Brandon Williams makes you feel small.
Many NFL players do, of course. A professional football locker room is a land of extreme of physiques. But even in that exotic context, Williams stands out. His bulbous upper arms look like they could be hanging in a butcher shop window. His meaty right mitt makes yours disappear as he says hello. His chest and belly are so expansive you feel you could shovel coal into him and ask him to carry you over a mountain.
Then you see that Instagram video, the one in which the Ravens' third-year nose tackle swings his arms and snaps his fingers in perfect rhythm as his feet jitterbug underneath. Yes, the same dude who manhandles blockers two at a time can also dance a flawless "Carlton."
You take all this in and realize nature or the divine touched this man with a rare blend of nimble and nasty that screams: All-Pro defensive lineman.
Former teammate Haloti Ngata had it. And now the Ravens will ask Williams to take on the full burden of a legacy sculpted by Ngata and stout forces such as Kelly Gregg and Sam Adams before him. The organization's decision makers have such faith in Williams after his first season as a starter that they speak of this as a given.
General manager Ozzie Newsome, not given to empty flattery, says Williams was already perhaps the best nose tackle in football by the end of last season.
Coach John Harbaugh echoes the praise, saying, "He's a guy that you expect to be dominant pretty much every play, and if he's not, you're kind of asking him, 'What's up?' He has become that kind of a player, which is a credit to him."
It's not always glamorous work, enveloping blockers so your teammates can run free to make sacks and highlight-reel hits. But do it well and you become one of the most valued defensive commodities in the league (Ngata, for example, signed a $48.5 million contract during the 2011 season) and also one of the best appreciated guys in your own locker room.
"Brandon Williams is a beast," says second-year linebacker Zachary Orr, his tone a blend of awe and gratitude. "You've got to see him. He's the strongest guy on the team, probably the biggest guy on the team, and he creates that push. As a linebacker, that's what you love, when your D-lineman stays square and gets a push in the backfield, [which] lets you run free and get the ball carrier."
Williams seems well-suited to his work temperamentally. He brushes aside a question about increasing his sack total and instead describes how he checks with linebackers Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley to make sure he's setting their table in the best manner possible.
"I'm here to make sure they're OK," he says.
Genuine zeal creeps into his voice as he describes the maelstrom that erupts each time an opposing center snaps the ball just under his nose.
"It's fast in the middle," he says. "The more you go inside the D-line, the faster it gets, the less space you have to work and move. As soon as the ball snaps, you're right into somebody. It takes a tough person to play that role, and a tough-minded person because you don't get the glory all the time."
His college coach, Daryl Daye, believes Williams is unusually suited to the job. And Daye knows the NFL, having coached for the Buffalo Bills.
"To me, he's tailor-made to play right over the center," Daye says. "I know them linebackers like him, with all the attention he draws. Very few centers in the NFL can block him one-on-one, if any. You have to bring a guard over to help. He's so quick with his hands and so dang strong. He cuts the opponent's playbook in half. You can't find those guys every day."
'He grew up real fast'
Williams is very much a jovial titan, his impish smile distracting from the awesome block of beef that is his torso. His bellicose laugh draws teammates to him during breaks in practice. Children find easy comfort in his presence during postworkout autograph sessions.
"His personality has always come out," Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks says. "If you're around him … you are not around him for 10 seconds, and you're laughing about something — something he said [or] he's imitating somebody."
Williams says he inherited his upbeat nature from his mother, Shelly Washington. Growing up in St. Louis, he watched her work at a factory building air-conditioning units until she was bone tired and then forgo dinner so he and his older brother could eat full meals. For several months during Williams' freshman year of high school, the family was without a fixed address, living out of Washington's Pontiac as they shuffled from sleeping in one relative's home to another.
Williams watched how the hard times never destroyed his mother or her hopes for the boys. "Just be a kid," she'd tell them. "Don't worry about anything else."
"There was never a day when she came home and you saw whether she was struggling or not," he says. "She always had that smile on her face. So, it instilled in me that no matter how hard it is, there's always something to smile about."
Washington raised her sons in the church, where Williams honed a singing voice he rates as one of the best on the Ravens (no word whether he's dueled with former opera star Justin Tucker). The dancing? He says he picked that up from television.
Basketball was his first athletic passion. He was always big, and in middle school he dreamed of growing another foot and becoming the next Shaquille O'Neal.
"But I stopped growing up and started getting wider instead," he says.
So he traded sneakers for cleats, though he could still throw down some mean dunks in college as his weight cleared 300 pounds. Now that he plays at 335, he settles for grabbing the rim with both hands.
Williams had always dreamed of becoming a firefighter, but figured he could best help his mother by earning an athletic scholarship. Though obviously intelligent, he was, by his own admission, not the most diligent student. So he finished high school as a partial qualifier. That dissuaded Division I recruiters and translated to a bit of rare fortune for Daye, then the defensive coordinator at Division II Missouri Southern.
The offensive coaches there actually passed on Williams after watching film of him blocking for a Cincinnati prep school, where he spent part of a year after high school. But Daye took a look and saw a squat terror who rolled over an opposing defender and sprung right back to his feet in one motion. "Well, that's athletic!" he recalls thinking.
Daye found Williams a delightful, if immature, presence once he arrived on campus. Sometimes, when Williams lagged in his studies, Daye would make him call home to Washington and explain why the coach was about to take away his Xbox and cellphone.
"He needed that structure and that discipline," Daye says. "But he grew up real fast."
Williams was just happy to be with a coach who cared about him as a person. His father wasn't around much as he grew up, so he says he inevitably hunted for male role models. He found another key one in Judd McPherson, the father of his college girlfriend.
"He taught me how to manage my money. He taught me to hunt and fish, things a normal dad would do," Williams says. "We'd sit and have those talks. If I'd get in trouble in school, the coach would call him. … If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't be here."
'A veteran now'
Before he matured into a Division II All-American, Williams endured one terrifying setback at Missouri Southern. It was summer 2009, about a week after he'd undergone spinal surgery to alleviate lingering back pain from a lifting injury. Williams was babysitting for a friend when his head started to throb and his body went cold and shaky. He had a friend take him to the hospital, and it turned out he had a staph infection, spinal meningitis and a leaking spinal fluid sac. If he'd waited a few more hours to go to the emergency room, he might have "crossed the river there" as Daye puts it.
Instead, Williams redshirted a year and was better than ever — on track for the NFL — when he returned. The incentive to be great only increased his senior season, when girlfriend Alyssa Karel gave birth to Williams' son, Ryder.
With the Ravens, Williams evolved from a promising rookie who didn't play a lot in 2013 to a reliable force who mitigated the loss of Ngata to an Adderall suspension in 2014.
Asked the key to Williams' evolution, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees says: "Maturity — on and off the field. … It's just that when you're a rookie, sometimes you really don't know, and each year you just kind of grow into being a professional, and he has become a professional football player. [He is] taking his craft very seriously. It's really very, very important to him."
Brooks has noticed Williams mentoring rookie Carl Davis during film sessions, already a voice of wisdom at 26. "It's really a joy to see how he interacts with the other guys after a year," the defensive line coach says.
Williams agrees he's asserting himself in new ways now that he's an established figure on the Ravens.
"Maybe it's just like a natural thing," he says. "It's not like someone pulled me aside and said 'now you've got to do this and that.' It's just that you see a guy do something wrong and you just kind of help them. It's second nature, you know. It's my third year and you've got guys … it's a young D-line besides Chris Canty. I'm a veteran now."