The work wasn’t bad, not for someone who barely graduated from high school and couldn’t name five presidents, or identify most states on a map. Sylvester Williams made about $400 per week at the Modine Manufacturing factory in Jefferson City, Mo., double what he earned at Taco Bell.
This is how his journey to North Carolina and the NFL began, with long nights on an assembly line, building radiators for heavy-duty trucks. Punch the clock at 10:30 p.m. Leave at 7 in the morning. Stand all night. Inside a factory, there isn’t much time for talking. Conversations are internal. And so Williams often asked himself: Is this what I want to do with my life?
There are devices inside radiators that allow water to flow through. Years before Williams became an All-ACC defensive tackle at UNC, Williams inserted those devices. Some days, he molded radiator tops into place. Eventually the finished radiators left the factory and did what they were built to do. Williams wondered if he’d ever do the same.
Days before the Denver Broncos selected Williams with the 28th pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night, he thought about the first day he walked into the factory in July 2008, and his time there. He thought about long days standing on his feet, living a punch-clock existence of manual labor.
“It really made me realize that wasn’t the direction that I wanted to go with my life,” Williams said.
One big, lost soul
Williams remembers filling out the job application. He and a friend went around Jefferson City, looking for factory work. Williams had graduated high school a couple of months before. His GPA was so low, he doesn’t believe it contained the numeral “one” before the decimal point. Any class he passed, Williams said, he did so with a D.
In high school, Williams “never” went to class, he said. The ones he went to, he slept through, in part because he was so tired, having worked long hours at Back Yard Burger and then Taco Bell, and in part because he was so far behind with little hope of catching up.
This is how his doomed high school academic career began, with a father battling drugs and with a home life that included little financial support or structure. Williams lived with his father in St. Louis before his dad went off to rehab, and then his sister in Jefferson City. It wasn’t a lot better there, he said.
There was football. At least Williams had that. His father returned from rehab, and encouraged Williams to try to graduate. He did enough to get by in the classroom and he played football, too, because as big as he was -- 6-foot-3 and more than 300 pounds -- why not?
But that’s all he was, though: Just a big guy running around, directionless.
“I had no idea how to play football,” Williams said. “By the time I figured it all out, the season was over.”
He played just one season – his senior season – and started one game. He finished with 25 tackles. Some teammates went on to play at Missouri, at Kansas. Others played at Division II schools.
No college team showed interest in Williams. It’s possible no college team had even heard of Williams. He never spoke with a college coach, never received any mail. Yet that’s how his passion for the game began, with a small taste of success – starting one game – and a hunger for more of it.
“In the back of my mind, I felt like I wanted to play that sport again,” Williams said.
Factory forced life decision
Instead, he went off to the factory. He doubted he’d ever play football again. A couple of months passed. Williams called an old high school basketball coach and mentor, Andre Solomon, on a Friday night, and told him he wanted to go back to school.
Not long after, Solomon drove Williams to Lawrence, Kan., for the Texas Tech-Kansas game. One of Williams’ good friends played for the Jayhawks. Williams had never been to a college football game. He’d never seen such a spectacle: the band blaring, pretty girls twirling through the air, tens of thousands of people in the stands. He focused on the people on the field.
“When I saw those guys come out of that locker room, I was comparing them to myself,” Williams said. “Some of them were shorter than me, smaller. I was like, ‘I can play this sport.’ I said, ‘I can play this sport, man.’
“When I saw the game, I knew where I wanted to be, I knew where I had to be and I knew where I could have played. Leaving that game, man, it was like, OK – let’s get it done.”
That game was Oct. 25, 2008. When it ended, Solomon and Williams rode back to Jefferson City, through three hours of flatland and wide open space.
“Nothing out there but quietness,” Solomon said.
In the car, Williams spoke of his desire for something greater. Attending that game had sparked his imagination. He saw himself running onto a field like that one day.
Williams and Solomon came up with a plan for Williams to return to school and play football. They decided on Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, where one of Williams’ friends played.
