This article appears in the September 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Eleanor Roosevelt senior Derrick Williams doesn't need much to get him motivated. All it takes is a newspaper photo posted on his bedroom wall. It seems simple to an outsider. But to Williams, it's a haunting reminder of what could have been.
The photo, which ran in the Prince George's County Gazette, is of Williams being consoled by Eleanor Roosevelt head football coach Rick Houchens after the Raiders lost to Damascus, 21-14, in the Class 4A state semifinals last fall.
"[The photo] makes me realize that I never want to be in that predicament again," says the 6-foot-1, 194-pound Williams, a multi-position standout who's rated the nation's No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com.
The loss to Damascus has remained with Williams since last season ended. Being the best high school football player in the country is nice, but Williams is more concerned with erasing that image in the local sports section of him crying. He wants to validate his No. 1 individual ranking, and what better way to do that than to lead Eleanor Roosevelt to the state title in his senior season?
That quest drives the SchoolSports All-American to wake up every weekday at 5 a.m. to run the steps at FedExField (home of the Washington Redskins) for an hour. It's why he lifts weights with the team after school and then goes back to run the steps Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 p.m. while his father, Dwight, times him.
"If it wasn't for my dad, I wouldn't be where I am today," says Williams, 18, who has a 34-inch vertical leap and runs the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.3 seconds. "He tells me to keep working and to stay humble. He says that whenever anyone else is sleeping, you should be working."
"When he was a kid, I used to have to force him to run," adds Dwight Williams, who played linebacker at Langston University (Okla.) and once had a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks. "Now he does it on his own. He's worked hard to get to where he is."
Williams knew he wanted to be the best when he was just 10 years old. His older brother, Domonique, was a Washington Post All-Met selection as a senior defensive back at Gwynn Park and ended up signing with North Carolina in 1997. As Domonique was getting phone calls from colleges and going through the recruiting process, Derrick wished he could get the same recognition.
Little did he know that attention would come sooner than he expected.
"I got my first verbal offer from Penn State when I was in the seventh grade at the Penn State Camp," says Williams. "I had run a handheld time of 4.4 seconds in the 40. They told me that once I got to the 11th grade, the offer would be in the mail."
By the time Williams entered the 11th grade, he was displaying some serious football skills that had more than just Penn State showing interest. As a sophomore, he started at wide receiver and cornerback for the Raiders, catching 18 passes for 370 yards and seven touchdowns on offense while intercepting three passes on defense.
He enjoyed an even better junior season as Eleanor Roosevelt's starting quarterback, though he'll likely tell you otherwise. Williams will point out the loss to Damascus when he talks about last fall, but the astounding numbers don't lie.
Williams was everywhere for the Raiders last year. On offense, he rushed for 1,363 yards and 22 touchdowns on 163 carries (8.4 yards per carry) and completed 30-of-58 passes for 558 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions. On defense, he earned All-Met honors at defensive back after making 59 tackles and intercepting three passes, returning one for a touchdown. Williams also added two punt returns for touchdowns and even saw time at wide receiver, catching seven passes for 173 yards. And, oh yeah, he also blocked one punt and returned it for a touchdown.
As of press time, Williams' all-around skills had led to 46 Division I scholarship offers from the likes of LSU, Ohio State, Miami, Florida, Florida State and Oklahoma. He's being primarily recruited at wide receiver, but schools like Virginia Tech and Kansas State are looking at him as a quarterback.
Wherever Williams winds up in college, he wants to be the player that helps take a program to the next level, a la Michael Vick at Virginia Tech.
"Derrick and I were talking in general about programs and depth charts," says Houchens, who's entering his eighth year as Eleanor Roosevelt's head coach. "I was giving him instructions about supporting casts, and I started talking about Florida and Chris Leak. He stopped me right there and said, ‘That's it, coach. That's what I want. I want to be at a university where people talk about Derrick Williams. I want to be the difference-maker.' Barring injury, he'll be that difference-maker. He'll be doing special things. Mark my words: He'll be playing on Sundays in the near future."
When Williams picks a college (which he plans on doing in December), his decision will not only be based on which school he's comfortable with but also where his parents feel is the best fit for him. After all, they've had some experience in this process.
"We just want to make sure he goes to a university that makes him successful both on the field and academically," says Dwight Williams. "We're trying to make sure we don't make the same mistakes we did with Domonique. When Domonique was at North Carolina, (Tar Heel head coach) Mack Brown ended up leaving for Texas. There's nothing worse than when a new coach comes in because they don't have the same commitment to certain players. Domonique ended up transferring to North Carolina A&T."
Derrick, who had a 3.71 GPA his junior year, plans on graduating high school in December to get a head start on his college career. He took 12th-grade English this summer to fulfill his core credits and will take a full-day course load of electives this fall.
Along with gaining familiarity with his chosen team and the coaching staff, the main reason Williams plans to get an early jump on college is because he wants to finish his degree in three years so he can leave early for the NFL.
To some, that may seem cocky. But Williams sees it another way.
"My long-term goal is to make it to the NFL and help my family out," he says. "If you don't have those goals, you really shouldn't be playing."
Until then, the picture will remain on the wall.