Even in Year of Vick, Mike Williams' Comeback Story Is Special
He's the runaway winner. Not even close.
Which is too bad for Mike Williams.
"This year is a symbol of perseverance and fortitude," the Seattle Seahawks wide receiver said.
One of faith, also. The kind of faith a person must have in himself, coupled with the belief others place in him. Williams had been rescued before, but for it to happen a second time, the former USC All-American and top-10 draft pick had to save himself.
After being taken 10th overall in the 2005 draft by the Detroit Lions, Williams caught 44 passes for three different teams over three seasons and was cut by each. He spent the '08 and '09 seasons out pro football completely, taking in far more pounds -- 50 or 60, by some estimates -- than he had passes as a pro.
"I just kind of went astray ... I was just lost, sort of, emotionally and couldn't pick myself up," Williams recalled Wednesday. "I got to the point where my mind was right and it was time to get my body right. I came up with a plan."
On Sunday, Williams and the Seahawks (6-8) will look to stay tied for first in the NFC West race with a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6) at Raymond James Stadium, a venue about four miles from where Williams grew up. He'll come to his hometown looking every bit like the 6-foot-5, 235-pound beastly wideout that left here nine years ago to terrorize Pac-10 secondaries. Williams, once a poster-boy for Detroit busts, is Seattle's leading receiver with 60 catches, despite being slowed by injuries the last month.
"It's a great story," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
A year ago, it was just another sad one.
Carroll was still at USC in the fall of '09 when Williams, who during the 2002-03 seasons with the Trojans caught a combined 176 passes for 2,579 yards and a school-record 30 touchdowns, visited his former coach and broke the news that he was setting out to try to get back in the league. Carroll wished his former superstar the best, but also was familiar with Williams' recent track record.
"As a young man, the decisions and choices he made did not work out for him," Carroll said. "It was hard to watch that."
The first (and worst) decision Williams made was to piggy-back on Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett's lawsuit challenging the NFL rules preventing underclassmen from entering the draft until after their third year out of high school. The courts backed the league, rendering Williams, who had hired an agent, ineligible to return to school and a year away from being allowed in the draft.
The Lions rolled the dice on Williams in '05 and gave him a five-year, $13.5 million contract (more than $10 million guaranteed). By the time his rookie training camp rolled around, Williams had gone 19 months without wearing shoulder pads and fallen into some bad habits, relative to conditioning and off-field discipline.
"I was just kind of feeling my way through, and along the way, had a bunch of people around me who told me what I wanted to hear ... but that's in the past," Williams said. "I think about those days and the new days are all motivation for me."
Those close to him can see it best.
"He's in a wonderful place," Kathy McCurdy said. "This time last year, no one ever would have said that."
It was the McCurdys, a well off (and, yes, white) family in affluent South Tampa, who came to the aid of Williams, the troubled teen. At 15 and making some poor decisions, Williams had become a discipline problem at school and too much to handle for his great aunt and legal guardian, a housekeeper for the McCurdys and sitter to their three children. Kathy McCurdy, a lawyer, and Jack McCurdy, CEO of a spine institute, brought Williams to live in their home, where he shared a room with their 12-year-old son.
With rules and structure, Williams thrived and went onto superstardom, first as a prep athlete and later on college football's grandest stage, helping the Trojans to a share of the national championship following his '03 sophomore season.
Five years later, rules and structure were absent from Williams' life. What he had were lots of money and distractions. What he didn't have was the support system that righted his life as a youth -- Williams lost both his great aunt and her daughter to cancer during that phase.
"It was a bad time -- and things weren't very good between Mike and us, either," McCurdy said. "He just wasn't focused, and when you'd bring it up and want to talk about it, after a while, he just didn't want to hear it anymore."
"And at that point, it was all on him."
The criticism, underachievement and all the time to ponder opportunity lost eventually inspired Williams to try once more and find the player he once was. As he worked to rebuild his body, career and image Williams was fueled by all the doubters and haters and critics who seized on his failure. The rap that hurt worst of all?
Mike Williams doesn't care about football.
"I tried to stay positive," he said.
The visit to see Carroll in Los Angeles was about halfway through Williams' rigorous training regimen.
When Carroll left USC to rebuild the Seahawks, he was looking for players. Following up with Williams cost his team next to nothing.
"I pictured Mike being a terrific football player going into the league a few years ago and knew that he had never really gotten to that point, having gotten sideswiped along the way by his own doings," Carroll said. "When he came back with this kind of resolve, we just waited and watched. He's done everything we've asked him to do. ... He's made this comeback come to life. It's really him. He's the one who's pulled it off."
Added McCurdy: "He's a different person. It's so wonderful to see unfold."
His Tampa family will be there Sunday -- Christmas weekend, no less -- to cheer Williams and his story on. There's more to be written.
"I still feel like it's just the beginning," Williams said. "I haven't arrived yet."
In any other season, it would be the comeback story of the year.
But in the Year of Michael Vick, there's no shame in coming in second -- even a distant second -- on the redemption list.