LaQuan Williams, Brigade ready to begin new era of Baltimore football

LaQuan Williams is a professional football player and also an aspiring entrepreneur, so it was not without some knowledge of risk and bottom lines that the former Ravens wide receiver appraised the Baltimore Brigade's inaugural season as if it were some essential investment.

"I eat, sleep and drink football," Williams, 28, said Thursday at the Arena Football League expansion team's Baltimore practice facility. "That's all I think about, especially in the season. You only get so many games."

He knows this well. The former Poly and Maryland standout last appeared in an NFL game in 2012, last was on an NFL roster in 2014 and ended a brief stint with the AFL's Los Angeles Kiss last summer. Yet even as his fortunes in the sport seemed to shift and his interests outside it blossomed — he indulged his entrepreneurial spirit on Airbnb and took online classes as he worked toward a master's degree — he felt there were more games ahead.

So he worked out, stayed in shape, hoping there would again be a need in the market for what he thought were obvious goods. Now, more than five years after his first paid job in the sport became almost too good to be true — the hometown Ravens signing the undrafted Williams and then winning Super Bowl XLVII — he is happy to have returned to a Baltimore team.

The pay is not as great, the fans not as plentiful, the venues not as big — the Brigade will open the season Friday against the expansion Washington Valor at Verizon Center — but it is still football.

"To play the game that I love, get paid for it, being able to support my family, it's a blessing," Williams said. "I'm out here just running around, competing with other guys and just [ready to] dominate. It's fun."

Williams' presence on the Brigade makes for a strange reality: He is, for now, the Brigade's most recognizable, well-known player. He is also among their least proven.

After finishing his Ravens career with four catches for 46 yards and a half-dozen kick returns over two seasons, he spent less than a year with the Canadian Football League's Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2015-16. Cut last June, he was assigned midseason to the Kiss, helmed then by current Brigade coach Omarr Smith.

He had four catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns in the team's final two games, the last of which was an early-August loss to the Portland Steel. Two months later, the Kiss folded, one of five teams to leave the AFL in the offseason. In November, the AFL announced that a franchise was coming to Baltimore.

Williams by then had learned to accept change in the league. The AFL game was different, with field dimensions (85 feet wide, 50 yards long) nearly half that of those in the NFL (160 feet wide, 100 yards long). It was a step away from traditional gridiron football and into a league that allowed receivers to barrel toward the line of scrimmage before the snap.

"He was very open to accepting the game, and that's something that's very challenging to do from guys that have spent time in the NFL," Smith said. "He came in at the end of the season, learned the nuances and did a pretty good job in the couple of games that he played, so having that experience really works in his favor in terms of coming into this year."

Williams is humble about his NFL pedigree. Brigade quarterback Chase Cartwright praised the receiver's physical assets — "He's a big-bodied guy, runs great routes, got great hands" — but Williams said his preparation would have to separate him, both from his peers at the position and opposing cornerbacks.

It is another job for Williams, but one he loves. At the end of practice Thursday, the Brigade split into two teams for a series of relay races. As his squad's ball neared the final leg of the competitions, Williams ran over, shadowing it from a safe distance. After the final race was won, he mobbed his teammates in a raucous celebration.

When Smith was asked about his team's readiness for its first-ever game, it sounded as if it could double as an assessment of Williams, too.

"I think we're in a decent spot," Smith said, "but we won't know until tomorrow."

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