Wide receiver David Williams of the University of Illinois was relaxing in his room, watching the Purdue-Pittsburgh game on cable TV, when the guy on the other end of the telephone asked him if he was wearing his lucky L. A. Raider cap.
“How’d you know about that?” Williams asked.
Well, the guy said, now that Williams had become such a well-known figure in college football, having led the nation in receiving the previous season, he was hearing lots of stories about him. For example, he’d heard that down there in Chicago Bear and St. Louis Cardinal country, Williams had been wondering whether he should stop flaunting his favorite team.
A few days before, Williams had been walking off the practice field, toward the parking lot, bare-headed for a change. “So where’s your Raider cap?” a friend asked him.
“I still got it,” Williams said.
“So where is it?”
“I got it hid in the car,” Williams said. “I’ll put it on after I leave.”
This is precisely what David Williams would like to do: Put on a Raider cap after he leaves Illinois. “The Rams would be OK, too,” he said. “Even the 49ers or the Chargers.” Being a Californian by birth and by nature, Williams would like nothing more than to catch 102 passes this season for Illinois, break the NCAA’s receiving record, then wait for the NFL draft and a professional team to invite him back home.
It is not that he has anything against Illinois. On the contrary, Champaign-Urbana has been good not only to him, but to older brother Oliver and to baby brother Steven. Oliver caught 73 passes in two seasons for the Illini and now is on injured reserve with the Indianapolis Colts. Steve has just started at Illinois and is such a good looking freshman that David jokes, “He might even be the next me.”
How the Williams brothers wound up leaving the West Coast to play ball in the Midwest is sometimes confusing even to them. When Oliver decided to enroll there, David couldn’t figure out why. “All my life, all we ever talked about was USC or UCLA. I’d have gone there, too, if anybody had ever made me any sort of good offer.
“Oliver told me he liked Illinois and was thinking about going there, and I should consider going there, too. And I said: ‘Illinois? Who is Illinois?’ Oliver said it had come down to Illinois or Arizona State. I said: ‘Go to Arizona State!’
“I’m not kidding. I didn’t know anything about Illinois. I was going, ‘Who is Illinois? Who is Mike White? Who is the Big Ten? Michigan and Ohio State? Who else is in it?’ I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why my brother wanted to go there.”
But it sure worked out all right, the guy on the telephone said.
“Hey, better than all right,” David replied. “It’s been terrific here.”
Which makes it all the more ironic to Williams that the opponent for Saturday’s home and season opener for Illinois will be USC. His family’s home is not far from the USC campus, as is his parents’ liquor store on Imperial Boulevard. His mother once helped arrange undergraduates’ housing there. The mere mention of that school is another reminder to David of what could have been, of what should have been.
“Good thing I’m out of brothers,” he said caustically. “I don’t think they’d let a fourth one get away, do you?”
In his first year at Illinois, after transferring from Harbor College, David and the Midwest did not form an immediate mutual admiration society. The first year, he was hurt 10 minutes into his first practice and had to be red-shirted. Then, in spring of 1983, he practiced poorly and showed little.
As Coach Mike White put it: “It would be polite to say he was an indifferent practice player. David was at a crossroads. He could do it our way or he could be another of those people with wasted lives.”
The shoulder separation Williams had suffered eventually required two operations, affecting him physically and emotionally. Obviously hurting in more ways than one, he described himself as “homesick, parent-sick and girlfriend-sick.” He felt out of place and unloved.
The choice, as White said, was whether to get motivated or not. “I wasn’t sure he would ever have the discipline to play for us,” the coach said. But David had seen enough kids from the old neighborhood back home who chose hanging around street corners to doing something useful. He made up his mind to try to make something of himself.
By the time the 1983 season began, Williams had worked his way into the Illini starting lineup. He caught five passes in the opener. He caught nine more the next week. He wound up in the Rose Bowl, and got a tremendous kick out of it a few weeks later when, while wearing a Rose Bowl emblem patched to his jacket, he bumped into an old childhood buddy.
“What’s this stuff?” the friend said. “You didn’t play no football in high school.”
“I play now,” Williams said.
David was a baseball player at Serra High. A good one, an outfielder. “My dream was to play in Dodger Stadium more than it was to play in the Coliseum,” he said. To this day, whenever he comes home for a visit, Williams spends a lot of his spare time and spare change in a batting cage on Western Avenue sinking $5 worth of quarters into the machine every night. “Just in case I decide to become the next Dave Winfield.”
Asked why he started playing football in his senior year of high school, Williams said: “Just to stay off the streets, really.”
Other guys had too much free time on their hands, got restless and sometimes got into trouble, drinking or swiping cars. Oliver was tossing around a football with his younger brother one day when he kidded him by saying, “You’re half-thug anyway. Why don’t you come out for football and hit people legally?”
The funny thing was, David became just the opposite sort of football player. He went out for receiver because that was Serra’s weakest position. Playing more with instinct than precision, he caught two touchdown passes in his first game, one of which covered 69 yards on the team’s first play.
Moves, he had. Toughness, he didn’t. Taking a hit was one thing Williams didn’t do well, a trend that continued at Harbor, where “I used to dominate whole games,” and at Illinois, where White and the other coaches finally ordered Williams to go into the weight-training room and not come out until he could take a lick.
Today, at 6 feet 3 inches and 195 pounds, he has more than just speed. If he has anything even resembling the 1984 season, when his 101 catches led the nation, Williams almost certainly will be a high NFL draft choice, and 102 catches would move him past Howard Twilley as the NCAA’s all-time leading receiver.
He is still not the most disciplined pass catcher in the world. The secret to David Williams is that he keeps going until he gets loose, and he always seems to get loose.
“David’s usually not where he’s supposed to be but if I can wait long enough, he’ll always get open,” quarterback Jack Trudeau said.
And once Williams gets the ball in an open field, that is when he is particularly dangerous. He is a master of turning 10-yard throws into 30-yard gains.
It helps to have a top passer like Trudeau on the premises. The quarterback, also a native Californian, said he and Williams have developed “almost a telepathy,” practically reading one another’s minds as to where Williams will go to get open.
Williams, in turn, said, “It’s weird, but my brother introduced me to Jack and said, ‘When me and Tony Eason are gone, you two will take over and be even better than we were.’ And he was right. I feel like Jack and me are very close friends, on and off the field. He has a lot of faith in me, and I know I believe in him.”
Both Williams and Trudeau have taken advantage of the NCAA’s new permission to take out insurance on their careers. They have $1 million policies covering them in case of career-ending injuries. The shoulder injury of his very first Illinois practice had shown him how quickly luck could change.
It was a better-safe-than-sorry approach that convinced Barbara and Oliver Williams Sr. several years ago to take David out of a public junior high and put him in a parochial high school. David spent seventh and eighth grade at Henry Clay Junior High and remembered it as one of the toughest schools in the city. “You had to stay on your toes every minute. Things got wild in my neighborhood sometimes.”
Champaign, Ill., is a little different. “This is not exactly L.A. or New York City,” Williams said. “But then again, it’s a heck of a lot quieter and safer than L.A. or New York City.”
Such a life serves Williams’ purposes nicely right now, and he wouldn’t trade it. But if he had had his way, he never would have moved more than a few miles from home.
“Sometimes on some Saturday afternoon during the summer, I’ll go over to Venice beach and I’ll be lying around and thinking, ‘Man, I should have been playing for USC or UCLA.’ I guess they just had so many good receivers that they didn’t need me or my brothers. What do you think? You think they could use us? You think we could play for them?”