The day before he got the phone call that he had been anticipating for months, LaQuan Williams' patience, tried and tested throughout his football-playing life, had just about run out.
He was holding a part-time job at a Sherwin-Williams store in Washington, manning the cash register, mixing paint and labeling products. It was the last place that Williams expected to be, but he needed to pay the bills and support his infant daughter, Layla.
UFL, and his agent, Jason Sklar, had explored opportunities and tryouts for him in Canada and seemingly everywhere else where football is played. But with no encouraging leads and the NFL lockout still in full effect, Williams spent the day playing a flag football tournament in New Jersey with two of his former University of Maryland teammates.
As Lassell Williams drove his son from Baltimore to his apartment in Laurel later that night, LaQuan felt further away from his NFL dreams than ever before.
"He said, 'Dad, I'm frustrated,'" Lassell Williams recalled. "As an adult, you understand that if you work hard and you can't see the outcome, anybody is going to get frustrated. I just told him, you have to keep trusting, keep believing that you're going to get what you're supposed to get. At the end of the day, he wanted to be home. He wanted to play for the Ravens. He's living his dream right now. He worked hard for it and nobody can take it from him."
The NFL lockout, which lasted for more than 4 1/2 months, was supposed to be a death knell for undrafted free agents like Williams. They were given precious little time to find teams, and then impress their new employers once they did sign. But LaQuan Williams persevered, just as he did coming out of Poly as a lightly-recruited player, just as he did at Maryland when injuries and academic issues dropped him further and further down the depth chart.
Williams, who grew up in East Baltimore, signed with the Ravens a couple of days after the lockout ended. He not only made the active roster, but he's occupied a key role for the 3-1 team. He's returned kickoffs and punts, and served as the third receiver with Lee Evans injured. In the Ravens' 34-17 victory over the New York Jets Sunday, Williams made his second NFL catch, an 11-yard reception on a Joe Flacco pass.
"The kid is a survivor," said Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, who worked with Williams while on Ralph Friedgen's staff at Maryland. "He always had a huge weight on his shoulders with all the things that he's had to overcome. You always saw it in his eyes, you saw it in his mannerisms. At the end of the day, it's a great story. You talk about a kid that just kept fighting through it and now look at him. He's got his college degree and he's chasing his dream, playing in the NFL."
When Williams, 23, was informed by Ravens coach John Harbaugh that he had made the team, he said that he left the room and dropped to his knees.
"I just kept thanking God," Williams said. "It was a blessing. The odds were against me not only to make the team, but to be on the 53-man roster. It's definitely a great feeling, but it's still a steady grind to make sure you do your job properly. I have to prepare everyday to be the best player I can be."
Shifting his focus
Williams has spent part of the bye week at the Ravens' complex, working out, catching balls and continuing to master the playbook. He said he's moved well beyond the euphoria of just making his hometown team, and inhabiting the same locker room as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed andRay Rice.
It had long been Williams' goal to become a professional athlete. He just never figured it would happen on the football field. Williams was a star basketball player, averaging more than 20 points per game, at Poly. He played quarterback and safety on the football team too, but his focus and preparation were on becoming the next great Baltimore basketball standout. That was before he had a conversation with one of his coaches and mentors, Corey Johnson, the summer leading into his senior year.
"I told him, 'You're a great basketball player but I can find 50 guys in the city that have your comparable skills. In football, I can't find five guys that have your skills," said Johnson, currently the head football coach at Patterson. Johnson was Williams' JV football coach, and then varsity defensive coordinator at Poly. "I wasn't trying to put down his basketball skills. He was a heck of a basketball player. But here is a kid who was rangy, very athletic, and he did some freakish things on the football field.'"
Before one of the annual Poly-City showdowns, Johnson moved Williams from safety to cornerback and matched him up with Duke-bound receiver Sheldon Bell.
"I told him, 'Shut him down. He has a [college] offer and you don't.' He did a great job, held him without a catch," Johnson said.
While he stood out on the field and on the basketball court, Poly girls basketball and volleyball coach Kendall Peace, who taught Williams during junior and senior years, remembers a motivated and humble student who didn't want special treatment and was content just being "one of the boys."
When Williams knew he was going to miss a week of class because of a family vacation, he asked Peace if she could arrange for him to get his Vector Mechanics textbook early so he wouldn't fall too far behind in class.
Williams has dropped by Poly several times since leaving the school to say hello to his former teachers and speak to students, but Peace admitted that she was still slightly taken aback when she turned on the television last Sunday and saw him back to return a kickoff against the Jets.