PULLMAN – About an hour before Washington State’s season opener last Saturday, James Williams stood just behind the end zone closest to the Cougars’ locker room, mingling with anybody who came to greet the running back, as Williams’ former teammates prepared to play New Mexico State at Martin Stadium.
Every few minutes, Williams was tapped on the shoulder by someone different. Teammates, coaches, police officers and athletic administrators were eager to catch up with the running back and WSU fan favorite, who was responsible for more than 3,000 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns in his three seasons with the Cougars.
Some 24 hours earlier, it was a different shoulder tap Williams got while in the Detroit Lions’ locker room. Williams was chatting with fellow Detroit tailback Justin Stockton when a staffer walked up midconversation.
“Can you come with us?” they asked.
“Oh, there I go,” Williams thought to himself.
With 53-man roster cuts on the horizon, Williams had a strong hunch he’d be waived by the Lions. His stint in Detroit lasted only three days. It meant that, barring a last-minute transaction, he would likely have to settle for a spot on an NFL practice squad if he planned to achieve his goal of playing professional football this season.
Williams is still waiting on that call but doesn’t regret the decision that prompted him to leave the college game a year early to pursue a lifelong dream. Prior to WSU’s season opener, Williams took 15 minutes to talk with The Spokesman-Review about his past six months.
Among other things, he discussed being signed and waived by three NFL teams, pulling off a hurdle in Detroit’s preseason finale, the feud between his agent, Eric Dickerson, and former coach, Mike Leach, and how his 2-month-old son Rush has changed Williams’ life and altered his view of the world.
Spokesman-Review: How would you sum up the last three months – all the experiences you’ve had and everything you’ve been through?
James Williams: “It’s been crazy. I’ve been all over the country. I worked out with six teams, been with three teams and the last team I was with, they fortunately gave me the opportunity to play in my first NFL game, which I’m more then excited about. Career-wise, it was the best night of my life. That just resparked everything, because all this travel and stuff was wearing me out and it’s kind of made me go, ‘I don’t know about it,’ but after that game I felt I got that spark back. Plus, I’m doing it for my son, too, so I don’t want to give up on something I’ve been trying to do all my life.”
S-R: Can you estimate how many flights you’ve taken?
JW: “At least over 20, easy. Easy.”
S-R: You were with three NFL teams. If you could choose, what was the best experience?
JW: “The best experience was me playing. I hurdled a dude. I told everybody, “If I get the opportunity, I’m doing it.’ Then it was kind of weird, too, because usually if I hurdle, I’ve got (former running backs coach Jim) Mastro snatching me out of the air while I’m in the air. He’d say, ‘Stay on the ground.’ Then we’ve got the Lions coach going, ‘Oh, that was real nice. I didn’t know you could do that.’ I was like, ‘Did you not watch my tape?’ But it was amazing, I’m standing side by side with Odell (Beckham Jr.) and freaking Baker Mayfield and Jarvis Landry and all that stuff, him doing his little one-handed catch trick show before the game, it was all like a movie. I was just blessed enough to be playing in it.”
S-R: You knew you were going to hurdle beforehand?
JW: “I was telling some of my friends if I get a swing pass, which I did – because I didn’t think I was going to get one – I’m one on one with the corner, I don’t care if he’s standing straight up, I’m doing it. Just do it. Because I don’t have two or three preseason games to do stuff, so I’ve got to make my mark and have people turn their heads at some point.”
S-R: Can you explain the process of teams cutting players? How does it happen? Is it different team to team?
JW: “It’s all the same, it just happened a little bit different. When I was with the Chiefs, dude had called me right before I even got to the facility. He said, ‘Meet me outside the locker room.’ Took me to the back back of the facility. I’d never been there and the personnel kind of told me, ‘We’ve got to cut you, blah, blah, blah.’ But the Lions, this time I talked to the head coach and the general manager. They said, ‘We like you and hopefully we can put you on the practice squad.’ Hopefully, that happens, But yesterday, I was in the locker room talking to (Justin) Stockton, the other running back, and I just got a tap on the shoulder and he was like, ‘Can you come with us?’ (I thought), ‘Oh, there I go.’ Because I knew it was the 53-man cuts and I was expecting it because I just got there, so it was all good. So I’m just waiting to see if I’ll be on the practice squad.”
