Sylvester Williams and the value of hard work

In the spring of 2007, University of Iowa junior Shonn Greene lost his academic eligibility and football scholarship. Uncertain of his life’s direction, he left school, enrolled in Kirkwood Community College (which doesn’t even have a football team) and worked just down the road from the University of Iowa at a furniture store, moving crates and tables, mattresses, beds and dressers.

That experience lasted until 2008, when he was able to return to college as a junior. He even missed spring football practice that year, but in the fall, he was back on the field with a very different attitude.

Up to that point, he’d had a couple of poor years as a running back, with just 37 carries for 173 yards his freshman year. As a sophomore, he still produced only 32 carries for 205 yards and one score. The realities of getting an hourly paycheck for long days of work, and nights of study, with the attendant backaches from moving furniture, provided a powerful force in his life. He knew things had to change.

His return to the gridiron in the fall of 2008 helped his team produce 30.9 points per game. They won five of their last six games, and Greene finished a year in which he broke 100 yards in every game, by contributing 121 yards and three touchdowns in an old-fashioned, 31-10 beatdown of South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. He finished his year with 1,850 yards on 307 attempts with 20 TDs. The NY Jets would draft him in the third round (65th overall) of the 2009 Draft. He gave them over 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, and signed with Tennessee in March.

In case you’ve been asleep for the last week, Sylvester Williams was the Broncos’ first-round pick in the recent 2013 Draft. Not unlike Greene, Williams worked for $12 per hour at the Modine Radiator Factory, just out of high school. He’d played some defensive tackle as a senior in high school, but he really wanted to go out and get a job. Working in places like Walmart, Backyard Burger, Taco Bell, and the radiator factory combined to provide him an experience that drove him back to attending school and back into football. The constant advice and support of his father also helped him along the way.

Williams spent two years at Coffeyville Community College and was a walk-on to their football program. They took one look at the 6-3, then-370 lb monolithic monster in front of them and moved him quickly onto the field. He gave them 39 tackles as a freshman, with five sacks and seven tackles for a loss. Sophomore year, the big-school college scouts came around to watch him deliver 49 tackles, four QB pressures, 11.5 TFL, and a pair of sacks. He also blocked four kicks, which gives you an idea of his athleticism. He was an All-Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference first-team and All-American honorable mention. Scouts, Inc. rated him as a four-star prospect. He had his choice of Division I colleges.

Williams opted to attend the University of North Carolina, where he majored in communications and run-stopping, with minors in TFLs and sacking the quarterback. Williams is a natural undertackle - usually played from the 3-technique, between the offensive guard and tackle, the position that Warren Sapp made famous. He’s quick, powerful and dedicated. He was selected All-American and All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team his senior year.

One of the things that I liked about him came out in his interview here, where he says that he intends to listen to the leaders in the locker room because he intends to become one of them. He vows never to bring shame onto the Broncos franchise, on or off the field. He comes across as a sincere, humble, hard-working young man. He’s seen the other options in his life, learned what they held in store for him, and knows that he’s not going to make that mistake again.

Perhaps one of the solutions to the problems of unmotivated high school kids would be to give them long hours of work in a radiator factory with the incessant noise, back-breaking work, and low hourly pay. Experiences like that seem to have worked for Greene and Williams.

Reality can be a powerful motivator. Williams shows every sign of becoming that 10-year starter that John Elway looks for with his first pick in each draft. With Terrance Knighton and Kevin Vickerson as nose tackles, Williams will be playing the slot that brings the pressure against the quarterback. Joining Mitch Unrein and second-year DE/DT Derek Wolfe, Williams looks like a perfect fit for Jack Del Rio’s pressure-oriented scheme.

It beats putting together radiators.

Welcome to Denver, Sylvester. I hope it’s a long and productive stay.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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