Reaching his goals

When the Cowboys open their new stadium in the fall, linebacker Jason Williams will find himself playing in front of thousands of fans who will be christening the most lavish stadium in the NFL by cheering for their favorite team.

At the same time, the Cowboys' top draft pick will be thinking of a couple of people who won't be there.

When Williams was in the eighth grade, his older brother was arrested and sentenced to state prison in Illinois, where he remains to this day. Six months later, his father was killed in a fire.

"I lost my brother in November of '99, then my dad in May of 2000, so in a span of about six months, I lost the two male figures I had in my life," Williams said. "At that point it was just me and my mom, so at that point I really did focus on football, because it was a way for me to release all my emotions, just release pent-up frustrations. I was all my mom had left, so I had to make something of myself, regardless of whether it was football or something else."

His mother didn't care if he became a football star. She supported him, but his football prowess was not her top priority.

"My mom has always been real strict about my performance in the classroom," he said. "With my mom — she's more concerned about my grades than she is about me playing football. I play football just for the fun of it. She's more concerned about my grades."

He did well enough in the classroom and on the field to play college ball. When just one scholarship offer came his way, he accepted it. Western Illinois isn't known as a football powerhouse, but it's not the gridiron equivalent of Siberia, either; the school has produced several NFL players, including former linebacker Bryan Cox, safety Rodney Harrison and former offensive lineman Frank Winters.

His mother wanted him to go to college and graduate. He'll deliver on her request May 16, when he earns his degree in exercise science, with a minor in nutrition.

Williams said Friday that he didn't view football as a way to avoid the fate that found his brother. Now, he said he realizes the role football played in his growth and maturity.

"Looking back now … at the time, I didn't really see it that way," he said. "But looking back now, it didn't really seem that important to me. Football kept me busy. Me playing other sports — anything I could do, just to keep myself busy."

"Busy" is an understatement. He became a star at WIU, and ended up tying the NCAA record for forced fumbles, with 14.

"There's really no secret to it — it's just all about practice," Williams said about his knack for causing opponents to cough up the ball. "It's kind of like chance. I'd say my senior year, and the back half of my junior year, I concentrated more on trying to strip the ball when I made a tackle, so that helped out a lot, and there were times when I just hit a guy the right way at the right time, when the ball was more vulnerable. It's all about chance when it comes to forcing fumbles."

Maybe it's chance, but it's also timing, strength and being in the right place at the right time, something Williams's 4.49 (40-yard dash) speed — faster than every linebacker invited to the Combine — allows him to do.

Dallas owner Jerry Jones has taken some heat over the past week for comments suggesting that he was looking for players whose primary contributions with the Cowboys would be on special teams. He clarified those remarks Friday, saying it was important for Dallas to draft players who contribute immediately on special teams, but stressed that many players — including Williams — are seen as future starters on defense, too.

How soon that happens, of course, remains to be seen. In the meantime, Williams is taking on whatever task is asked of him, without the swagger many expect of a team's draft choice.

"I'm just going to embrace it," he said when asked about playing special teams. "I mean, I love playing special teams, anyway. Pretty much, whatever the Cowboys need me to do to help this program, I'm willing to do it.

"I'm playing behind a great corps of linebackers already. At this point, I'm more concerned with working myself in on special teams and pretty much learning from the guys in front of me, moreso than I am about going out there and trying to take a starting spot. I want to learn the system and get myself acclimated at first. At this point, it's just all about getting adjusted."

The versatility and strategic flexibility Williams affords the team were underscored at Western Illinois, where Williams played both inside and outside linebacker, sometimes dropped a hand down as a defensive end and even split out wide on occasion to cover wide receivers.

"I did a mixture of things," he said. "There were certain times in our scheme when I played inside, and there were certain times when I'd walk outside of the box, lining up on a wide receiver. I did a little of everything in college."

When his brother was incarcerated — he's due to be released "within the next 18 months," Williams said — and his father died, Williams and his mother grew even closer than they already were. He said he knows she is proud of him, for his football career as well as his upcoming graduation. But he admits he also thinks about the two men in his life who won't be there to see him play his rookie season with the Cowboys.

"Before every game, I say a prayer to my father, because I know (he is) watching down on me, and I know my brother's where he is, listening to the radio or something like that, listening to see what's going to happen," Williams said. "I know my father's proud of me, and I know my brother is, too. I guess in the back of my mind, I play for the people who can't watch me play all the time, but in the end, you've got to play for yourself. If you play for other people, then things might not play out the way you want them to. So it's about you, first."

Williams might be serious about playing for himself, but it's clear he also is bent on pleasing others: his mother, his coaches, whether it's on special teams or any of a number of defensive roles … and the thousands of fans who will help him break in his new office in Arlington in 2009.

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