NASHVILLE — It was the second night of the NFL Draft. Joejuan Williams, just selected as the No. 45 overall pick by the New England Patriots, hopped in a black sedan and snuck out of the downtown crowds flooding the streets of his hometown.
They drove west and pulled up in front of a dorm on the Vanderbilt campus. Williams unfolded his 6-foot-4-inch frame from the back seat, thanked the driver, and walked in.
He went to his friend Kalija Lipscomb’s room, where a group was watching the draft. Without knocking, he opened the door and stuck his head, Patriots cap affixed to it, inside.
The guys in the room went crazy, jumping and hugging.
Back downtown, Williams’s friend, coach, and mentor, Corey Phillips, saw the scene in the dorm room posted on Instagram. He showed Williams’s agent, relieved, because Williams hadn’t told everyone he was taking off when he left the green room. There was supposed to be a party in his honor starting soon.
That Williams wanted to go jump up and down in a dorm room with his best friends instead of going to a party surprised no one. But when you’ve had to jump over so many hurdles to get to this point, people worry.
Williams grew up with his mom, Stephanie Robertson, in Nashville public housing. His father wasn’t in the picture, and Williams doesn’t talk about him publicly except to say in a video produced by Vanderbilt that he knew his father was a very good football player in Tennessee and that he did give him one thing, a goal: “To be better than him in everything that I did in life.”
Williams moved around so much he refers to places he “stayed” instead of places he lived. They were evicted multiple times. Violence and police presence were constants. One Christmas Eve, Williams went to sleep convinced he’d finally see a tree and presents the next morning because he’d seen red lights flashing outside his window.
But life hit its nadir in April 2010, when Robertson was arrested by an undercover police officer for selling crack cocaine. She was convicted and sentenced to 4½ years probation. Williams and his older brother, Deontre, went to live with their grandmother.
“My kids saw a lot, they saw a whole lot of stuff that they weren’t supposed to see at that age,” Robertson said in the video. “That hurts me every day, I still think about it.”
No one wants to get too deep into what that period of time was like for Williams. The basic facts are known, but the specifics — of where he was for the days after his mom’s arrest when no one could find him, of what it really felt like to grow up without his dad, of how he and his brother made it work — he’s only shared with a select few. Phillips, the high school coach turned Vanderbilt recruiting coordinator, has known Williams since he was a middle schooler and is like family. He knows the story. Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason knows, too, from the nights when Williams was in college when he needed to talk and they’d just get in the car and drive. It’s a small inner circle.
Williams can mask it with charisma, but he’s an introvert. This is the guy who goes to the dorm room, not the draft party. He hates the idea that in telling his story his mom — his hero, the person who taught him to tackle in the streets outside their apartment and the first person he hugged after the call came from the Patriots — might come across as a villain instead of someone who struggled but fought.
“We’ve had a lot of low points, but through that she always tried to show her love for her kids,” Williams said in the Vanderbilt video.
The story of his childhood is dramatic enough that it can eclipse everything else, that Williams loves Call of Duty, has worn the same pair of Vans sneakers basically every day for the past year and always keeps Skittles, Starbursts, Rips or gummy worms in his backpack. So he keeps it private. And yet, everybody wants to know. Phillips remembers once ahead of the draft, when the interview requests and feature stories were piling up, when Williams got frustrated.
“How many times am I going to tell how [crappy] my life was growing up,” he asked.
Help from others
When Robertson lost custody, Williams was a middle schooler at Smithson Craighead Academy, a public charter school on the outskirts of the city. Many students were there because they’d had problems at other schools, so it wasn’t the easiest place to stay on track, but Williams had some of the right people in his corner.
One was Maurice Fitzgerald, dean of students and head football coach. At this point, Williams was a round little tailback with average athleticism, but his coaches liked that he was smart and competitive. Fitzgerald kept him on the right path, got him working out with his son, Buck, who runs a training program, and connected him with Phillips who was then coaching at Father Ryan High School, a private school on a manicured campus just south of downtown that counts Tim McGraw and Faith Hill among its neighbors.
Father Ryan also has a very strong athletic program, and its head football coach, Bruce Lussier, was interested in a few students at Smithson Craighead. With some urging from Phillips and Maurice Fitzgerald, Williams was included in that group and was able to get a financial aid package. He matriculated as a freshman in 2012.
Williams was a gangly 5-10 as a high school freshman. He didn’t play much, but he made friends quickly and soaked up new opportunities. Sometimes that masked the jealousy and the sense of unfairness he often felt meeting his new friends’ families or visiting their homes, and the difficulty of the transition to Father Ryan.
There was one moment that sticks out to Phillips for two reasons. To understand its significance you need to understand one of the young coach’s biggest rules: Never wear your pants below your waistline.
“If you’re in my presence and you’re sagging, we’re going to have a bad misunderstanding and you know it,” Phillips said.
So, when Phillips spotted Williams sagging one day just after Christmas break Williams’s sophomore year, he immediately pointed it out to him. What he didn’t realize until Williams yanked his trousers up was that they were several inches too short. He was growing fast, and he didn’t have any others that fit.
Phillips was immediately mortified he’d singled out Williams. He went into “full-fledged panic mode.”
“As an African-American kid at a private school that’s predominantly white, I didn’t want him to get made fun of,” Phillips said.
Phillips went to Walmart and bought the biggest pair of pants he could find, size 34 x 36. When he saw them on Williams was when he realized Williams had grown at least two inches since he started at Father Ryan.
As Williams grew he became more coordinated, and word of the big cornerback from Nashville started to spread among college coaches. The summer after sophomore year was when the offers started rolling in. Williams was going to camps and standing out. Tennessee. Kentucky. Ole Miss. Auburn. Alabama. He had about a dozen offers before he was a junior.
