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."
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
"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
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.)
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
"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
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."
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
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. FoxSports.com 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, CBS.Sportline.com 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
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."
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
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.
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."
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.
says, among other things, attendance at home games will
be a key for the Tigers as the program continues to
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."
believes last year's accomplishments won't spoil the
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,"
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.
"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
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
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."
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.