We're 40-plus days into the NFL lockout, but come April 28, the draft must go on.
Former Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams, 22, is one of several hundred athletes who will be watching that night, waiting to hear his name called. Williams, a star at Arkansas, has collected a slew of honors, including the 2010 John Mackey Award as the outstanding tight end and the Disney Sports Spirit Award, which recognizes the most inspirational player, team or figure in college football. He was also one of five finalists for the AAU James E. Sullivan Memorial Award for America's top amateur athlete.
At February's NFL combine, Williams was poked, prodded, examined and interrogated, just like the rest of the prospects, but his unique history set him apart.
As a child, Williams says he was exposed to guns, crack cocaine and the rage of an allegedly depressed, alcoholic, drug-addicted father.
Williams' father, David, is in a Texas prison serving unrelated, concurrent sentences for attempted murder and aggravated assault on a public servant.
In September 1999, Williams' mother, Vicky, took her children and a few belongings from their home in Carrollton, Texas, and escaped to a battered women's shelter in Dallas.
Worried that they would be found so close to home, Vicky decided to make a fresh start. She spread out a U.S. map and told her then-11-year-old son to point somewhere -- anywhere. D.J. put his finger on Little Rock, Ark., and their new life began.
With the draft coming up Thursday, espnW's Sarah Spain spoke to the NFL hopeful about this next big step.
Sarah Spain: The combine was your first real introduction to NFL coaches and general managers, and the way they seek out talent for their organizations. What was your impression?
D.J. Williams: It was a long experience! You're there for four days, you're meeting with doctors, and you're in the hospital a lot. You're meeting with GMs, coaches, interviewing, so when it really comes down to the workout part, by that time you're kind of mentally exhausted. It's just a long process, but the cool thing about it is just to meet all the coaches and players that are there at the combine.
SS: You hear a lot about prospects getting strange questions, like "How much fast food do you eat?" or "Do you prefer dogs or cats?" Did you get any of those?
DW: I was kind of surprised by their reaction when they asked me when was the last time I smoked marijuana and I told them I've never tried it before. They looked at me like I was crazy. They thought I was lying. I told them that's just how I am -- I choose not to do that.
SS: Wouldn't it be great if you said "This afternoon," just to see what they would say?
DW: [Laughs.] Yeah, or asked them the last time they smoked marijuana? I tried to stay away from asking questions like that. You have to be careful, 'cause you walk into a room and all they know about you is what they hear about you -- so they really don't know anything.
SS: Were you at all concerned about how teams might view your childhood, or what they might ask you about it?
DW: I think they see it as a positive. I think the biggest thing that they get from it is that adversity hit me when I was younger. I think [what they look at] with players that end up with adversity is how they respond to it.
Every team asked me about it. You know that's their job, is to get a feel of where you come from. Even though it wasn't the best childhood or the [good] memories that a lot of people can say they have, you know, it made me a better man, so I'm thankful for it.
SS: You've been outspoken about your family's struggle and your struggle to forgive your father. You haven't spoken to him since the day your family left Carrollton, and he's eligible for parole in 2013. Have you considered letting him back into your life?
DW: That's something that I've been working on; that's something I do want to be able to do when he gets out. You know my mom probably disagrees with me, but … I'm a real big Christian and I think forgiveness is something that everybody should give everyone because we've all been forgiven for what we've done.
SS: That would be a tough situation for anyone, but particularly for an up-and-coming athlete. When he's released you'll likely be making millions of dollars in the NFL. Are you concerned that he'll want something from you or have a negative effect on your life or career?
DW: I completely understand that risk and it's not just him; it's a lot of people nowadays. That's one thing that I've never really understood, is they say money doesn't usually change you, it changes the people around you. So I'm curious to see how all of this is gonna work out.
SS: This year you won the Disney Sprit Award, annually given to college football's most inspirational player. What did that mean to you?
DW: [When] I put my story on a national level, you know, I didn't do it for exposure for myself. I did it because I understand that sports [give] you a platform to reach a lot of people. … You know, being able to reach out and help lots of people, it really helped me [do that]. It was great.
SS: Do you hear from a lot of people thanking you for speaking out?
DW: A lot of people send stuff … because a lot of people in the same situation just kind of kept it to themselves, and it's good [for them] to know someone that's out there that went through it and made something out of it. So that's very rewarding.
SS: You're still very close with your mom. Is she giving you a lot of advice as the draft nears?
DW: Me and my mom are very close. She's excited for this time for me, and I'm excited to share it with her. And not just my mom, but my two sisters, as well, Valerie and Vanessa. I'm anxious to really help out my family. I was getting to feel like that might never happen.
SS: Are a lot people trying to predict when you'll get selected in the draft?
DW: Yeah, something like that. [Laughs.] Probably the most annoying thing about the draft is when people come up to you and ask, "So where are you going?" Well, that defeats the purpose of having the draft!
SS: Where will you be when they announce your name?
DW: I'll probably be with my family, just watching. All three days, pretty much waiting to see when my name's gonna be called. It's something that I'm really not too worried about. The only stressful part about it is people around you at the time who think that you're gonna go [at a certain time]… It's awkward. I hate that situation. Gets weird.
SS: Most NFL prospects have spent years looking forward to the day they hear their name called in the draft. Is it disappointing at all to have the lockout overshadowing the big day?
DW: It's something I can't control, so I won't worry about it. That's how I've always been. It'll work out itself. All I can do is just keep working out, find something to occupy my time and, when everything gets sorted out, just be ready to play.
SS: If the lockout drags on, will you find a job or just focus on your workouts?
DW: I'll stay working out, and I wanna start getting into some charity work. And I guess for a job … I'm from Little Rock, and there's a piano bar downtown called Ernie Biggs, so I may just go play at the piano bar, see if I can get some tips.
SS: Are you being serious?
DW: Oh yeah, I play the piano! It's something I enjoy doing. I don't sing, so I may have to get a singer, but I'll play. I was there about two weeks ago and somebody there at the bar asked the piano man to play the Ohio State fight song. We lost to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, so I got up there and gave him some money to play the Arkansas fight song and everybody said "Oooooh."
He said, "What else do you have for us, DJ?" so I asked him if he could get up really quick, and I sat down and started playing Journey --"Don't Stop Believin'." And the place went crazy!