Montrell Williams is a starting senior free safety on the Idaho football team, about a year away from earning his college degree.
That beats the alternatives that life presented him at age 16: Gang member, drug addict, prison inmate, morgue resident.
He lived in the inner city of Amarillo, Texas, a place “you don’t want to raise a family,” Williams said. “There’s too many things to get into.”
Bad things mostly, and Williams got into his share of trouble. A fight was the last straw. It left him booted from high school as a sophomore and landed him on the other end of a phone call from his mother, Sarah.
“She said, ‘I’m putting you on the first bus out of there.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because I didn’t raise you to be doing the things you’re doing,”’ Williams said, his fidgety fingers racing over a tabletop in an interview room days before Sonoma State visits the Vandals in the Kibbie Dome on Saturday at 3:05.
Sarah Williams previously had moved to Marysville, Calif., allowing Montrell to stay in Amarillo with his grandmother because he wanted to see how far football could take him at a 5-A (largest) high school in Texas.
After Sarah’s ultimatum, Montrell caught the next bus west, grumbling all the way. Much of Williams’ apprehension was about moving to Marysville and neighboring Yuba City. The area has been rated among the five worst cities for livability, Williams claims, “and it is.”
But Williams, who has seen his father only once since age 8, began straightening out his life in the small farming town. And that process has continued in another small town, Moscow.
Of course, his journey to Moscow had a few more potholes, some of which he freely admits he created.
In Marysville, he developed into an outstanding football and track athlete. He dreamed of going to the University of Washington, but failed in three attempts at the SAT. Disgusted that he couldn’t sign at a Division I school, he sat out his senior year of track.
Instead, he began driving to Sacramento City College to work out with the football team in spring drills, constituting a rules violation.
“I’d skip school and go work out with them,” Williams said. “The local (Yuba College) coach knew I was going up there and the coaches got into it. The (Yuba) coach said my mom wanted me to go to his school, but my mom wanted me to go to Sac City. I got in trouble at my (high) school for going up there.”
It appeared he violated another California JC rule, which requires most JCs to recruit only from high schools within their district. But a loophole allows lenience if the athlete makes the first contact with the out-of-district JC coach. Williams said he made the first contact.
Once out of high school, he moved to Sacramento and became a standout running back at Sac City.
He would soon discover that his moving had really just begun.
He was recruited to Idaho as a receiver last year. He came with blistering speed, but non-adhesive hands. After many dropped passes, he switched to running back. He found no running room, however, with Sherriden May and Joel Thomas on the depth chart.
He played on special teams until an injury to cornerback Arnold Gunn. Then head coach John L. Smith summoned Williams to his office and said, “We think you can play defense.”
“OK,” Williams responded, “but this is the last time I’m changing positions. I said if I move again, I’m moving home.”
Williams’ home is in the secondary. He became a starting corner last year. His most memorable moment was a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Eastern Washington, punctuated by enough taunting to make Deion Sanders blush.
That drew a flag at the time and spawned “Montrellavision.” He made a guest appearance on a new NCAA video outlining examples of excessive celebration. Every school in the country received a copy of the tape, which featured numerous players.
“Players from other schools are calling me, telling me I made the film,” Williams said.
In keeping with his life theme, though, Williams learned from his experiences. Should he score a TD this year, Williams said, “I’m going to walk over and hand the ball to the ref.”
Williams was on the move again in spring football, shifting to strong safety. That lasted about a week, before he made his final position move to free safety.
That’s five moves in two years. How many moves might he have made if he’d been at UI four or five years?
“He’s still learning the (free safety) position,” first-year UI coach Chris Tormey said. “He’d obviously be further ahead had he been there all the time, but he’s making good progress.”
“Our whole emphasis for him,” secondary coach Jeff Mills said, “is for him to use his speed to stop the big play. He gets better every day.”
More important than Williams’ football and track accomplishments (he won the 100 and 200 meters at the Big Sky meet last year), is that he’s overcome a shaky academic start at Idaho.
He answers questions with blunt honesty and acknowledges his life hasn’t been mistake-free.
“I’m comfortable now,” said Williams, who wants to be a youth counselor. “I know where I’m headed and know more about the big picture.
“I’ve told my mom thanks a million times (for making him move to Marysville), especially after what I started hearing about the friends I used to run with in Amarillo. All of them are dead or in jail.
“My mom’s real proud of me.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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