Williams went back to work the next Monday. Jim Walker, Williams’ boss, could tell Williams’ mind was somewhere else. Williams told Walker and others he planned to leave.
Some tried to convince Williams to stay. This was a decent job. A secure job. And besides, Williams had never succeeded in a classroom before, so why would he now? He had never been that good in football, so why would he be now? Walker, who has worked in the Jefferson City plant since 2004, knew better. He encouraged Williams to leave.
“You could just tell that he was a kid that just didn’t want to be that guy building a radiator the rest of his life,” he said. “He wanted to go play that ballgame. And I wanted him to get his education.”
Williams said he listened to himself, too, to the voice he most often heard during those factory shifts.
“I feel like in life,” Williams said, “I needed to take a chance.”
The first scholarship
Williams weighed 360 pounds when he enrolled at Coffeyville for the spring 2009 semester. Williams was, in his words, “the most out of shape guy on campus … so out of shape, it was just terrible.”
So Williams promised himself he would put in extra work every day. He went through normal team conditioning, and then lifted weights and did push-ups on his own. At night, he played pick-up basketball.
In school, he regularly attended class for the first time. He went to tutoring sessions every day.
“There was literally a time where I couldn’t show you where every state on the map was,” Williams said. “Or I couldn’t name five of the presidents.”
He worked hard enough to earn a scholarship. He can still picture a conversation with one of the Coffeyville coaches, who told Williams, “I had no idea you were going to make it this far.”
When practice began before the 2009 season, Williams weighed 299 pounds. He had lost 60 pounds, and was in the best shape of his life.
That summer, though, Coffeyville brought in three high-profile defensive tackles, and Williams worried he might not make the team. That fear motivated him, as much as the fear of spending the rest of his life on an assembly line.
Williams became an all-conference player his freshman season. The first Division I scholarship offer came from Oklahoma State.
“I literally slept with the letter,” Williams said. “It was a hand (written) letter, and I was just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ When Oklahoma State offered me, I was going to commit the same day. I told my coach, I said, that’s where I’m going.’ He said, ‘Sylvester – calm down. You’re going to get a lot more offers.’”
They began to pour in. Williams was all-conference again the next season, and an honorable-mention junior college All-American. Academically, he made up for lost tine and improved enough to qualify. He had offers from Georgia, Baylor, Mississippi and USC, among others. In December 2010, Williams chose UNC, where he became the Tar Heels’ best interior defensive lineman the past two seasons.
Four and a half years ago, he never imagined any of this. Williams was back in Chapel Hill early last week, after months of preparing for the NFL draft.
He had been all over the country, from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. He had trained with the best equipment, and with the best trainers, at a facility in Phoenix, Ariz. Years ago he might not have been able to find those places on a map, and now they were a part of his journey.
“Some days I just sit back and think, like, I’ve got all these people telling me, ‘Man, you’re a first-round pick,’” Williams said. “I look at myself four and a half years ago, and I was a factory worker. So four and a half years later, I’ve got an opportunity to play in the National Football League.
“For me, I don’t understand how it happened to me – and why me.”
Williams was invited to attend the draft in New York City, but he declined because of his dad’s health.
“He’s doing good, he just can’t travel like that,” Williams said.
He went back home and watched the draft with his father, other family and close friends. Solomon was there. Before every game at Coffeyville, and every game at UNC – and even before important tests in the classroom – Williams called Solomon, his old mentor who helped him change his life. Now Solomon will receive those calls next season from Denver.
Not too far away, Walker and some of the guys from the factory – Williams’ old co-workers and supervisors – gathered to watch the draft, too. After Denver chose Williams, Walker and the guys celebrated.
“Congrats to Denver and UNC and Sylvester Williams … Been an exciting night in Missouri,” Walker wrote in a text message.
A few weeks back, Walker said he received a call from Williams, who thanked him for being a good boss. Those months in the plant propelled Williams to where he is. Williams hasn’t been back to the factory, but he said he hoped to visit – to remember where he’d come from and to remind himself of what it took to go from there to here.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter