KNOXVILLE — Many people close in any capacity to the University of Tennessee football program know the academic story of Gerald Williams.
Well, they know how it started.
They know Williams became a top target for the Volunteers in the fall of 2004, his senior year at Boyd Anderson High School. They know he initially committed to UT over several other big programs — including Florida and Georgia — on Feb. 2, 2005. They know the four-star, South Florida native signed with the Volunteers shortly thereafter, and they know he didn’t qualify academically.
They know Williams tried to qualify on his own the next year and again fell short. They know he then spent 2006 at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, collecting 96 tackles and forcing two fumbles for the prep school’s football team. But he again failed to qualify at UT, so he spent the 2007 season on the other side of the country at City College of San Francisco.
Williams collected an astonishing 146 tackles and forced six fumbles for CCSF, which won the California Community College championship before taking home its fifth junior college national championship.
The big, hard-hitting middle linebacker finally qualified and enrolled at UT in 2008, with three seasons to finish his three remaining years of eligibility.
And he’s played pretty well as a Vol.
But at defensive end.
And he’s studied pretty well, too. He’s on track to graduate next spring with a double major in Political Science and Africana Studies.
I’ve covered this beat eight of the past 10 years, and Williams’ story has been one of that decade’s most unique — and not only because it started seven years ago.
Williams graduating in May would be an emotional event for many in the UT program, despite the many changes throughout the past three years. His story is known throughout the complex, and when I heard that he was on track to graduate in May, I thought his story would be a perfect “Wednesdays with Wes.”
Before reading the interview with Williams below, though, read these comments about the player from first-year UT head coach Derek Dooley.
“It’s a great success story,” Dooley said. “I think it’s what every coach loves about athletics, and I think it’s what a lot of the people who are outside of athletics never get to appreciate; it’s to watch somebody who nobody gives a chance, who might make a lot of mistakes along the way, but then at some point figure it out and get it right and have success. I’m proud of Gerald.
“When I got here, there were a lot of things said about Gerald Williams. But he’s been a phenomenal team player, and he’s going to graduate. What more could you ask?”
Dooley, who comes from one of the South’s most prominent football families, said stories like Williams’ “always make you feel good.”
“As long as the player — and that’s the key — has the motivation and wants to do it right, then he should be given every opportunity,” Dooley added. “It’s a two-way street, and I’ve always felt that way. But if a player’s motivated and wants to graduate, then no matter what disability, no matter what economic status, no matter where he comes from, he ought to be afforded that right.
“I think the systems out there are good, and they can always be better. And that’s certainly our system here. If a guy gives the effort, and be brings the respect, then we need to do everything that we can to make sure we support him.
“And when he struggles, we need to do everything we can to keep supporting him, and helping him.”
Lastly, remember that Williams signed with UT as a linebacker, moved to defensive end and played some snaps at defensive tackle before moving back exclusively to end.
Williams has been, as Dooley put it, “a phenomenal team player.”
And here is my exclusive, one-on-one interview with that player:
Q: With (junior) Malik Jackson moving mostly inside for now, you’re back to playing almost exclusively at end. Are you happy with this situation?
WILLIAMS: “It’s pretty much, you know, just ... wherever they’re putting us right now. Malik’s doing a heck of a job on the inside, and he’s got more weight than me, so I guess that’s where he’s at right now. With him and me on the field at the same time, I think we have more explosion and more depth to the defense.”
Q: You guys still aren’t getting many sacks, but you’re getting a few — which is more than you had been getting. What’s caused all this improvement?
WILLIAMS: “Practice. You have to come out here every day and practice. You have to train and practice as a pass rusher to get pressure on the quarterback.”
Q: Did you intentionally keep your weight low enough so Malik had to play end?
WILLIAMS: “(Laughter.) No. That’s just the way the game happens. Sometimes when you go hard every day, players are going to lose weight here and there, no matter what position you’re playing.”
Q: So you’re working harder than Malik?
WILLIAMS: “(Laughter.) You know it.”
Q: Obviously, there are certain specific techniques involved at end, nose and tackle. But with that said, I’ve often wondered whether your mentality up front is ever, ‘D-line is D-line,’ and that you’ve got to beat a 300-pounder no matter what.
WILLIAMS: “Yeah, just like you said it. You put in great words. D-line is D-line.”
Q: Of course I put it in great words. That’s what great journalists do.
WILLIAMS: “(Laughter.) “Well, being in the middle, you just have to be prepared more often for more double teams, (rather than) more one-on-ones and end.”
Q: How has this season been for you? Every time I speak with you, you seem to have a positive outlook on things. That can’t be easy without handfuls of medication.
WILLIAMS: “I mean, being 2-6 is not easy. But I’m always going to be positive, and I’m always going to stay positive. We’ve got four games to get to a bowl game, and we’re going to take it one game at a time, because right now it’s just a one-game situation.”
Q: This doesn’t seem like the toughest one-game situation. Seems more like a one-win situation. (Saturday opponent) Memphis is 1-7.
WILLIAMS: “(Laughter.) Every college football game’s a tough game, especially when you’re 2-6. We haven’t been good enough to take anybody lightly.”
Q: You didn’t take the bait. Bravo. Anyway, I’ve been on this beat for eight of the past 10 years, and I’ve never seen someone clear more academic hurdles than you to get here. How important is Tennessee football to you?
WILLIAMS: “Like you said, I’ve been through a lot, man. You know the story. It means the world to me, and we need to get better. It’s a team effort, and I trust my guys that we’re going to come out and get the job done, game-by-game.”
Q: Forget football for a second. How’s school going?
WILLIAMS: “School’s been great, man. I’m on track to graduate in the spring, with a double major in Africana Studies and Political Science. It’s been going great. We’ve got a good academic program over there at Thornton (Center), with Fernandez (West) and all those guys. So it’s been going good.”
Q: What would that degree mean to your mama?
WILLIAMS: “A lot. But not only for my family; it means a lot to me. But man, I can’t tell you how proud my mom would be. That’s my job, to put a smile on her face and thank her for all the things she and my dad have done, sticking with me to get here to this point. That (degree) will mean as much to me as anything I’ve ever done. It’s been a journey, man, but I’m going to get it.”
Q: Many people have said that when someone struggles so much to get in college, they won’t succeed when they get there. Your case seems to take that theory and tell people where to shove it. That’s got to feel good, right? You can probably tell that story to kids in your neighborhood, too, right?
WILLIAMS: “Definitely. You’ve always got a chance. It’s just up to you. Once you get the opportunity, it’s up to you to make the best of it. You can either take the wrong path and go down the drain, or you can take the right path and just keep going forward and listen to what you’ve got to do.”
Q: Double major, huh? When did “Geezy” become a nerd? When did “57 Magnum” become a nerd?
WILLIAMS: “(Laughter.) I’m am educated man. It feels great, man. It really does.”
Q: Why did you pick two majors? Some people have trouble with one.
WILLIAMS: “It just kind of happened that way. I just declared another one at the beginning of this year, so it wasn’t planned or anything. It just worked out that way with the classes I was taking and everything.”
Q: Are you happy with your GPA, whatever it is?
WILLIAMS: “My GPA ... for the most part, it’s pretty steady and pretty good. It’s not exactly where I want it to be at, since I’m dealing with football and always trying to balance out my schedule and all that, but it’s OK. I’m holding up.”
Q: When you were struggling for three years to get to UT, who were the people here in Knoxville helping you along the way?
WILLIAMS: “Oh, man, I’ve got to say Fernandez and Scott Altizer. Through thick and thin, whatever I needed — paperwork faxed here or there, just some different help, all kinds of stuff — Fernandez and Scott were always there for me. Especially Scott. I can’t say enough Scott. He’s been there from day 1, since I was in high school and took my first visit here. Great guy. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
(NOTE: Altizer, currently an event management director for the UT athletic department, used to be UT’s coordinator of football operations. He spent 15 years in the recruiting office.)
