Every week during the season, The Baltimore Sun will spotlight how a member of the Ravens organization does his or her job.
There’s a time immediately before every game when Brandon Williams sits alone at his locker with his eyes closed and the world at a remove.
In those moments, the jovial teammate, father of two and tireless community servant slips away, to be replaced by a wrecking machine who consumes the world in violent, two-second bursts. The first guy is one of the best-liked men in the Ravens locker room. The second is a defensive tackle playing at a Pro Bowl level in his fifth NFL season.
“I’m just getting myself there,” he said of his solitary ritual. “I have the music going on in my head. I’m in my own space, and I think about my wife, my kids, my mom, my brother. Then I think about football, about plays. An animal instinct takes over — a beast or monster form of myself. It’s David Banner to the Incredible Hulk. I transform from Brandon Williams to No. 98.”
At age 28, Williams has mastered flipping the switch between his two personas. It was something his college coach, Daryl Daye, told him he’d have to learn to reach his potential.
“There’s something that’s not clicking,” Daye would tell him during his time at Missouri Southern State. “When you flip that switch, you’ll be unstoppable.”
Williams shrugged it off at the time. Now, he understands completely.
He can play the best, meanest football of his career and go home the same night as a happy dad to two boys, ages 1 and 5.
Williams is an outsized figure in so many ways — the 340-pound bear who sings, dances and looks like he could pop your head off with one flex of his bulbous arm. But to hear Ravens staffers describe it, his generosity of spirit is as large as his remarkable physique.
Ravens community relations director Heather Darney joked that when Williams was a free agent last offseason, she ducked into general manager Ozzie Newsome’s office and begged him to re-sign the defensive tackle.
Darney knows that no matter what her staff takes to Williams — a school appearance, a food drive, an effort to save stray animals — he’ll step up. He even still talks about becoming a firefighter, his Plan B if football didn’t work out, once he retires.
“I guess I would chalk it up to the fact that I knew what it was growing up in a place or a neighborhood that wasn’t the best, and sometimes I didn’t have the best of situations or cards being dealt,” he said. “And there were always people there to help me, to help me succeed or get over a hump or just get through the day. So why not use the platform I have to give back to the community I’m in?”
At first, kids stare in awe at his sheer mass, but after he cracks a few jokes or gets down on the ground to play with their toys — things he does at home with his own boys — they relate to him like a buddy who happens to be the size of a young grizzly.
Community appearances aren’t special occasions for him. They’re baked into his weekly schedule and become even more frequent during the holiday season. On Friday, for example, he and his wife, Alyssa, hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for the Westport Homes Boys & Girls Club they adopted in Baltimore. They fed more than 100 people, and Williams did his best to check in with each child and parent.
He heard that one boy he feels a particular connection with had recently brought home a poor grade. So he pulled the kid aside and said, “You need to start doing what you need to do.”
The boy’s features dropped in shame. But that was a good thing. It meant the exchange was resonating.
“Next time I see you, I need that grade up,” Williams told him.
He laughed at himself as he listed off all the other initiatives he has going, whether it’s Alyssa serving on the board for a pediatric care gala in Mount Washington or a program that awards game tickets and Under Armour shopping sprees to kids with good school-attendance records. He’s even turned the family’s Thanksgiving dinner into a charitable pursuit. The Williamses will host a buffet for friends and teammates at a local restaurant and then turn it into a casino night, with the proceeds benefiting their Boys & Girls Club.
Williams just feels like a player made for this time of year. You can imagine John Madden holding a big turkey leg and singing his praises as a classic “big ugly.” Asked his favorite Thanksgiving dish, Williams grinned.
“I’m a stuffing guy,” he said. But not cooked inside the turkey. And don’t forget the sweet potato pie and cranberry sauce — all important.
“It’s the sides and desserts,” he said. “Turkey’s turkey.”
At this point in the season, he’s trying to maintain his playing weight rather than gain or lose pounds. Practice, games and two weekly lifting sessions help mitigate the impact of holiday treats.
All the charitable appearances and tasty meals get set aside when it’s time for what Williams calls “trench life.”
You can sense his passion for it when he describes all that happens in the few seconds of time and few inches of space that evaporate after the ball is snapped. Outside observers might simply perceive a huge man slamming into the other huge men in front of him. But that’s not what Williams sees.
“I call it beautiful chaos,” he said. “It’s chaotic poetry. You’re grinding, you’re pushing. There’s blood, sweat, spit, dirt. But at the same time, there’s a rhythm to it. There’s a pattern and a motion. It’s like a dance. You start with the boom and then you’ve got to use his weight against him, the way you move, the way you turn.”
He snapped his fingers to convey the speed of the action, then pinched them to show how little room he has to operate. If he takes a wrong step, he might be out of a play just like that.
In the 10 or so seconds after the huddle breaks, he has to account for where the tight end is, where the running back sets up, how the offensive tackles are aligned, what calls the quarterback and center are barking. And it’s all about not taking that wrong step.
As much as he respects defensive teammates such as Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon, Williams said he believes he’s uniquely suited to thrive in the cramped, violent space at the center of the field.
“Complete dominance,” he said when asked his favorite part of the work. “Just to know that you have to have two people on me at all times in order for me not to wreck the play. And even if you do, I still sometimes wreck the play. Just that feeling of me against two of you or maybe three, and nine times out of 10, I’ll still probably win.”
He loves to make tackles, but takes equal pride in occupying defenders so Suggs and Judon have room to roam or in pushing his guy into the quarterback so Jimmy Smith or Eric Weddle can pick off a wounded-duck pass. The Ravens signed him to a $52.5 million deal in the offseason precisely because he creates those ripples.
“I didn’t make the play, but I helped make the play,” Williams said. “I know my job’s not particularly glorious. I know I’m not going to be in the headlines. But I know my job’s important.”
That’s part of the reason he felt so restless and even depressed when he was out four weeks with a foot injury earlier in the season. He couldn’t even make the trip to London for the Ravens’ 44-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“It was horrible,” he said. “You want to close your eyes, but you have to keep watching to make sure your guys are OK.”
He’s back now, transforming from the kindly Brandon Williams to the ferocious No. 98 every weekend.
The titles of the two pregame songs he plays on repeat are telling: “You Can’t Stop Me” by Andy Mineo and “Beast (Southpaw Remix)” by Rob Bailey & The Hustle Standard.