Andre, the Giant
SCHNECKSVILLE, Pa. — The first phone call Andre Williams received during the NFL draft came at 7:59 p.m. last Friday. He was mid-squeeze of a lime wedge as he whipped up his homemade jerk ginger-lime BBQ sauce.
On the kitchen counter, a television showed the St. Louis Rams on the clock, preparing to make pick No. 41 in the second round. Williams wiped off his fingers, reached into the right pocket of his camouflage cargo shorts and pulled out his cell phone. This was a surprise.
“Mom?!” Williams called out. “What are you doing?”
A few feet behind Andre, Lancelene Williams glanced down at the phone she was holding. Accidental dial. Whoops.
“Calling you?” she asked. “I didn’t mean to!”
Andre shook his head and slid the phone back into his pocket. Back to the sauce. Back to waiting.
Williams, the former Boston College running back and a Heisman finalist, was told he’d go anywhere from the second to fifth round, which meant any time between 7 p.m. Friday to about 4 p.m. Saturday—an impossibly long time to be expecting a phone call you can’t miss.
He hunkered down at his parents’ home in Schnecksville, Pa., a quiet community about 10 miles northwest of Allentown where one street sign actually reads “Rural Road.” Twenty-five people circulated in and out of the house throughout the weekend—family, friends, even his little brother’s senior prom date—and Williams was often the quietest one in the room. For the time being, his future was in someone else’s hands.
* * *
Williams stood in front of the television in the living room on Friday evening, three minutes before the second round began, holding the remote. The volume needed to be loud enough to hear the NFL Network broadcast over the din of the room, but not so loud that he wouldn’t be able to hear his phone ring. He settled on level 48.
Though he rushed for 2,177 yards last season and won the Doak Walker award, Williams preferred to be at home rather than at Radio City Music Hall. After all, he keeps his trophy for being college football’s premier running back on a nightstand in his childhood bedroom. The occasion brought Lancelene and Ervin Williams’ four kids back together under the same roof: Ervin, Jr., 29, a barber in Atlanta; Krystal, 25, a third-grade teacher in New Jersey; and Kareem, 17, a senior at Parkland High School.
Being a guest of honor, though, doesn’t come naturally to Andre. He spent most of the night acting more like a host: picking up cans and bottles, carefully brushing the chicken wings with his special sauce and preparing the mashed potato recipe borrowed from his girlfriend, Carolyn Jay, a senior at Boston College. He kept a white kitchen towel draped over his shoulder the entire night.
But his five high school football teammates who came bursting through the back door were a reminder that he’s living out all of their football dreams. They still couldn’t believe he got to meet Barry Sanders at the Heisman Trophy ceremony. “I went from nobody knew who I was,” said Williams, who only ran for 599 yards as a junior, “to everybody knew who I was.”
But what that meant for his pro prospects was still anyone’s guess. As the living room filled up, guessing became the party game du jour: Where will ’Dre go? Who will be the first running back off the board? They tried to think with their heads, not their hearts.
“Tre Mason, he’s going to be next,” Lancelene decided, naming Auburn’s running back.
“That’s how you feel, mom?” Andre teased her.
“No, that’s not the way I feel,” she said. “That’s what they are predicting.”
“So, what do you predict?” he asked.
Lancelene waited until her son was out of earshot before confiding in a friend. “He was saying he really likes New York,” she said, “so I’m hoping New York.”
Williams, meanwhile, pulled out his phone to check Twitter. He found an @ mention from Mark Herzlich, his former Boston College teammate and Giants linebacker, saying he was looking for Williams to be drafted Friday night.
Williams quickly fired off a reply: “part of me feels like this is omen Herz.”
* * *
“Ooh!” Lancelene yelped. “A running back!”
At 8:46 p.m. on Friday, the first running back was drafted: Washington’s Bishop Sankey, No. 54 overall by the Titans. The NFL’s shift toward aerial attacks and using running backs by committee has changed how teams value the position. After Sankey, finally, there was a run on running backs late in the second round.
