When Sean Williams came to the Naval Academy for his official visit, everything just clicked.
Williams spent most of the weekend with another recruit from Tennessee named Andrew Wood and they both attended the 2014 Navy-Notre Dame game at Fed Ex Field. It was an exciting contest and the Midshipmen had the Fighting Irish on the ropes for a while before bowing, 49-39.
Williams and his parents had a private pow-wow with head coach Ken Niumatalolo in his spacious office on the third floor of Ricketts Hall that overlooks the Severn River. It was that exact moment the Memphis native decided he would be attending the Naval Academy.
“When we came out of that meeting with Coach Niumat, Junior told me ‘I’m coming to Navy and I’m going to become a captain here.’ I didn’t doubt that one bit because my son has been the team captain at every level he has played,” Sean Williams Sr. recalled. “That has always been part of his makeup. He is a born leader.”
According to classmates, Williams has carried himself that way since the day he arrived in Annapolis to start plebe summer. Anthony Gargiulo will never forget the time Williams called out an upperclassman even though he was only a sophomore.
“We had a team meeting and one of the older players walked in looking sloppy. His shirt wasn’t tucked in and his shoes were untied,” Gargiulo said. “Sean corrected him on the spot. He was like: ‘What are you doing coming in here looking like that? C’mon man, do it the right way.’ Sean has acted like a captain ever since he got here.”
Williams, a four-year letterman and three-year starter, was an obvious choice to serve as defensive captain when the Navy players voted for that honor last January. That’s because teammates totally respect his relentless work ethic, impeccable character and demand for accountability.
“Sean has always been focused, always been locked in,” senior linebacker Hudson Sullivan said. “He has never been afraid to put his foot down and speak up whenever he sees something that is wrong.”
Williams probably didn’t realize it while growing up, but he was groomed for military life from the beginning. His father served four years in the Army while his grandfather was a Marine.
“Sean was born while I was stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas,” said the elder Sean Williams, who was a quartermaster in the Army. “I have preached discipline, structure and consistency to that boy from day one.”
Sean Williams the midshipman and football player said there is no question he is a reflection of his parents. Sean Sr. is a debt collector who also owns a food truck called “Will’s Steak Out” while Zakrya Williams does financial aid for colleges.
“They are very hard-working people who have done everything for me and I’m extremely blessed to have such great parents,” Williams said. “I hope I have represented my parents well and reflect the investment they have put into me.”
It was the elder Williams who did some research and decided the Naval Academy would be an ideal place for his son to get a great education and play football. He called Niumatalolo to plant the seed and assistant coach Ashley Ingram made sure to seek out Williams when he visited Cordova High while recruiting Tennessee.
“I knew Sean was a good football player because I had watched his highlight tape,” Ingram said. “From the first time I met Sean, I knew he was the perfect fit for the Naval Academy. He just checked all the boxes in terms of attitude, academics and ability. He is a very serious, very driven individual who is real sharp, real intelligent.”
Williams admits it took some time to warm up to the idea. The first team All-State selection and Liberty Bowl All-Star also had offers from Indiana and Brown among others.
“I was definitely blind to what all was going on at the Naval Academy. My first time really hearing about it was when Coach Ingram sat in my living room and gave me and my parents the full rundown,” Williams said. “My father was the one really pushing Navy. He understood the type of growth it would mean for me as a man.”
Williams overcame a bout with mononucleosis during plebe summer to stand out during August training camp in 2015, impressing the coaching staff with his speed, aggressiveness and sure tackling. He was thrust into the starting lineup at cornerback for the season opener against Colgate after both starters – Quincy Adams (injury) and Brendon Clements (suspension) – were ruled out.
“I felt extremely blessed to be chosen to start, but I also felt totally prepared. My whole life had been pointing toward that moment,” Williams said of his collegiate debut. “I wasn’t nervous because I knew the coaches would not have put me out there if they didn’t trust that I could perform.”
Williams acquitted himself quite well, recording four tackles and a pass breakup as Navy easily beat Colgate. “My classmates always clown me about one play when I dropped a sure pick, but overall I showed that I could play,” he said.
That’s for sure and Williams wound up getting switched to safety later that season after injuries depleted that position. The 6-foot-1, 197-pounder moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore and has been a fixture ever since.
