Villanova lineman overcame long odds
Pat Williams grew up poor in Florida and was homeless for a time. But he persevered and has found a home at Villanova.
SO HOW is success measured? If it's by how far someone has come and what they've had to overcome, then there can't be many young men who have accomplished more than Villanova senior Pat Williams.
His story is worth celebrating simply for him being here. Instead of being, as he put it, "In jail, selling drugs, in a gang or dead."
Which is what he believes could have, or even would have, easily happened had he not escaped the life he was once exposed to growing up in the projects of Orlando, Fla.
"To be honest, I never thought I was going to see 18," said Williams, who is having by far his best season as a nose guard for the Wildcats' football team and is on schedule to graduate in May with an English degree. "I'm a lucky person."
This is that journey, told mostly through his words.
He lived with his mother, Rhonda Drakeford, and sister Brittany, who was 4 years younger than him, in a single-parent home.
"I knew who my dad was, but he wasn't in the picture," Williams said. "The funny thing was, we [lived] right by each other. I wanted him to be [around]. I tried. We're sort of talking now. It's not like father-son. More like getting to know you. When I did try at a younger age he was too busy or I couldn't get in touch with him. So I stopped trying."
His mom, a big Florida State fan, got him into football when he was 6. But Williams didn't really like it at first, for reasons that had nothing to do with playing.
"I just never wanted to leave them alone," he said. "I felt it was selfish of me to go out to do something I loved, when they needed me. I was the man of the house. I had certain responsibilities. I had to pick up the slack at a young age.
"I didn't live in the greatest neighborhood. I was always scared to go outside. I didn't have a lot of friends. And I didn't know who to trust. It was just hard being comfortable."
It would only get worse. As he reached his early teens, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She wasn't able to work. Eventually they couldn't afford to keep their house.
"The landlord would come [looking for rent money] and we used to hide in the closet, or the garage," he said. "I was too young to get a job. You felt ashamed. It was just so hurtful."
Once Drakeford was forced out of her home, she stayed with other people and took Brittany - who just joined the Army - with her. Williams couldn't go with them, because that would have imposed too much of a burden. And so began a time when he was pretty much on his own.
"You have to find your way. I had to make the best of it. That's when I started to realize football is a part of who I am. People are going to be tugging at you. I had father figures. I had positive role models. People took me in, especially my coaches. But they had families of their own to take care of. I went from place to place. Sometimes I was on the street.
"I had one pair of jeans, one pair of shoes, two pairs of socks and a shirt. I carried them in a Winn-Dixie bag, with my textbooks. I went to school every day, I got picked on. 'Pat, you got on the same stuff.' They didn't understand.
"I kept it from a lot of people. I had to eat. I'm a big guy. Groceries aren't cheap. I got pulled into doing some stuff. You do what you have to. I even went to a shelter. My friends would tell their mom, 'Oh, he's just staying for the night.' It was always just for the night."
Once, his principal caught him doing something that could have gotten him in trouble. But instead, she chose to try helping him. They remain close to this day.
"You have to have your own back," Williams said. "But people also have to have your back."
Around the time he was starting out in high school, came the moment that changed his direction forever. By this time his mom had recovered and had an apartment. One night, his best friend was killed outside the front door. The bullets could have hit him.
"He asked me to come out and hang," Williams said. "I knew it was a bad idea. But I wanted to share what I had done in a basketball game. About 10:30 a car pulls up. Two guys get out and go, 'Which one of you is [J.J.] James?' My friend's like, 'That's me.' He always wore a bulletproof vest under his shirt. He told me to run. This is how God works. I heard six shots before I could turn the corner. I'm up in a tree until, like, 1. It took the police a long time to get there.
"I'd heard gunshots all the time, but never like that, being part of the action. My mom was screaming my name, crying, because she thought I was somewhere dead. My friend had six wounds to the head. It's the closest I'd ever been to a dead body besides a funeral. It was the tightest my mom ever hugged me. She told me I had to leave.
"It was right before my birthday, in January. Every year when it approaches I get emotional."
He had family on his mother's side in Fort Lauderdale. Family he barely knew. A cousin who shared his love of football, Steve McBride, basically became his father. He put Williams in touch with former Villanova running back Roger Harriott, who was the coach at University School. Williams had to pass an entrance test, and signed himself up by falsifying his mother's information.