That same summer, Phillips would bring Williams along when he worked out with an old friend, former NFL cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Williams was shy at first, barely spoke to Finnegan, and only watched the drills, but one day Finnegan got fed up with watching Williams stand there and yelled for him to jump in.
The workout was done 45 minutes later. Williams thanked Finnegan, gave him a hug, grabbed his things, and left. Finnegan walked right over to Phillips, stared him in the eye, and said “Whatever you do, don’t [screw] that kid up. He’s going to be a pro.”
Williams made 48 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 11 pass breakups as a junior in 2014. All he had to do was choose a college. The phone was ringing off the hook. A few weeks before he had to decide, Williams posted a note on social media telling all the schools he needed some space and to give him a week to himself. Mason, from Vanderbilt, was one of the few who listened.
Mason and Williams, both raised by single mothers, had connected from the jump. Williams also loved Vanderbilt for the value of the education he knew he’d get there and for the chance to stay and play for his home city. He also knew that Mason had coached another big cornerback, Richard Sherman, at Stanford.
It was important to Williams that his college coach have a plan for him because his size was unusual for his position. He believes he’s a cornerback at heart, at his best one-on-one against a No. 1 receiver, but some coaches felt he would outgrow the position.
“The word safety was almost like a cuss word, a four-letter word,” said Buck Fitzgerald, Williams’s trainer and the son of his middle school coach. “You don’t go with the safeties, you do everything that the small guys do.”
Williams knew Mason saw him as a corner. In high school, after Williams went through another growth spurt, Phillips consulted Mason on how to handle it.
“How did you get Richard to play with good pad level,” Phillips texted.
“I stopped trying to make him look like the other kids,” was Mason’s response.
Williams chose Vanderbilt. Before he could get there, there was another hurdle. Robertson’s sentence ended in October 2014. She was working to put things back together and moved her family for a job. Williams transferred to Hendersonville, a nearby public school that had a good football team. Then, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association brought the hammer down because of a rule that states any student who transfers from a private to a public school has to live at least 20 miles from the school they’re transferring from. Williams’s new home missed the cutoff by two/10ths pf a mile. He was ineligible. He appealed, but it was denied. The second-ranked college football prospect in the state missed his senior football season because of the distance of three football fields.
“The whole thing was stupid,” Buck Fitzgerald said. “It was just dumb.”
It was a lonely time. Williams traded camaraderie and competition for solo hours in the weight room. He was still growing — Buck Fitzgerald eventually realized that the weeks when Williams seemed to trip over himself were the expression of growing pains, not poor focus — and never complained about missing football, even though he did.
“I’m sure it was tough and really dark, but again, if you didn’t know you thought he was just fine, you know?” Buck Fitzgerald said. “I think he focused. When you’ve had to deal with as much as he did, I think you lock into what you want to lock into.”
At Vanderbilt, Williams played in every game as a true freshman and, by the end of the season, had worked himself into the team’s primary cornerback rotation. His sophomore year, he started. That year against Georgia was when he gave up his first touchdown. Vanderbilt had beaten the Bulldogs the year before, but on their way to a national championship game appearance, Georgia got revenge, 45-14.
Williams was hardly the only player to lose a matchup in that game, but that didn’t matter. He’d bit on a double move and had to watch the ball sail over his head. In the locker room he sobbed uncontrollably.
Phillips, who was hired to help with recruiting at Vanderbilt not long after Williams started there, was within earshot to hear Williams tell Mason he felt like he’d let him down.
“I knew in hearing him say that, this kid is chasing perfection,” Phillips said. “He’s not trying to be a good player, he’s trying to be the best, most dominant player on the field.”
Williams made the All-Southeastern Conference second team as a junior with four interceptions and 13 passes defensed. He played mostly on the outside, but he’d travel to follow the best receivers in the SEC. Williams relished those matchups, walking into cornerbacks coach Terrence Brown’s office first thing every Monday asking, “Who’s next,” before watching as much film as he could.
“I watch film like I watch ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” Williams said after the draft.
Williams got serious about his body, too. There’s still an indent on the right-side panel of his old Vanderbilt locker from where he stapled an index card with his weekly recovery routine. NormaTec compression recovery device on Monday, cold tub Tuesday, extra lifts, massages, band work, and the rest.
The next step
Williams’s draft process hit a snag when he ran a disappointing 4.64 40-yard dash at the combine, though he improved to 4.55 at his Pro Day. He weighed in at 211 pounds in Indianapolis, something Buck Fitzgerald thinks might have slowed him, but is back down around 205 now.
It didn’t bother the Patriots. They showed so much interest in Williams before the draft — interest that included two private workouts and a five-hour meeting in Nashville with coach Bill Belichick — that some around him began to think it might be a smoke screen until they traded up from pick No. 56 to get him at No. 45.
Williams joins a loaded secondary in New England. Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Jason McCourty all figure in ahead of him on the depth chart, at least for now.
“He’s a tremendously impressive kid,” said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. “I would say he’s very mature. He’s a great person, which is important. It says a lot about him and the things he’s endured throughout his life. But as a player, he’s got some unique attributes that not a lot of players in that position have.”
Phillips often says that Williams’s life has been a sequence of “almost there” moments. He perseveres and progresses, only for life to throw another hurdle in his way. It’s why the people around him worry easily. Old habits die hard, but Phillips said that when Williams walked across the stage and put on his Patriots cap, what he felt more than anything was relief. Finally, he could take the “almost” out of the equation.
It was apt that Williams’s draft was held in Nashville. In the only place he’s ever called home, Williams got where he was going.