On July 30 2013, NFL free-agent linebacker Leon Williams turns 30 years old. Drafted in the fourth round out of the University of Miami by the Cleveland Browns in 2006, Williams has had a quiet and un-assuming NFL career to this point. You may be wondering why I am writing an article about a journeyman NFL player who is not a household name. The truth is, Leon happens to be a personal friend of mine that I met many years ago while he was a high-school student in Brooklyn New York. I would like to take a moment and explain how I stumbled upon this outstanding high-school athlete who would one day beat the odds and make it to the NFL.
It all started in 2000 while I was a college student at St. John’s University in New York. I was a beat writer for their school newspaper and I mostly covered their football team, primarily because nobody else wanted to. St. John’s was never known for their football team, and as a result, the university eventually eliminated their football program shortly thereafter. Needless to say, the Red Storm football team wasn’t exactly littered with NFL-caliber prospects.
During the summer after my freshman year, I was working out at a fitness club in my native borough of Brooklyn. One day while doing my normal routine, I saw this huge mountain of a man. He was about six-foot-three with broad shoulders, a thick upper body, and a completely chiseled physique: This dude looked like a young Terry Crews! Being that I was covering low-level college athletes at the time, this character definitely stood out to me, so I had to investigate. I thought for sure that he was a high-caliber college player, or maybe even a pro because he was way more physically gifted than the mere-mortal players I would regularly see on campus. I was astonished to learn that this massive specimen was just a 17-year old rising senior at Canarsie High School. I had attended a rival high-school of Canarsie’s in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, and would have had to play against this dude since we were only two year apart. Thank goodness my mother did not allow me to try out for the football team, as I wouldn’t have stood much of a chance trying to butt heads with this future NFL linebacker named Leon Williams. Thanks Mom!
As a reporter, I was curious to learn more about Leon’s football life so I attended some of his high-school games and wrote articles about his exploits on the field. He seemed genuinely happy that somebody cared about his journey and we forged a unique bond. However, Leon would explain that it wasn’t all fun and games as a star high-school athlete. Coming from an economically depressed area in the ghetto, drug use and gang violence was all too common amongst his peers. Leon had seen close friends pass away or become incarcerated at a very young age. Women would also pose as a threat to Leon’s future success. Often times, young girls would throw themselves at the up-and-coming athlete, viewing Leon as though he was a potential winning lottery ticket. Without a father-figure to help him navigate through these situations, Leon had to be extra careful with who he associated himself with.
Eventually, Leon’s incredible high-school resume earned him a full-scholarship to play college football with the Miami Hurricanes. The kid from Brooklyn became a member of the greatest football fraternity of all-time. At Miami, Leon was able to sharpen his skills and learn from future NFL stars such as Andre Johnson, Jonathan Vilma, Ed Reed, Vince Wolfork, and Frank Gore among others. In 2006, I was extremely happy to see that all of Leon’s hard work was finally rewarded when he was drafted by Cleveland. I’m very proud of the fact that Leon was able to ascend beyond his tough circumstances and carve out a nitche in pro football. After his time with the Browns, Leon signed with the UFL and later returned to the NFL to play for the Dallas Cowboys in 2010. Most recently, he was a member of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012.
Being that Leon is currently un-signed, he came back to his native home of Brooklyn and I was pleasantly surprised when I ran into him at the gym recently. We caught up on things for a moment and I let him know that I was aware of his career and I was following his progress as an NFL player. It was also refreshing to re-connect with Leon because he is the type of athlete that is grateful for his opportunity to make a handsome living playing football and carries himself with dignity and self-respect.
It is a common theme in sports that athletes often have a chip on their shoulder and are eager to prove people wrong. But when Leon’s dream of playing in the NFL became a reality, he in fact proved me right because I immediately knew that he had a unique skill set and believed he had a chance to achieve his goal. Turning 30 is a scary proposition for pro athletes because teams are looking to phase out the older veteran players and replace them with younger talent. So even if Leon does not sign with another team and his NFL playing days are indeed over, his athletic career and his accomplishments on the gridiron were an incredible success in my opinion. So without further ado, let’s all wish Leon Williams a very happy 30th birthday today!