There is a serenity, a humility, and a soft-spokenness to Andre Williams — “Smooth Dre,’’ as many teammates call him
“I’m actually writing a book,’’ college football’s fiercest, most accomplished running back of 2013 said. “It’s called ‘A King, a Queen and a Conscience.’ I guess I’d call it a philosophical memoir, showing how the significant moments of my life really influence how I think about the world.’’
Williams, 21 years old and the son of Jamaican immigrants, is some 80 pages into crafting that tome, with many chapters still to pen. Meanwhile, on the gridiron that is his more prolific tablet, he is in the middle of a dynamic career rewrite, having charged to the top of BC’s all-time single-season running chart. Headed into the Eagles’ game Saturday at Syracuse, Williams leads the nation with 2,073 yards rushing. It’s just the 16th time in Bowl Subdivision history a player has reached 2,000.
Williams’s success this season, following three years at The Heights that were remarkably ordinary, slowly but inexorably has brought him into the Heisman Trophy discussion. He is by no means the favorite for college football’s highest honor, in part because of those ho-hum first three seasons in which he never logged more than 584 yards. Yet here he is now, the centerpiece of a revived, bowl-bound 7-4 BC squad, with his thick, piston-like legs churning and yardage spilling out of his curriculum vitae like so much confetti at a ticker-tape parade.
“It makes me feel blessed,’’ said Williams in a soft voice that blended both a sigh and a laugh as he shook his head in disbelief. “I mean, there’s nothing that I did to make all this stuff happen, because I haven’t changed between last year and now.
“Things just lined up in an opportune way. I just feel blessed and I truly believe that God just . . . well, everything just happens for the good of those who love God. And I just think that he is really just showing this team a lot of favor right now.’’
Whatever, or whomever, is behind it all, Williams has reached hallowed ground previously trod upon by such running deities as Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen, LaDanian Tomlinson, and Ricky Williams. In 11 games this season, he has gone from the anonymous Jersey-born kid wearing No. 44 in the BC backfield to the No. 1 ball carrier in college America.
From “Who?” to “Heisman!” in about three months.
Not even Steve Addazio, the Eagles’ first-year head coach, saw it unfolding this way.
“No, no, no,” said Addazio. “When I first got here, there was probably more commentary that we didn’t have a dominant back than there was commentary that we had one.
“But I would say to you that by the fourth day of spring practice, when the pads were on, there was no doubt in my mind: I felt we could build our offense around him. That changed for me immediately.
“Now, I saw some great little signs during winter workouts and things, but it was by like that fourth, fifth day of spring ball that you were like, you know what, I have been around long enough [to see] that, ‘Oh, this guy is going to be a load.’ ’’
Triumph over trauma
At a very young age, barely on his feet in fact, Williams had a thing for running into traffic. At age 2, just outside his family home in Plainfield, N.J., it nearly cost him his life.
“Oh, that sound — it was awful, dreadful — I thought he was dead,’’ said Lancelene Williams, recalling the day her toddler bolted into the road and was struck in a two-car crash. “I was scared crazy.’’
To hear Andre recount the accident, his heart stopped for nearly 10 minutes. Mom’s version is that he required stitches for a gash to his head and suffered bruises to both his heart and lung, yet suffered no broken bones. When he finally awoke three days later at the hospital, she said, nurses there began to cry and words came out of her son’s mouth that she had never heard.
“He said, ‘I’m here for a purpose, mommy — God has a plan for me,’ ’’ she said in a rich, lilting Jamaican accent. “He lived as a gift from God, I know that.
“The gifts he’s been given, it is all strength from God, and he displays that strength through Andre. He is such a humble child, humble and willing, and because of that, God has sent him this talent for football.’’
She is also convinced that milk had something to do with it. Andre always had a healthy appetite, forever making runs to the refrigerator. When he was 3 or 4, she said, she ultimately gave into Andre’s milk craving, leaving a full gallon jug on a lower shelf so he could self-serve.