LSU’s Jeremy Hill was taken with the next pick, by the Bengals. Then the 49ers traded up to nab Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde with pick No. 57.
“Another one?” Krystal asked.
“That means I’m not going out West,” Williams said. “I’d be cool with going out West. But I’d rather stay here.”
Williams headed to the backyard for some fresh air. His older brother, nicknamed Danique, spent almost the entire night outside grilling, with good reason: They cooked nearly 150 chicken wings. Plus, his cell phone was the secondary contact number Williams gave to NFL teams. Danique patted the front pocket of his jeans. “I’m staying out here where it’s quiet,” he said. Big brother move.
“I’m glad the running backs are starting to go,” Williams said.
“Yeah, but it’s not you,” said Diab Hadeed, his best friend from Parkland.
“It’s not me,” Williams repeated.
By 9:30 p.m., when the second round ended, the energy in the house began to wane. Danique came inside to take a shower—his wife watched his phone while he was gone—and Krystal nodded off on one of the easy chairs. Lancelene busied herself with cleaning the pots and pans. Williams swapped his glass of Pinot grigio for strawberry-peach juice, and settled onto the couch with Carolyn.
Five more running backs came off the board in the third round: West Virginia’s Charles Sims to the Buccaneers. Mason to the Rams. Towson’s Terrance West to the Browns. Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon to the Vikings. Kent State’s Dri Archer to the Steelers. Williams sat with his hand on Carolyn’s knee. “Oh my gosh,” he said softly when he heard Archer’s name, the third running back in a span of four picks.
“This concludes Round 3,” NFL VP Troy Vincent said at 11:17 p.m. Even though her son was still on the board, Lancelene clapped. The 20 or so people in the living room were slow to get up.
Williams’ high school buddies asked about the plans for tomorrow. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, but he wasn’t in a bad mood. He knew he’d put in the work to make it to the next level. The wait would just simply last another night.
“What do you always tell me? The sun rises every day,” one friend offered, and Williams laughed heartily.
“Don’t worry, you’ll go tomorrow,” Lancelene said. “In the name of sweet Jesus.”
* * *
Late Saturday morning, Williams was frustrated. He’d been craving pancakes since the draft began. But Kareem took the car to pick up his tux for that night’s senior prom before going to track practice. No car, no pancakes. And as noon approached, Williams wasn’t sure if he should leave the house.
“This is why I wish it would have just happened yesterday,” Williams said. “Now it could happen at any point today.”
“We could have a celebratory breakfast,” Carolyn suggested. “A … late breakfast?”
Williams ate three chunks of pineapple out of the fridge. His agent sent him a text, with a link to a story on ESPN.com’s front page: “Better late than never: Two Heisman finalists are still available.” Williams clicked the link and watched the video highlights of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron with Carolyn and Diab, but closed it before it got to his highlights.
The house was quieter on Saturday. Just his family and Diab’s family. Danique and his wife went to pick up her new wedding band in New Jersey, and hadn’t made it back yet. Williams returned to the couch with Carolyn for the start of the fourth round.
Three picks in, the Falcons took Florida State running back Devonta Freeman. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said what everyone in the house was thinking: “I was actually thinking the BC kid.” When the broadcast cut to video of an excited Freeman getting the call, Williams grinned.
Diab and Carolyn started rattling off the teams that had already taken running backs. Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Tennessee … Did Buffalo? I could have sworn. … No. … Where did Tre Mason go? … St. Louis. … Did Baltimore? … No, Baltimore didn’t. … Arizona? … I can check. Williams sat quietly, eyeing the TV screen. He could see the Giants were coming up soon, at No. 113 overall, the 13th pick of the fourth round.
It was not a big event when Williams’ phone rang at 12:44 p.m. Only Carolyn was in the living room with him. He was reclining against her, and he lifted up the phone, answering calmly. “Yes,” he said. “This is he.” He didn’t say anything for a full 10 seconds, but his chest started beating fast, along with his heart. He sat up. This wasn’t his mom calling again.
