For a college football player, getting an invite to the Combine is only half the battle. Unless you're Andre Smith, there is the intense preparation - the Combine is a week-long job interview and the modern player knows that. The players will be tested, analyzed, interviewed, scrutinized and in many cases the metrics don't even fit the skills that the players will require at the next level.
The Combine can be likened to the SAT tests that most of us dreaded in high school. When I took them, you were assigned, you walked in and tested, and you waited for the results to come in the mail. As you can tell, that was a long time ago. Now, there are pre-tests, preparatory courses ad infinitum, and the rare students who walk in cold are already behind in the ranks. In the same way, there are now courses to prepare the player for the Combine. And if you don't make the Combine, you're like those students unprepared for the SATs. The odds are low and the obstacles high.
Every year in this country, hundreds of fine athletes don't get that invite. The NFL draft has gone from 12 rounds down to 7. Rosters were reduced in response to the closing of NFL Europe. Competition is tougher than ever, as the big programs can now offer more to the student in the way of training facilities and individual coaching. But many of them will bring substantial skills to the table. Athletes who don't make the draft are often contacted ahead of time, evaluated, and called as soon as the final pick comes off the Big Board. But it's a long road and a short chance. Their school Pro Days are usually their last chance to impress, to get their names into someone's mind, and hope for that call on draft day. Jason Williams took that challenge to heart.
Players like Jason Williams, from the Western Illinois Bearcats, know what the odds are. But on the day that offensive tackle Jason Smith worked out for scouts at Baylor, scouts weren't talking about that possible top-4 pick. The buzz was heavy that day and they were talking about Jason Williams.
Jason played several positions in high school, including quarterback. He arrived at college at about 220 pounds and began his career at strong safety before getting his growth and switching to outside linebacker. Now at 6'1", 241 lbs, he's one of the best players you never heard of. And Williams' Leathernecks teammate Herb Donaldson, who rushed for 1,784 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior, is right behind him.
Brad Briggs, of the Chicago Sun-Times, said,
"Every year there are a host of players who complain about not getting an invite to the scouting combine. Western Illinois linebacker Jason Williams, the DuSable product, is one who can make a very good case this year. But he did something about it when his opportunity came Tuesday at his pro day in Macomb, Ill."
What Jason Williams and his friend Herb Donaldson did was to post better results than the players at this year's combine. Donaldson did it by hoisting 225 lbs for an amazing 28 reps, easily outdoing any RB at the Combine. He also managed a 4.56 40, 32-inch vertical leap and a 10.2 broad jump. Like Williams, Donaldson is a Sports Network 1st-Team All-American. So is WR Ramses Barden, who is garnering a lot of interest among several NFL teams. But Barden was invited to the Combine.
Lacking that invitation, Jason Williams showed up with something to prove. He shocked the assembled scouts, representing over a dozen teams, by posting a time of 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Although run in a gymnasium, his time was .07 seconds faster than the quickest linebacker invited to last month's NFL combine, and would have placed second among all cornerbacks and third among the safeties. The scouts added a tenth of a second to compensate for the faster surface, but his time was still one of the best. His vertical jump of 39 inches was two inches better than any of the combine's linebackers. He added 26 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press.
He's not a total unknown. Jason Williams has an extensive collection of awards and honors. In 2007 alone he was named to the AFCA All-America Team, the Associated Press All-America Second Team and the Sports Network All-America Second Team. He was a first-team all-Gateway honoree... runner-up for Gateway Defensive Player of the Year Award and led the Gateway in three defensive categories - sacks (8), tackles for loss (16.5) and forced fumbles (5), and was ranked third in tackles with 107.
Williams ranked among the nation's top-fifty defensive players in tackles for loss, total tackles and sacks... his five forced fumbles ranked fifth nationally and tied a school record... helped anchor a defensive unit that ranked among the top-25 nationally in five categories - scoring defense (18th), total defense (21st), pass defense (22nd), sacks (23rd) and pass efficiency defense (25th)... named the team's defensive MVP at the annual awards banquet. Then, in 2008, he got even better.
He was named to 2008 Lindy's Preseason All-America First Team and the Consensus Draft Services All-America Second Team. Williams was one of three linebackers named to the Sporting News Preseason FCS All-America Team and led the entire country with a school-record six forced fumbles (0.55/game), setting a new FCS record and tying the NCAA all-division record of 14 career forced fumbles.
He ranked second in the league and 32nd nationally with 14.5 tackles for loss (1.32/game), was also named to Phil Steele's Preseason All-America First Team and had a tackle-for-loss in all games but the season finale, ending his streak at 13. Jason had two sacks and two forced fumbles in a four-point loss at Arkansas, which earned him league and national player of the week. He totaled 67 tackles (39 solo and 6.1 per game), four quarterback hurries and six pass breakups and ended the season as the nation's active career leader in forced fumbles.