S-R: Were you surprised the Chiefs parted ways with you? Did you ever get a sense you wouldn’t last in Kansas City?
JW: “Well, yeah, I got a sense because my hamstring was messed up all through three weeks and then I came back right when everybody was starting to get in the gist of things, and then it was already too late. I seen it coming a little bit. It’s whatever, it is what it is.”
S-R: In the Bleacher Report feature written about you, you alluded to having a hard time learning the Chiefs’ playbook. How do you mitigate that learning curve if you get another opportunity in the NFL?
JW: “I didn’t mean I struggle with them in that way. It’s certain things, just everything in general. For example, I’ve never been in the huddle before. All of high school, all of college, I’ve been in fast-paced, no-huddle. I’ve never been in a huddle, and I’ve never had to listen to the entire play before. We had long plays here, it was just sign language, basically. And I’m a visual learner, so I’m good at that. So that’s kind of what I was meaning by that. The playbook, I’ve got to read the whole thing and just read what applies to me. Usually, I’m shown signals. This means this, this means this. But it wasn’t that. They go in there, say the play real quick, then boom.”
S-R: Do you have any good Pat Mahomes stories from your time in Kansas City?
JW: “Well, he’s super cool. He’d play two-on-two basketball with some of the receivers right by my locker, and I’m almost getting hit by the ball because I’m right under the rim. But it was crazy seeing him and Sammy Watkins and Tyrann Mathieu, all the dudes I looked up to in high school. It was crazy.”
S-R: Did you pick up any great advice from any of the more established players in the locker room?
JW: “Yeah, Sammy Watkins, he was telling me, ‘Just keep your head up, anything is possible.’ C.J. Anderson, I was talking to him yesterday and he’s been in the league six, seven years, and he was telling me, ‘Just make the most of all your opportunities, because I’ve been here seven years, and you’re going to be bouncing around. When you stick, make sure you keep your spot, because you can lose your spot anytime.’ Which I knew, but hearing it from a vet that’s been doing this stuff, it feels better because usually when somebody tells me that, they ain’t been through that situation.”
S-R: Would you do anything different?
JW: “I should’ve asked more questions. I’m not going to lie, a couple of the teams I was with, I would be scared to raise my hand and say, ‘I still don’t get it.’ You know what I mean? And it hurt me. But when I was with the Lions, I asked a whole bunch of questions, I was always having the coach involved, so that worked out well for me.”
S-R: You said the Lions might still sign you to the practice squad?
JW: “It’s a possibility. I don’t know, anything can happen. They said they like me and they said it’s a possibility, but we’ll just see. They just told me to stay in shape and if I get a call, be ready.”
S-R: Are you working out with anyone up here? Will you train at the WSU facility, or elsewhere?
JW: “There’s a real good gym in Lewiston that I just go to every day of the week. I just work out by myself and maintain everything. Then my fiancée’s parents have got a crazy hill in the back of their yard, so I just run up and down that.”
JW: “Yeah, sprints and stuff, just to keep myself in shape. It’s the hardest part, so it’s good.”
S-R: I know you’ve been a father figure to your fiancée’s first child, but what’s it like now to have your own son?
JW: “It’s been good, because he’s the reason I’m still going. Like I said, it was wearing me down going through all these trips and flights and all this stuff. Me thinking about him, I don’t ever want him thinking he wants to give up, because I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to be that example. It’s been hard being away from him, but I’m doing it for him. He’s still a baby, so he’s going to remember none of this stuff. I want to make sure he’s cool when he gets older.”
S-R: Was Rye reluctant to name your son Rush?
JW: “It was her idea. I didn’t like it at first, then it grew on me. Rush James Williams. Yeah, that’s real nice.”
S-R: I mean, it’s perfect for the son of a running back.
JW: “Oh yeah, no, my fiancée thinks he’s about to be playing tennis (she played at Lewis-Clark State). I’m like, no, he’s going to be a football/basketball jock.”
