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magazine home > archives > summer 2004 > features

Memphis tailback DeAngelo Williams dodges more than burly linemen as he leads the Tigers into one of their most anticipated seasons.

DeAngelo in Our Pocket
by Greg Russell

At 8 a.m. on most summer mornings in Little Rock, Ark., in the early 1990s, DeAngelo Williams would be the first to wake at his household on the west side of town. "His little feet would hit the ground running," says his mother, Sandra Hill. "We all knew then that he would be fast."

DeAngelo Williams
DeAngelo Williams
Photo by Taylor Wilson

Only problem, this unlikeliest of Heisman Trophy candidates was running in the wrong direction.

The neighborhood that filled the first 10 years or so of Williams' youth was no Garden of Eden - it was more like a festering wound in need of a cure.

"The gangs were just horrible," Hill recalls. "HBO aired a documentary on just how bad the gang violence was in Little Rock. I didn't have to watch it to know what was going on - our neighborhood was right in the middle of it."

In 1993, Little Rock's per-capita homicide rate was No. 1 in the nation, ahead of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Extensive efforts by narcotics officers in those cities drove gangs such as the Bloods and Crips to the South, squarely into DeAngelo's dilapidated neighborhood.

"It was not uncommon for residents of the west side to wake up and find blood or shell casings in their yards," says Todd Hurd, a detective with the Little Rock Police Department's Intelligence Unit.

"If you lived in that neighborhood, you could hear gun shots at all hours of the day and night," adds Ken Richardson, director of Little Rock's Youth Initiative Project, which offers at-risk children opportunities outside of gang life.

HBO's 1993 special, "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock," helped draw national attention to the problem. Unfortunately, a young and curious mind was also weighing in.

"The gangs looked so interesting to DeAngelo - they had nice cars, lots of money and they were powerful," says Hill. "You know how a poor kid goes to a rich friend's house and sees all their nice stuff and is drawn to it? That is how he was with the gangs. He was being drawn to them like a magnet."

Particularly disturbing to William's mother was her son's fascination with notorious gang leader Leifel Jackson. Known on the street as OG or the Original Gangster, Jackson was especially adept at recruiting adolescent males into a life of crime. (Jackson would serve nine years in federal prison for federal drug trafficking until his release last year.)

Williams at high school field

After leading Wynne High to the 2001 Arkansas 4-A state football championship, Williams had scholarship offers from several high-profile schools including Arkansas, Ole Miss and Illinois. He chose Memphis and is now a Heisman Trophy candidate.

"DeAngelo was really wrestling with the idea of joining them," Hill says. "That would have been the end of him. He was seeing people get shot - he was seeing stuff that only a man should see."

But just as Williams' interest in gangs was peaking, something else caught his attention.

"He was out walking one day in the neighborhood and came upon some guys playing football," says Hill. "They asked him to play, but he said 'no.' The next day, same thing happened, but this time he said 'yes.'

"Football captured his imagination," Hill continues. "I am serious when I tell people that football saved his life."

Richardson of the Little Rock Youth Initiative says Williams was lucky to get out of the west side neighborhood. "The kids who didn't have an outside interest were the ones who got trapped into gang life," he says.

Williams, who returns this fall as the Tigers' starting tailback, doesn't recant the story often.

"Most people look at me now and where I am at and wouldn't believe it," he says. "But I compare my life to that of a $20 bill. You have the $20 bill in your hand and you see its value, but you don't know where that $20 bill was and what it went through before it reached your hand.

"All those things my mom says about me are true," Williams imparts. "I don't know if I would be here now if not for football."

A band of brothers

If football did indeed save Williams' life, it could also perhaps be said that Williams has helped rescue a struggling football program at the University of Memphis. Williams, a junior, came to Memphis in 2002 from Wynne, Ark., (his family moved from Little Rock in 1994) as one of the program's most heralded recruits. With what Williams calls the three-headed monster at the U of M - quarterback Danny Wimprine, receiver Maurice Avery and himself - the Tigers ended the season with a 9-4 record and a 27-17 victory over North Texas in the New Orleans Bowl. It was the team's first postseason appearance since 1971.

Williams with family
Williams shares a laugh with his mom Sandra Hill, and other family members at his home in Wynne. "We pray together before every game," says Hill.

"My freshman year, we were a highly regarded recruiting class coming in and I think that sparked some animosity from the seniors," Williams says. "When you got hit, you were on your own. Last year when you got hit, there were seven or eight people trying to help you up. I'd say we were more like a band of brothers. We learned to lean on each other."

Williams enters the 2004 season as the reigning Conference USA Player of the Year and his name is being cast about in the national spotlight. lists Williams as number 19 on its preseason list of Heisman Trophy candidates, calling him a "long-shot ... but if the Heisman race is short on viable candidates, Williams is the kind of player that might drum up some grassroots support."

Though maybe a long shot, Williams certainly carries Heisman credentials. His 192 all-purpose yards a game was best in the nation in 2003 and he ended the season as the NCAA's fourth-ranked rusher. The tailback set a single-season rushing record for the Tigers with 1,430 yards, including 10 straight games of 100 yards or more. In November, listed Williams as the nation's top running back, and The Commercial Appeal sports reporter Zach McMillin wrote, "Williams is arguably the best overall back in the nation."

"He can certainly put up those (Heisman) kinds of numbers," says Tiger head coach Tommy West. "But he's got to stay healthy - you can't miss a couple of games because of an injury - you'll lose out."