"I think they knew I was different," he said. "The first thing I see is this kid getting out of a Range Rover. I didn't feel like I belonged at all. But Roger said it would be OK. I was always to myself, didn't talk to nobody. Each week, I stayed with a different family of a teammate. They were the only ones that knew . . . When I got my diploma, that was the best. And so many people were there to share it with me. That's what made it special."
He didn't know anything about Villanova, other than what Harriott had passed along. He just knew he wanted to get away from Florida. A team captain and first-team all-county player as a senior, Williams had an FBS offer from Middle Tennessee State. Then he visited the Main Line. In December.
"It was snowing when I got off the plane," Williams said. "I'd never seen snow before. I wore a tank top and shorts. I'm glad I packed jeans. I went to the bathroom and put them on. I walked right past [coach Andy Talley] the first time. I'd never met him. All I knew was that Roger went there. That was it."
The move north has included speed bumps, particularly early on. But nothing too drastic to hold him back.
"It's been a huge adjustment," said Talley, whose Wildcats are 6-1 and ranked fourth in FCS. "Roger told us we were getting a good guy, but he needed some attention. Culturally, it's a big step up. We've had to sit him down and bring him through some issues, pushed him to a higher standard. He picked up on it after a year or so.
"He's got such a winning personality. He walks around campus, people are always going, 'Pat Williams this, Pat Williams that.' On the field, I thought he was just a good player, but he's been a horse for us. A little sawed-off 290 [-pound] guy who can run and make plays.
"People don't really know about his deal. They just think he's one of us. I think he'll be a mayor or a congressman one day."
Williams doesn't know about that. But he does like music, film and writing poetry. "That's how I express myself," he said. "If I'm not writing, I'm reading."
He's formed a relationship with former Wildcats defensive back Hezekiah Lewis, who is now an assistant professor in the university's department of communications. Lewis' specialty is film production, and Williams has done a documentary about the rec-league football program that McBride runs back home.
"I wanted people to know that kids you think are bad can be helped," he said. "Know their background, and why they're leaning toward football."
Oh, and he spends a few hours once a week at the St. Barnabas Mission for Homeless Women and Children in West Philly. Recently he spoke for 20 minutes at an on-campus symposium on domestic violence, and received a standing ovation when he was done.
"[Talley] says I have the gift of gab," said Williams, who wears a near-constant smile. "I like being around people. I talk to the janitors.
"I don't look at it as community service. It's where I came from. I just don't want them to give up on life, no matter how hard it gets. As long as you keep pushing, you're going to make it. Coach says don't ever make what you're going through an excuse.
"Some of these kids humble me. I see kids wearing shoes that have holes in them, or don't even have a bottom. No clothes, or clothes that don't fit. They have to do their homework at a park that's got light 'til 9 . . . Somebody's situation can always be worse. I could go anywhere and make anywhere home. I feel like I'm home at the shelter."
And so his world continues to spin. It's already been an inspirational saga, yet in many ways it's still merely in the formative stages.
He doesn't intend to waste a single experience.
"I was always the underdog," Williams said. "I never forget where I came from. I call my mom whenever I can. She doesn't have a phone, so I have to call other people to get in contact with her. When hearing her say 'I love you' reminds me when we maybe had to walk an hour to the grocery store or something. It reminds me of all those times. So many people pray for me every day. I pray for her. She taught me how to be a good person. No matter where life takes me, I know I'm not only fighting for myself. I'm fighting for my family.
"I would always ask my coaches after practice, 'What do I have to do to be great?' They'd point to that person in the corner and say, 'Be different than him.' I've messed up. I'm 22. You have to know how to be an adult. I can't do some of the things I did when I was 16.
"There were times when I wanted to leave, no matter where I was. I knew what people had in their pockets, and I had nothing. What people had in their fridge, and I didn't even have a fridge. When people had a roof over their heads, all these mansions, I didn't have a bedroom. People had a bed, I had a floor. My first time sleeping on a mattress I could call my own was at Villanova. The last time I probably had my own room, I was 10.
"I've seen 'The Blind Side' 100 times," he went on. "Every time I watch that movie I cry. That's probably my favorite movie. It reminds me that no matter how down life gets, there's going to be an up. You just have to keep after it. I'll never stop tapping that rock. One day, it'll break."
That's quite a ways from being forced to pack your entire existence into a Winn-Dixie bag and hope that you'll actually have a tomorrow.