S-R: Looking at the Cougars, I know you’ve been around a lot since spring, how do you think they’ll fare this season?
JW: “Everybody’s going to be fine. Every year somebody significant leaves. Gardner (Minshew) or me or somebody on the line leaves, and everybody thinks the season’s going to be – they said the same thing last year and we went 11-2. I don’t have no doubt in my mind they can go 12-0, 13-0. You know what I mean? It’s like Cougs vs. Everybody. They were saying that last year, and it’s literally like that every year. But I think Gordo’s (Anthony Gordon) going to be good. Everybody been sleeping on Gordo. He’s been good every year since he’s been here. I never lost faith in him at all, and I’m glad he’s the starter because now he can show you what he can do. So I’m glad he’s playing. Then running back, of course Max (Borghi) is going to do his thing. He’s experienced enough and he got everything down pat real fast, he’s going to do fine.”
S-R: Have you had a chance to meet Deon McIntosh?
JW: “No, not yet. I haven’t yet. But I’m going to talk to them and get to know all of them. And then (Clay) Markoff, I was super happy to see he was on scholarship. That made me super excited. He deserves it, too.”
S-R: He’s a true running back now. He doesn’t like to be called a fullback these days.
JW: “Oh yeah, because I used to call him the Hulk. He used to have no neck. He slimmed down a lot and he’s moving way better now. He’s always worked and he never gave up, so I was super happy to hear about him getting on scholarship.”
S-R: There was an incident between Mike Leach and your agent, Eric Dickerson, earlier this year. Have you cleared things up with Coach Leach?
JW: “Yeah, I talked to Coach Leach about it. I apologized for it because I did get in my feelings. I thought he went about the wrong way with me leaving. I told him I didn’t like that and I was in my feelings, but I wasn’t about to hold a grudge over it and burn bridges. I still want to come and support my school and be a part of everything. So I went in and I broke bread and I made sure he knew I was fine with everything. Everything ED said was in his words and how he feels. I didn’t know it was going to get all crazy like that, but I went up to (Leach) in fall camp and I apologized and stuff, so thankfully we’re on good terms.”
S-R: Did you talk to Eric about possibly handling something like that differently?
JW: “ED is going to be ED. He isn’t going to hold his tongue for nobody. But everybody told me to stay away from him. But he was sticking up for me. You know what I mean? He saw how upset I was about (Leach’s reaction) at the time and he was just sticking up for me. He said, ‘Just don’t say nothing and I’ll handle it.’ He handled it in the ED way, but that’s him. I didn’t expect nothing less. But I did apologize to (Leach), and everything’s cool between us, and I didn’t ever want to come here and have friction between me and him. But we’re fine now, so it’s all good.”
S-R: Working out with all these NFL teams, do you get to hold onto any of the gear?
JW: “They take it back. For the Lions, I kept my cleats, and I got cool with the equipment manager, he said he was going to send me my jersey if he can. So that’d be cool.”
S-R: But everything else you’ve had to give back?
JW: “Yeah, shirts and stuff. It’s been cool, though, I got my cleats, so that’s all I wanted.”
S-R: Any regrets about your decision to come out of school early?
JW: “I’ve got to live with it. It was a hard decision and me being here is making me reminisce a lot, but I did it for my family. A lot of people think I’m kind of stupid for doing it, but at the same time I did it for my family, and what I saw in my head is me making money to support (them). Because I wasn’t going to take care of an entire family with a $1,200 (per month) stipend. People don’t understand I wouldn’t be seeing my son a lot of the day at all for a whole year. I get up at 6, work out, then I wouldn’t be back until, like, 10, after classes and practice and stuff. So I kind of made that decision, and I always want to be in my son’s life. So that’s why I made that decision.”
S-R: What’s the funniest thing your son’s done so far?
JW: “He does a lot. He’s a little grumpy puss. He can be happy, too, he just does a lot of funny things. He headbutts me. I don’t know if his neck is stable yet, but he headbutts me.”
S-R: He’s got the Markoff neck.
JW: “Oh yeah, exactly. He’s already bulked up. I told Rye to put creatine in her system, so the breast milk will be creatine.”
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