The day before he got the phone call that he had been anticipating for months, LaQuan Williams' patience, tried and tested throughout his football-playing life, had just about run out.
He was holding a part-time job at a Sherwin-Williams store in Washington, manning the cash register, mixing paint and labeling products. It was the last place that Williams expected to be, but he needed to pay the bills and support his infant daughter, Layla.
He was still working out and staying in shape. He had already auditioned for the UFL, and his agent, Jason Sklar, had explored opportunities and tryouts for him in Canada and seemingly everywhere else where football is played. But with no encouraging leads and the NFL lockout still in full effect, Williams spent the day playing a flag football tournament in New Jersey with two of his former University of Maryland teammates.
As Lassell Williams drove his son from Baltimore to his apartment in Laurel later that night, LaQuan felt further away from his NFL dreams than ever before.
"He said, 'Dad, I'm frustrated,'" Lassell Williams recalled. "As an adult, you understand that if you work hard and you can't see the outcome, anybody is going to get frustrated. I just told him, you have to keep trusting, keep believing that you're going to get what you're supposed to get. At the end of the day, he wanted to be home. He wanted to play for the Ravens. He's living his dream right now. He worked hard for it and nobody can take it from him."
The NFL lockout, which lasted for more than 4 1/2 months, was supposed to be a death knell for undrafted free agents like Williams. They were given precious little time to find teams, and then impress their new employers once they did sign. But LaQuan Williams persevered, just as he did coming out of Poly as a lightly-recruited player, just as he did at Maryland when injuries and academic issues dropped him further and further down the depth chart.
Williams, who grew up in East Baltimore, signed with the Ravens a couple of days after the lockout ended. He not only made the active roster, but he's occupied a key role for the 3-1 team. He's returned kickoffs and punts, and served as the third receiver with Lee Evans injured. In the Ravens' 34-17 victory over the New York Jets Sunday, Williams made his second NFL catch, an 11-yard reception on a Joe Flacco pass.
"The kid is a survivor," said Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, who worked with Williams while on Ralph Friedgen's staff at Maryland. "He always had a huge weight on his shoulders with all the things that he's had to overcome. You always saw it in his eyes, you saw it in his mannerisms. At the end of the day, it's a great story. You talk about a kid that just kept fighting through it and now look at him. He's got his college degree and he's chasing his dream, playing in the NFL."
When Williams, 23, was informed by Ravens coach John Harbaugh that he had made the team, he said that he left the room and dropped to his knees.
"I just kept thanking God," Williams said. "It was a blessing. The odds were against me not only to make the team, but to be on the 53-man roster. It's definitely a great feeling, but it's still a steady grind to make sure you do your job properly. I have to prepare everyday to be the best player I can be."
Shifting his focus
Williams has spent part of the bye week at the Ravens' complex, working out, catching balls and continuing to master the playbook. He said he's moved well beyond the euphoria of just making his hometown team, and inhabiting the same locker room as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed andRay Rice.
It had long been Williams' goal to become a professional athlete. He just never figured it would happen on the football field. Williams was a star basketball player, averaging more than 20 points per game, at Poly. He played quarterback and safety on the football team too, but his focus and preparation were on becoming the next great Baltimore basketball standout. That was before he had a conversation with one of his coaches and mentors, Corey Johnson, the summer leading into his senior year.
"I told him, 'You're a great basketball player but I can find 50 guys in the city that have your comparable skills. In football, I can't find five guys that have your skills," said Johnson, currently the head football coach at Patterson. Johnson was Williams' JV football coach, and then varsity defensive coordinator at Poly. "I wasn't trying to put down his basketball skills. He was a heck of a basketball player. But here is a kid who was rangy, very athletic, and he did some freakish things on the football field.'"
Before one of the annual Poly-City showdowns, Johnson moved Williams from safety to cornerback and matched him up with Duke-bound receiver Sheldon Bell.
"I told him, 'Shut him down. He has a [college] offer and you don't.' He did a great job, held him without a catch," Johnson said.
While he stood out on the field and on the basketball court, Poly girls basketball and volleyball coach Kendall Peace, who taught Williams during junior and senior years, remembers a motivated and humble student who didn't want special treatment and was content just being "one of the boys."
When Williams knew he was going to miss a week of class because of a family vacation, he asked Peace if she could arrange for him to get his Vector Mechanics textbook early so he wouldn't fall too far behind in class.
Williams has dropped by Poly several times since leaving the school to say hello to his former teachers and speak to students, but Peace admitted that she was still slightly taken aback when she turned on the television last Sunday and saw him back to return a kickoff against the Jets.
"It surprises me because you know what the odds are," Peace said. "Some kids had personalities of entitlement. He never had that. He had an attitude of, 'No matter what I do, I'm going to work for it.' I never said for a moment that he was a straight-A student, but he was always giving his best. We see tons of Baltimore City basketball players and other athletes make it to big-time status. But it doesn't become personal until you know the behavior and details of the kid. This wasn't a kid who everybody followed around and said that he was going to be great."
Days as a Terp
Williams initially gave a verbal commitment to James Madison, one of the few schools that recruited him heavily. However, a late scholarship opened up at Maryland, and he changed his mind. Williams, who started his college career as a defensive back but switched to wide receiver, had a promising season as a redshirt freshman in 2007, starting seven games for the Terrapins and catching 15 passes for 217 yards. However, he sustained a knee injury and missed the final three games, including the Emerald Bowl versus Oregon State.
His sophomore year was doomed from the start. He hurt his foot during spring practice, tried to come back and then broke the foot during warmups before the Terps' game against California. He eventually had surgery, triggering a difficult phase that had Williams pondering quitting football.
Depressed about his injury and the fact that others were passing him on the depth chart, Williams stopped going to class regularly and was ruled academically ineligible for the fall semester in 2009.
"I was having a pity party and my grades suffered," Williams said. "My biggest challenge was just staying focused off the field. It came kind of easy to me and I kind of ignored it at times. That set me back some. I just had my priorities mixed up as far as school, social life and football. The toughest part was I felt like I let my Mom down. I wanted to put a smile on her face so I didn't like the feeling of letting her down."
Williams was eventually reinstated and played his junior and senior seasons in College Park, but mostly in a diminished role as first Darrius Heyward-Bey and then Torrey Smith became Maryland's top targets. Williams caught 16 balls for 200 yards and three touchdowns over his final two years and embraced his role on special teams, ultimately being voted captain of that unit.
"It was injuries, it was a lot of factors," Franklin said. "LaQuan always had a lot of things on his plate that he's had to overcome. Now, his focus is strictly on football and his family. He was always an extremely athletic guy, extremely talented. Now he's able to focus and show everybody what he's all about."
Williams acknowledged that he didn't feel like he got a "true opportunity" to regain his starting wide receiver spot after the injury and academic issues, but he said that he harbors no ill will toward Maryland.
"It made me grow up as a man," Williams said. "It humbled me and gave me a greater passion and fire for football. It's not just a gift and I'm playing, I have real passion for it. All the things that I went through, fighting injuries, school, fighting for my spot on the team, it helped me learn and get to this outcome."
Fulfilling his dream
The LaQuan Williams that Smith got to know from their days together at Maryland had unlimited confidence.
"He has a swagger where he'll let you know about his abilities," Smith said. "He'll tell you he can beat Michael Jordan one-on-one and then you'll look at him, and he means it."
The Williams that Smith worked out and regularly communicated with after the April draft was uneasy and unsure.
"All he wanted was a shot and he kept saying, 'I don't know if I'm going to get one,'" said Smith, the Ravens' second-round pick. "He was ready to go to the military. I know what challenges that he'd had. It's tough not knowing your future. The stress he was under was crazy. He was being a man about the situation and worrying about his daughter's future."
Sklar admitted that there was a period of time where he was getting no calls about his client, who was "starting to panic" when the lockout was close to ending. But the Ravens got a positive recommendation on Williams from special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg and assistant special teams coach Marwan Maalouf, and immediately had interest when the signing period began.
A total of 58 players from this year's class of undrafted free agents made NFL active rosters.
Williams, who said that he hopes he can serve as a role model to other Baltimore city kids, beat his own set of odds. When he was informed that he made the team, he hugged his "friend and brother" Smith, who called the moment something that he'll never forget. He then called his mother, who he felt that he disappointed so greatly with his period of academic struggles at Maryland. Daphne Boone called her son back several times after receiving the news because as Williams put it, 'She wanted to make sure she wasn't dreaming."
Indeed, she wasn't. In the previous eight months, her son had graduated from college and become a father.
"Being this girl's father is one of the best feelings ever," said Williams, who now lives with his nine-month-old daughter and girlfriend in Baltimore. "She's my biggest motivation."
Then he beat enormous odds to make his hometown team.
"Being here in Baltimore, we see all the hardships, we see all the things. But here's a kid who grew up in East Baltimore, went to the best public schools in the area and he made it," Johnson said. "It re-energized me as far as coaching is concerned. The kids see what's happened to him, how hard he's worked. It's not as farfetched to them anymore."
An earlier version of this article gave the wrong record for the Ravens and state the wrong game in which Williams made his first catch. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times