“That sounds awesome to me,” he finally said. “I’m really excited.”
Carolyn waved to his family in the kitchen. “I think it’s the Giants,” she mouthed. “They’re on, right?”
About a minute later—while Williams was still on the phone—Rich Eisen announced on the NFL Network, “Your Boston College running back….” and the room erupted. Williams, instinctively, put a finger to his lip. Coach Tom Coughlin was on the line, and he didn’t want to disappoint him.
The call seemed to go on forever, at least for everyone else. Andre spoke to the running backs coach, Craig Johnson: “This is going to be a great relationship. Thank you for pulling the trigger, coach.” To the Giants’ Northeast area scout, Chris Pettit, who had written up the reports from Williams’ games: “I really had a feeling from the beginning, I really did. I’m ready.” And to the team’s VP of communications, Peter John-Baptiste, who was setting up a conference call with the New York media.
Williams hung up and walked into the kitchen, where he embraced his mom with a bear hug. Two years ago, he wondered if he would ever be relevant on a draft day. Now, he was a fourth-round pick.
“Now you’re Andre the Giant,” Lancelene bellowed. “We’re going to Disney World!”
Carolyn glanced at the clock. Almost 1 p.m. “Is it too early to pop the wine bottles?” she asked.
* * *
Danique missed the moment, but he knew exactly what it meant. When he walked into the house a half-hour after Williams got the call, he had four words for his brother: “Well worth the wait.”
Williams is just the kind of running back the Giants love, which a scout had explained to him just a few days before the draft. “Coach Coughlin has a soft spot for BC guys,” the scout told him, “and an even softer spot for guys who run hard.” Prophetic words. Coughlin, a former BC coach, first connected with Williams during a formal interview at the combine. His first question: “Is there anything on your Twitter or Facebook I would be disappointed about?” Williams told him, no, he keeps it pretty professional—precisely what Coughlin wanted to hear.
Williams will have an opportunity to contribute right away on a team that doesn’t have a clear-cut No. 1 back among David Wilson, Rashad Jennings and Peyton Hillis. Wilson, a first-round draft pick in 2011, has not yet been cleared following January neck surgery. Williams has an unusual combination of size (230 pounds) and speed (4.5 seconds in the 40), and a willingness to pass block that the Giants dig. Coughlin hopes the team’s selection of Williams sends a message to the Giants’ offensive linemen about the team’s commitment to running the ball—which also sends a message about how the team values Williams.
What about the question that hung in the air of his parents’ Schnecksville home before his name was called: How does a Heisman finalist last until the fourth round, after nine other running backs had already been selected? Williams played through some injuries in college, including a shoulder injury at the end of last season, but said team doctors told him everything checked out just fine. According to Giants director of college scouting Marc Ross, the team had a “second or third-ish” kind of grade on Williams, so team brass was pleasantly surprised when he was still around early in the fourth.
How does a Heisman finalist last until the fourth round, after nine other running backs had already been selected?
“I guess teams like who they like,” Williams said. “Yeah, I could have gone earlier, but gone to a place that’s abstract. Or, I could have ended up in St. Louis, or I could have ended up in San Francisco, and those would have been great places, but I just think this really fits. The Giants really fit me, and where I am from, and who I am.”
Williams understands the business side of rookie contracts—the longer he stayed on the board, the smaller his signing bonus will be—but he cared more about where he ended up rather than when he was drafted. He kept a secret a list of the four teams he most wanted to play for: Atlanta, Baltimore, New England and the Giants. The Giants, starting with the good vibes in that combine interview, were first on his list.
On Saturday afternoon, he finally shared that list with his family. And something else he’d been keeping to himself, too. He’d seen a commercial this spring—he couldn’t remember what for—that had a cartoon character wearing a blue No. 44 jersey, his college number. For weeks, he’d wondered if it was a sign.
There was quiet in the kitchen as everyone considered the ways of the universe. Then, Williams broke the silence.
“We've got to go get those pancakes,” he said.