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Column: LA Wildcats and the XFL provide a path to redemption for linebacker Tre’ Williams

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Wildcats linebacker Tre’ Williams jokes around with his teammates before practice at Veterans Memorial Stadium at Long Beach City College.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

Six banks to unload trucks were on one side of the expansive facility, six to load on the other. Package-sorting machines were in between.

More than how the FedEx warehouse looked, Tre’ Williams recalled how the place felt. As he recounted his days as an operations manager for the delivery service company, he mentioned multiple times how much he used to sweat.

“We’re in the middle of the summer in Mississippi,” he said. “I ended up dropping like 25 pounds picking up all those packages.”

Time and distance have afforded him the luxury of laughing at the memory.

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A former all-conference selection at Auburn who was released by three NFL teams, the 23-year-old Williams will play football again.

Williams is the middle linebacker of the Los Angeles Wildcats, a XFL team that will open its inaugural season Saturday on the road against the Houston Roughnecks. The game will be his first in two years.

If all goes well, more than half of the L.A. Wildcats won’t return after the upcoming XFL season. That’s a good thing because they will be in the NFL.

Call the XFL what you want — minor league, television filler, whatever. The relaunched league has renewed Williams’ sense of purpose.

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“Just to have this opportunity gives me life,” Williams said.

There are similar stories up and down the Wildcats roster, which could explain the jubilant atmosphere around the team.

The practice field in Veterans Stadium at Long Beach City College was overflowing with laughter earlier this week. Williams was playfully teased by teammates as he posed for photographs to accompany this column. Defensive tackle Trevon Sanders joked that he should also be photographed.

“He plays directly behind me, come on now,” Sanders said with a smile.

Williams’ fiancée, Aaliyah Donaldson, had reservations about the XFL, but said she has noticed a change in Williams since he was drafted by the Wildcats.

“I really don’t know how to describe it,” she said. “It’s just that he has a light that he didn’t have before.”

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Tre Williams, center, runs a drill during practice Feb. 5 at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium at Long Beach City College.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

Williams came to a realization when the game was taken away from him. His dream of playing in the NFL blinded him to something fundamental about himself, that simply playing the game mattered to him more than where he was playing.

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“I still have that fire in me,” Williams said. “I’m going to keep going until the fire’s out. No matter what level I’m on. Even if I don’t get the opportunity at the NFL, it doesn’t matter. I’m an XFL player now. I’m a L.A. Wildcat. Right now, I’m a L.A. Wildcat for life.”

Williams spent most of his life thinking he was destined for the NFL. He was a five-star recruit out of St. Paul’s Episcopal High in Mobile, Ala., rated as one of the top linebackers in the country.

He played well enough as a junior at Auburn that people asked him if he would leave school early to enter the NFL draft. He didn’t consider it because he wanted to keep the promise he made to his mother that he would get his degree.

Williams returned as a senior as team captain and a preseason all-conference pick. He was on watch lists for national awards. Two games into the season, he injured his right shoulder making a tackle. He didn’t know it then, but that was the moment his NFL dream started to unravel.

He was sidelined for three games and played the remainder of the season in pain, wearing both a neck roll and neck brace during games. He was nonetheless a second-team All-SEC pick and played in the Senior Bowl.

“There were games I couldn’t finish because if I hit somebody wrong or my arm went a certain way, I’d lose all feeling in my right arm,” he said. “It was like a tingly feeling. I couldn’t feel a pinch, nothing.”

Alabama v Auburn
Auburn’s Tre’ Williams recovers a fumble by Alabama’s Jalen Hurts on Nov. 25, 2017, at Jordan Hare Stadium.
(Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

Williams figured his draft stock dropped, but still expected to be picked. He spent the last day of the 2018 NFL draft with close to 20 family members at his uncle’s house in Mobile. His name was never called.

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“Of course, everybody tries to stay supportive, stay positive,” Williams said. “But me, I was hurt. I didn’t want to hear it.”

The New York Jets gave him a chance — or so he thought.

Invited to their rookie minicamp as an undrafted free agent, Williams underwent a physical examination on his first day. He returned to the Jets facility the next day thinking he would sign a contract. Instead, he was on his way back to Mobile.

An opportunity with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers also vanished because of a failed physical. Before returning to Alabama, Williams was told by a Buccaneers doctor about the extent of his injury. He had a herniated disk in his neck.

Today, Williams has a one-inch scar on his throat, a remnant of the neck fusion operation he underwent.

As he rehabilitated, he worked in Auburn’s recruiting office, breaking down videos of prospective players and meeting with athletes on their official visits. His story made him well-suited for the job. Although his football dreams were on hold, he had a degree in communications with a minor in kinesiology sports coaching. And Auburn helped him through his disappointment, paying for his surgery and offering him employment.