In Memphis' 44-34 win over Ole Miss in September, Williams demonstrated his versatility, hauling in a 19-yard touchdown pass to go along with scoring runs of 20 and 43 yards. Time and time again, Ole Miss defenders appeared to have Williams cornered only to have him break free with all the suddenness of a gas main explosion.

"He is very gifted and has a lot of things like speed that you can't teach," says Wimprine, the Tigers' record-setting quarterback.

West adds, "You've got a lot of talented running backs out there, but not so many who have the character he has. He works so hard at everything, whether running the ball or pass protection or catching the ball - that sets him apart from other backs."

Williams shies away from the Heisman talk - "I don't really get into that stuff," he says - and seems more comfortable praising teammates.

"I owe my success to my offensive linemen," Williams says. "I try to get to know them and get as close to them as possible off the field. That way, I know their every move on the field."

Wynne-win situation

About an hour and 15 minutes drive west of Memphis is Wynne, Ark., a typical Mississippi River Delta town with a population of about 8,000. "Except for a couple of factories, agriculture is the main thing here," says Carl Easley, longtime resident and principal of Wynne High School. That, Easley says, and Razorback football.

Raising the Bar

Not long after Stephen Gostkowski's 42-yard field goal sailed through the uprights to seal the Tigers' 27-17 New Orleans Bowl victory over North Texas last December, Tommy West could not help but let his thoughts drift to heights beyond the Super Dome's roof.

"Our goal this year will be to make some noise nationally," says the Tigers' head football coach. "We've made some noise regionally, but we want to take it a step further. We want to be a national program."

With 10 starters back on offense and six back on defense, the U of M can certainly move closer to that goal when the Tigers kick off the season Sept. 4 in Oxford with a game against Ole Miss. Included in Memphis' 2004 schedule are five home dates (Homecoming is Oct. 2) and at least two nationally televised games.

West says, among other things, attendance at home games will be a key for the Tigers as the program continues to grow.

"It makes it more exciting for our players to play before a big crowd," West says. "We had over 40,000 for the last home game. Nationally, people notice that and it becomes good exposure for the program. And it helps with recruiting."

West believes last year's accomplishments won't spoil the Tigers.

"In the history of this school, Tiger football has not been able to handle success," West says. "But this team has shown it can handle adversity and success. Not only did we get to a bowl, we won it."


"When DeAngelo changed his mind and decided to go to Memphis and not Arkansas, I think he broke a lot of hearts," Easley recalls.

Williams was heavily recruited out of high school by Arkansas, Iowa, Ole Miss and Memphis - and rightly so. He was named All-Arkansas Offensive Player of the Year after leading Wynne High School to the 4-A state football title in 2001. His senior season, he gained 2,204 yards, including over 1,000 yards in four playoff games.

"In my 28 years as a high school coach, he is the best I've seen," says Wynne head coach Don Campbell. "The thing I loved about him most was that he loved to block. You don't find that too often from a running back in high school. That tells you something about him as a person, too."Williams waited two weeks after National Signing Day before deciding on the U of M. After a nonbinding commitment to the Hogs, Williams changed his mind and inked with the Tigers on Feb. 24, 2001.

"I wanted to stay close to home, but go to a really good college too," Williams says. "I also saw an opportunityto play right away."

William's change of heart also changed the allegiance - at least partly - of some Wynne residents.

"People in Wynne are rooting for DeAngelo to do well," says Jimmy Jarrett, owner of Wynne Sports World. Jarrett's shop, a few hundred yards from the high school, is filled with U of M memorabilia, including Tiger schedules, a football autographed by Williams and "DeAngelo For Heisman" t-shirts. "I have Memphis season tickets and a lot of other people (in Wynne) do too because of him," Jarrett says.

LuAnne Dugan, a life-skills teacher at Wynne whom Williams befriended in junior high, says the young player is well liked for more than just his football feats.

"He would stop by my classroom to talk about life, to talk about football," says Dugan, a lifelong Razorback fan. "He is so genuine. Once he's your friend, he's always your friend."

U of M alumnus Kevin P. McCarthy has also experienced Williams' sincerity. The former principal at Richland Elementary says he was surprised at the response he got after he tried to thank Williams, Wimprine and defensive end Haratio Colen for paying a visit to his school last year.

"DeAngelo's response was, 'No sir, thank you for letting us come,'" recalls McCarthy, now an academic director for Memphis City Schools. "He was incredibly respectful and so accommodating to the little kids who wanted his autograph."

A little giant

Williams' 5-9 frame doesn't conjure up memories of a Franco Harris or a Larry Csonka, but a host of smaller backs, including Ricky Williams and Emmitt Smith, have had prosperous NFL careers.

Williams says playing on Sundays would be a dream come true, but he is taking nothing for granted.

"I see the NFL as my backup plan," says the accounting major, while smiling. "The idea of working in an office in a climate-controlled room is a good option - it's not as hard on your body as the NFL is."The Memphis tailback predicts the Tigers, who return 10 starters on offense, will improve on last season's 9-4 record. He echoes West's assertion that "you won't find a team as exciting as us to watch."

"We have so many big play-makers on this team," notes Williams. "We'll be a fun team to watch. We just have to take one game at a time and not be overconfident."With Williams on the roster, Tiger fans have every reason to be confident heading into the 2004 season. And those who know the Tiger tailback on the field as well as off feel that it would take more than a $20 bill to calculate Williams' worth: try a crisp million-dollar bill instead.

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