He finished fourth in the Buck Buchanan Award voting and was named to the Associated Press All-America First Team, the Sports Network All-America First Team and the College Sporting News All-America Team. He was also a finalist (4th place) in the 2008 Buck Buchanan Award. (Source material is found here and here)
Jason Williams was the first player in school history to earn repeat AFCA All-America honors. Not surprisingly, Williams was also named Western Illinois' Defensive MVP. But like a lot of pro-material players, he wasn't deemed good enough to earn a slot at this year's Combine.
He was good enough for another stage, though: The East-West Shrine Game, where he drew national praise and attention. Known as "Football's Finest Hour" the East-West Game has been played every year since 1925 to raise funds for Shriners Hospitals for Children.
Events surrounding the 84th Shrine Game began when players reported the previous Saturday. They visited the Shiners Hospital for Children on Sunday before going through a week of practices at Reliant Stadium. The game was then televised live on ESPN2 from Robertson Stadium at the University of Houston, giving Williams the stage that he needed.
"It's a great honor," said Williams. "It's something I have always wanted to do, but I was a little surprised when they called. I definitely was not expecting it. I thought maybe I would have a chance to play in a lesser-known bowl game if anything."
"I am looking forward to the chance to practice with actual NFL coaches and staff," Williams continued. "I think that will give me a better chance at getting to the next level since a lot of them have not seen us play in person."
When Williams received his invitation to play in the East-West Shrine game this year, he was asked to keep a journal of the experience for the nfldraftbible.com site. On January 12, 2009 he wrote:
The season ended and so it was time to choose an agent. I signed with Sports Stars right after Christmas.
After that, I went down to Parisi Speed School in New Jersey for a week working on my 40, shuttle, and L-drill. It was pretty cool. There were about 10 of us there. There was a small group of FCS guys working out such as Lawrence Sidbury from Richmond. He is a cool guy.
Our trainer is Martin Rooney and he knows a lot of the best techniques to get the best times in those drills. That was rewarding to train with them. I was there for a week and arrived on Saturday for the Shrine Game.
I have not been too busy with teams yet but so far I have met with the Panthers and Cowboys. I have a meeting with the Jaguars later on tonight around 10. That is pretty much it right now since the season ended. "
Jason garnered a lot of attention during that week. John Murphy wrote a column on the East-West Shrine game this year and his entry for Jason Williams was short and to the point:
"Western Illinois LB Jason Williams... certainly passes the eye-test with flying colors, well-defined upper-body, little tight in the hips when dropping back into coverage, but he flies to the ball and shows an extra burst of closing speed in the open field."
An article from Footballsfuture.com said simply:
6-1 241 Western Illinois
Big and fast can play SLB position
Chad Reuter went even further:
LB Jason Williams, Western Illinois: The Leatherneck showed versatility all week, running with tight ends down the seam and stepping into the hole to stop running backs in their tracks. His size and athleticism put him at the top of the linebacker group despite the presence of players from big programs like Southern California, Cal and South Carolina. (Chad Reuter, The SportsXchange, NFLDraftScout)
NFLdraftscout.com considered Williams one of the top 15 players NOT invited to the Combine. Watching him during the week of the EWSG they noted,
"Williams' combination of strength at the point of attack and coverage ability during East-West practices opened eyes."
Back in high school, at DuSable in Chicago Illinois, Jason Williams led his team to an undefeated mark in the Chicago Public League's Intra-City Central Conference He rushed for 2,988 yards, threw for 3,015 more, and he tallied 71 total touchdowns (35 rushing and 36 passing) in his time there. He was a two-time all-city and all-section performer. All he's ever done is perform, play a lot of positions well, win games for his team, and garner every honor available to him. He's fast, tough and strong; he's football smart and he understands the way the deck is stacked against him.
Western Illinois head coach Don Patterson was justifiably proud of the two young men, Williams and Donaldson, who he said were continuing a tradition of WISU grads, several of whom went on to play for Super Bowl teams. He commented,
"From a coaches' standpoint, I was very proud of how our draft-eligible players represented their team," said "They have prepared long and hard for this and I am really proud of how they performed as a group. Herb really helped himself today. He showed that he could catch the ball really well outside. And Jason proved to the scouts why he was the best all-around athlete on our team."
On draft day, Jason Williams and Herb Donaldson are names that I'll wait to hear called. They don't play for big schools. They don't get the big press, the attention; but they, like many others in similar situations, are solid football players with a lot to offer their prospective teams.
I'll wait to hear their names because, like most people, I can't help but cheer for the little guy, the David who takes up a rock and a piece of rope and goes out to do battle with a profession that chews guys like him up and spits them back out. But Williams isn't discouraged. The week of the Shrine game, he wrote in his journal,
"I am one of maybe four FCS guys on my team so that is an honor in itself. Today we went to the Shriner's hospital and took pictures and gave autographs. It kind of makes you value life a lot more at what we are doing and what these kids can't do. I got a lot out of that."
That is a man who is already a winner.
You can see a promo video of Jason Williams here.
This article was written by request. If there are any players whose stories are unusual or interesting to you, I'd like to journal them. Please drop me a note about them at MHRTales@gmail.com. Thanks!