In February of last year, Williams was picked up by the Detroit Lions. But two months later in the NFL draft, the Lions used a second-round pick to select a linebacker, Jahlani Tavai of Hawaii.

“We’re laughing about it, but inside my head, I’m like, ‘Man, this is not good,’” Williams said.

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Tre Williams is getting another chance at a career in football through the XFL.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

His intuition was right. After rookie minicamp, the Lions released him. Williams was later suspended by the NFL for the first two games of the 2019 season. He said he tested positive for a diuretic he didn’t know was banned.

“I was cut three times already and I haven’t put cleats and a helmet on and hit somebody,” he said.

Williams moved to the northern Mississippi city of Southaven, where his fiancée had relocated.

“He was super depressed,” Donaldson said. “He had a lot of anxiety. He was in a really dark space. He wasn’t himself. He never smiled.”

Williams accepted a position as an operations manager at a nearby FedEx warehouse.

“Well, I loved it,” Donaldson said. “It was great. It had a 401(k), two pension plans, great salary. But he was doing what he had to do because he was a man. He was going through the motions.”

Williams said the experience changed him.

“It was very humbling,” he said. “Coming out of Auburn, I thought I was big time. I thought I was already a millionaire. It completely went the opposite way.”

Williams recalled how he once ignored the encouragement of Auburn coaches to attend a career fair.

The Super Bowl may be over but there is still football to bet. The XFL returns with its first round of games this weekend.

“When you’re coming up and you’re a five-star [recruit] in high school and you were the household name in a college, you think you’re above everyone and too good to do certain things,” he said.

One day at work, Williams checked his voicemail and discovered a message that made him tear up. It was from Pepper Johnson, the former New York Giants linebacker.

When Williams prepared for the NFL draft at the IMG Academy in Florida, Johnson was his position-specific coach. Johnson told him he would be the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles XFL team and was interested in him.

“All you have to do is draft me,” Williams told him, “and I’m there.”

The Wildcats made Williams their fifth-round pick in October.

But the decision wasn’t clear-cut.

“Sometimes I had that flashback of how I was put back on the street by a league I really put my dreams in,” Williams said. “I was put back on the street with no money, no nothing pretty much. Now, I have a stable job that I hate but the money kept coming in. I’m leaving this stable job for something that’s very unstable, a new league, I don’t know none of these players, I only know one coach. Why would I leave my stable life for this?”

The financial details made the decision harder.

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Tre’ Williams, center, cools down with his new teammates.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

While the Wildcats would cover the cost for him to live in a hotel through the season and provide multiple meals every day, the salary they offered represented a pay cut from what he was earning at FedEx.

The average player salary will be $55,000, according to a memo sent to agents that was obtained by Pro Football Talk. The specifics were later revealed when the Wildcats’ eighth-round pick, Corey Vereen, passed on the opportunity to play in the XFL. His agency posted on Twitter that the base salary was $27,040, with per-game active bonuses of $1,685 per game and win bonuses of $2,222.

Donaldson had other considerations.

“I felt like I was the only one who saw how devastating it was, how it was impacting him so negatively,” she said. “Everybody else was kind of encouraging him to keep going, keep going, but for me it felt like I was sending him to be disappointed time after time. So from my perspective, honestly, it was really hard. I didn’t want him to do it anymore.”

Donaldson was also concerned about his health. Ultimately, she gave Williams her blessing, even if it would mean they would have to live apart for the duration of the season. Donaldson remains in Mississippi.

“Even if I’m not OK, I have to let him play,” Donaldson said. “It is what he loves to do.”

She noticed an immediate change in her fiancé.

The XFL revealed the uniforms for its eight teams. Which players are going to look the sharpest? (Hint: the ones with the dragons on their helmets.)

“It was a 180, for sure,” she said. “I guess he was himself, but it was a [version of] himself that I didn’t know.”

She didn’t know what he was like when he was healthy and playing football because they didn’t start dating until his injury-plagued senior season at Auburn.

As Williams has blossomed personally, he has emerged as an invaluable part of the Wildcats defense.

“Tre’ Williams was born a leader,” Wildcats coach Winston Moss said. “He’s been nothing but a positive force every single day. He’s been a great, great teammate.”

Williams shook his head in disbelief when thinking to how he ended up here.

“You can never give up on your dreams,” he said. “That’s such a cliché, but when you actually live that, it has way more meaning.”

Of course, this wasn’t his dream. Never would he have dreamed of such a glorious opportunity.


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