ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Kyle Williams is 34 years old and has played 12 years in the National Football League with the Buffalo Bills.
But a moment that has stuck with him during his football career came when he was a 16-year-old at Ruston (La.) High and the father of a friend came to visit for Career Day. The father was boasting about Williams’ football ability. His coach intervened.
As Williams recalls, his coach said, “He’s a really good player, but if he played hard and gave his all, all the time, he could be a special player.”
Williams never told the coach about that moment until he was back in Ruston this spring, all these years later.
“I told him, ‘I’m sure it was a fleeting moment for you, but it’s become a calling card for my career and the way that I’ve play.’
“There are people all along the way that give you tidbits, starting with your parents, but I was very lucky to be blessed with high school and youth coaches who supported me and challenged me to be the best I could be.’’
The lesson for coaches: You never know how what you say can impact a young player, even if you don’t know it.
That was part of Williams’ message as he appeared at the All-Greater Rochester Sports Awards event that honored athletes in all sports from the area.
“Anytime you can come and honor young people for high achievement — whether it’s in the classroom, whether it’s on the field — you’re happy to be a part of that and make it a special night for them,” Williams told USA TODAY High School Sports. “If anything, I hope we can convey to them, through hard work and dreaming big, you can do anything you want to do. And it’s not necessarily about sports, just about life in general.”
As a high school senior, Williams was named the Louisiana state 5A Defensive Player of the Year with 78 tackles and seven sacks. He was ranked as a four-star by Rivals.com and picked LSU over a number of other Southeastern Conference powers.
Williams said his father had one rule about recruiting: Go where you want, but you’re not going to “flirt.” If a program says it’s interested but Williams was not, his father made him tell the recruiter that he was not going to their particular school.
“My dad made me do that,” Williams said. “It was hard for a teenager. It was uncomfortable. But I’m better for it.”
The process, though, has changed dramatically with social media posts by players announcing offers, commitment videos and multiple websites that cover visits.
“I can’t imagine what some young people are going through now,” Williams said. “Back then, there were no cell phones. We got a lot of calls to my house that drove my dad up a wall, and then we got a lot of letters – a chestful of letters. Do they even send letters anymore?”
Williams says he thinks his class – the Class of 2002 – but have been among the first in which recruiting sites awarded stars. What he’s learned since – none of that matters once a player steps on the field.
“I think I’ve seen enough guys to know that stars don’t matter,” he said. “You see so many guys who weren’t recruited. They weren’t drafted. They couldn’t go to the school they dreamt about going to. They had to go to a smaller school and then they’re All-American and then they’re All-Pro. I would be interested to know how much heart a player has not how many stars, but it’s hard to measure that.”
Williams was on the football, basketball and track teams in high school, but said he focused on football as a senior as he was “honing in on my future.” He described Ruston as a place that “lives and dies on Friday night and then kids do other things or other sports through the week to get to the next Friday night.”
But he is strong advocate for multi-sport participation.
“I think that kids should have the opportunity to be kids and they should be able to go out and compete and do a number of different sports,” Williams said. “I think you’re seeing that from a lot of big voices in college sports. I know Urban Meyer, just to pick out one specifically, has come out and said they want to see kids do multiple things. Obviously, it protects against burnout and some specific injuries that they talk about.
“It’s easy to say, ‘OK he’s big and strong. It’s OK for him to sit inside of this bubble on the football field, he’s comfortable there,’ but I want to see this kid play basketball or baseball – something outside of his comfort zone that maybe doesn’t come as naturally for him.”
So what would he say to parents who want their kids to specialize early in hopes of a scholarship?
“I guess that’s the trickiest part, right? Everybody’s got the future Jack Eichel. I’m not saying that to make light of them, because they very well could, but I think you’re doing a disservice to kids if you don’t give them the opportunity to find out what they’re passionate about and what they like. Give them a chance to go out and experience some things and find out what really raises the hair on the back of their neck.”
Williams went from high school football at a high-level in a football state to the SEC. He notes the transition is hard and requires dedication and preparation.
“I don’t think that you’re ever totally prepared until you kind of get in the middle of it,” he said. “Hard work and preparing at top speed — or as fast as you can possibly prepare — will help the transition for you. You have to just being patient and understand that it’s going to take a little time, but it’s going to come because it’s definitely a jump. I would say that my jump from high school and playing in the SEC for LSU was bigger than my jump from LSU to the NFL.”
And success is a day-by-day process.
“I never had any huge goals except to make today my best day, and then try to do it again the next day,” he said. “It’s worked out pretty well for me so far.”