Williams will enter next Saturday’s showdown against archrival Army with 240 career tackles. He has proven to be a real playmaker as the last line of the Navy defense – amassing four interceptions, 11 pass breakups, six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
“Sean is one heck of a football player. He’s extremely athletic and extremely smart,” Navy secondary coach Dan O’Brien said. “Sean can do everything you want out of a safety. He’s strong in man-to-man, press or zone coverage. He’s a really, really physical player who covers a lot of ground and makes plays out in space. He finds the ball and is a very reliable tackler.”
Williams has been forced to make defensive calls since switching to safety as a freshman and has steadily evolved into a coach on the field.
“Sean has been making coverage checks for four years and does a great job of making adjustments on the back end,” O’Brien said. “Sean put it on himself to learn the defense at a really high level. He fully understands all the schemes and knows exactly what everybody is supposed to do.”
O’Brien and defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson used the word “obsessive” when describing the work ethic of Williams, who is famous for always being the first player on the practice field.
“Sean works harder than anyone else on the team. He is constantly going above and beyond as far as doing extra work,” O’Brien said. “Sean is very intense about wanting to perfect his craft and hone his skills.”
It got to the point that Niumatalolo did not want one of the most valuable members of the defense and the team captain expending so much energy.
“Sean is still out there early every day, but not like last year when he’d have one of his own practice sessions before the rest of us got out there,” Pehrson said. “We’ve had to shut him down sometimes.”
Numerous NFL scouts have come through to take a closer look at Williams, O’Brien said. There is a good possibility the two-time honorable mention All-American Athletic Conference selection could be invited to one of the many senior all-star games.
“I think Sean has all the tools to play professionally if given a chance. When you combine the athletic ability with the mental and physical preparation, he is the complete package,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien is only in his fifth season at Navy, but believes Williams deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Chris Lepore, Josh Smith, Wyatt Middleton and Parrish Gaines as one of the best safeties Navy’s had in recent history.
GUARDED WITH MEDIA
Members of the media that interview Williams often get coach-speak and clichés. That is the responsible captain coming through, always careful to say the right thing and never providing the opponent with bulletin board material.
“Sean does come off kind of like Belichick with his responses. He’s just a very smart kid and real cautious with his approach to interviews,” O’Brien said. “There is another side of Sean that a lot of people don’t see. He likes to laugh and tell jokes just like everybody else.”
Gargiulo smiled when asked about the interview style of his co-captain.
“Sean is definitely very professional when dealing with the media. He is so serious and does not say anything remotely controversial,” Gargiulo said.
“It’s like: ‘Yes sir, we’re looking good, practicing hard and just going about our preparation.’ I should probably take some lessons from Sean because I’m the type of person who says whatever is on my mind.”
Williams initially thought about becoming a flight officer following graduation, but those hopes were dashed by the discovery he is color blind. He received supply corps as a service assignment and believes that branch of the service dovetails well with a degree in quantitative economics.
“I tried make a judgment call about doing something in my military career that I could utilize later on in life,” Williams said. “I feel like the knowledge and skills I develop in the supply corps could translate into a variety of civilian jobs.”
Sean Williams Sr. was totally on target five years ago when he determined that his son would thrive at a service academy. However, even the father marvels at how far Sean Williams Jr. has come and the fact he will be commissioned as an officer in May.
“Sean has surpassed all the aspirations and dreams I had for him. It’s just been great to see the transition he has made,” the elder Williams said. “It is very rewarding to see how much he has grown, matured and developed the last four years. I’m happy for Sean that he was able to achieve so many of his goals.”
Williams still has one major goal to accomplish and that is helping Navy put an end to a two-game losing streak to Army. It’s been a tough season for the Midshipmen, who carry a disappointing 3-9 record into the rivalry game. Williams decided during the team’s seven-game losing streak that he was not going to be brought down by the situation.
“There was one point during the season when we were on a bad skid and things were looking kind of bleak that I could not believe our senior season was going the way it was,” he said.
“I was determined to fully enjoy the rest of the season no matter what happened. I wasn’t going to go through my final season of football feeling sad. I just felt like I was going to have a lot more regrets if I didn’t soak up the experience and have fun playing the game while it was still going on.”