viable Division I football player. He showed up at Coffeyville Community College and turned himself in a four-star prospect by Scout.com's rankings. The offers started pouring in and he chose North Carolina.

He started all 25 games during his two seasons with the Tar Heels. As a senior, he posted 42 tackles, 13½ tackles for losses and six sacks.

This week, there is nothing lazy about his game. He is driven to excel and leave the days of skipping high school classes, not making the grade and working in a factory behind. His showing this week belies his past, and he should be drafted in the first three rounds after three more months of proving himself.

"Sometimes it even brings me to tears because it's like all I've overcome is just amazing to me because a lot of people would've gave up a long time ago and that's what I want to do, part of what I'm proud to do, is keep going and pursue dreams," he said.

"I'm going to be emotional (on draft day). I'm going to be in tears because for me this is a new step. It's not like just getting a job; for me this is going big in my life and it's not just about the money. It's about being able to play at the highest level possible in a sport I've only played for five years. … That's a blessing for me and just for me to be able to do that, I can inspire a lot of people to do that."


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.