“He would open the door, take the jug, and drink right from that,’’ she said. “I’d say, ‘Andre, you have a cup. Please, use the cup.’ And he’d be, ‘No, mommy. No, mommy. Milk.’ He’d drink it, put it back down . . .’’
Lancelene and Ervin Williams, both born in Jamaica, emigrated to Wisconsin some 25 years ago with their son Ervin Jr. (an ex-UNH football player and now a barber in Georgia). The Williamses soon moved to New Jersey, living in Plainfield and South Plainfield, and raised Ervin Jr., daughter Krystal, Andre, and Kareem, the latter of whom is a star senior running back at Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa., the same school where Andre piled up more than 2,000 yards his senior season.
According to Andre, he inherited his “sweet personality’’ from his mother (reporter’s note: sounds right) and his athleticism from his father, once an accomplished sprinter in Jamaica. Her husband’s sprinting prowess, said Lancelene, earned him the nickame “Strength Man’’ back home.
But it was the senior Williams’s mother who felt it was more important for a young man to learn a trade than pursue a running career, which eventually led to starting a new life in America. Ervin Williams has long owned his own HVAC company in south Jersey.
A stiff test for foes
Sprinting, fast and bold, is at the root of Williams’s football success. He is a punishing, downhill, rock-’em-sock-’em tailback, one who delights in hitting the hole and then flattening every defender in his path. Beyond his burning speed, his trademark is his devastating stiff-arm, delivered with martial arts-like force.
“You want to be a punisher as a runner, and he’s that,’’ noted Addazio. “And don’t think [opponents] don’t see that on film. Players watch tape and they know.’’
Williams is a 6-foot, 230-pound cannonball when he reaches the open field, where even late in games he is capable of summoning a higher speed. His high school coach at Parkland, Jim Morgans, recalled how Williams fine-tuned the stiff-arm in his two years with the Trojans.
Parkland players, he said, are taught to apply tackles when their next step would land them on the toes of their opponent. As a runner, said Morgans, Williams applied that technique in reverse, firing out that ferocious stiff-arm at the precise moment he felt the defender was prepared to tackle him.
“He just bludgeons people,’’ said Morgans, now in his 45th year of coaching football. “He did that here. In fact, he’d have the sideline, a clear path to the end zone, and he would intentionally turn against the grain to take on pursuit — much to the dismay of the defender.
“Andre would turn in and you could see the kid on the other team, eyes wide open, thinking, ‘What the hell is this guy doing?!’ One scary sight, I’ll tell you that.’’
And an action hardly befitting the calm, soft-spoken Williams, a student in the Lynch School of Education who majors in applied psychology and human development.
“That’s a demoralizing thing for a DB to get stiff-armed to the ground,’’ he said. “And you know, football is a physical game, but it’s a mental game, too. And if you can get your opponent in a bad mental state, you can take advantage of him. And that’s a big part of my game.
“It’s just something a running back should know how to do.’’
The next steps
Williams is wrapping up his course load at BC. He will graduate early, Dec. 12, and remain on campus to tune up for the yet-to-be determined bowl game.
He’ll head back to the Allentown area to spend time with his mother and Kareem (playing Saturday in the state quarterfinals), then meet up with his older brother in Georgia to get ready for the NFL combine and draft.
“In my opinion, they are looking for big, strong backs, they need a big back in that run game,’’ said Addazio. “It is a physical game. I would anticipate he will have a great opportunity.’’
Williams, meanwhile, said he doesn’t want to look too far ahead. Syracuse is on the calendar for Saturday, a bowl game after that, then some rest. If he has the idle moment, perhaps he’ll fill it with some writing about a king, a queen, and a conscience.
“Royalty was said to be endowed by divine right to sit on the throne,’’ said the author/tailback. “Royalty is something that is in the blood. But I am making the claim that royalty is something that is deeper than that. It’s something that is ingrained in our conscience and the way that you think and act.
“And what you believe about the world can shape and alter the way that you live, how people interact with you — the way you see things and your outcomes.
“So I am just using the significant moments of my life that really shape the way I think and show how I progressed over the course of my life up till the end of college.’’
No doubt the chapter on the art and application of the stiff-arm will be a doozy.