Q: How many hours do you need to graduate?
WILLIAMS: “I have 12 hours this semester, and I’m going to take 12 hours next semester.”
Q: You have to finish, man. That’s so close. I’m objective about you guys on the field, but I’m a homer for education. I’m not even playing. Get that (dang) degree.
WILLIAMS: “Yes, sir.”
Q: What about working out for the (NFL) draft? A lot of guys get sidetracked and slip up before the finish line academically because they get a new ride and all that stuff from their agent. You’re not going to get caught up in all that, are you?
WILLIAMS: “Honestly, I haven’t really thought about that. I’m going to make sure I get back with the Thornton Center and schedule everything out when the time comes.”
Q: You better.
WILLIAMS: “Yes, sir.”
Q: Dooley would love that answer.
WILLIAMS: “Oh, yeah. Definitely. Focused, baby.”
Q: I know you want to play in the NFL, but what happens when your football days are finished — either this year, next year, or five or 10 years down the road?
WILLIAMS: “Most likely, I’d probably go to grad school and further my education. I’d eventually like to own my own business. I’d like to open up a daycare for kids, or just, you know, ...something dealing with the youth, something working with kids. I’d like to give those guys a place to have an education so they don’t go through all those things I had to go trough.”
Q: Has playing on the 2010 Vols made you want to help kids, too? Let’s face it, you and the other few vets are surrounded by baby-faced boys.
WILLIAMS: “(Laughter.) Naw, man. I’ve always liked working with kids. Growing up, I worked at camps and stuff — little play camps, little football camps, little basketball camps, stuff like that. I love working with kids, man. They bring joy to my heart.”
Q: Wow. You’re soft.
WILLIAMS: “(Laughter.) Maybe a little.”
Q: What’s your best buddy Vlad Richard (former UT offensive lineman) doing these days? He was always an interesting cat.
WILLIAMS: “He’s back home. I just heard he might get a contract with an Arena (League) team or something like that. He’s working out, waiting for a chance.”
Q: Is Vladdy Daddy still the best 300-pound dancer in the world?
WILLIAMS: “Oh, yeah. He gets down, man. He moves like you would never expect a 320-pound guy to move.”
Q: Obviously, you didn’t want your senior season to start 2-6. What’s your motivation, as a senior, to keep playing hard every day in practice right now?
WILLIAMS: “We’re Tennessee. That’s all the motivation we need. You have to take pride in this program, for all the guys that have played here before us. You have to keep playing like a Vol, no matter what your record is. As long as we come out and give it our all, at the end of the day, we’re playing like Vols. This is a great place, and it means a whole lot to me. We’ll be back, man. We’ll be back.”
Q: Tell me something embarrassing that no one knows about one of your teammates. I ask this question every week. One of the best answers has been that (freshman defensive end) Jacques Smith’s breath is horrible.
WILLIAMS: “(Loud laughter.)”
Q: Also been told that (junior linebacker) Austin Johnson’s breath is horrible.
WILLIAMS: “(Loud laughter.)”
Q: Also been told that (redshirt freshman guard) JerQuari Schofield is the worst dancer in the world.
WILLIAMS: “(Loud laughter.) Yeah. Oh, yeah. No doubt.”
Q: Give me something good.
WILLIAMS: “Man, I don’t think I have anything that good.”
Q: Sure you do.
WILLIAMS: “Naw, man. I really don’t. You got Big Scho already. For the most part, I don’t see nothing too big. All the guys are pretty good. We’re all brothers. We all bring our different human stuff to the table.”
Q: Lame. At least say something.
WILLIAMS: “OK. (Redshirt freshman linebacker) Robert Nelson, I call him ‘The Music Man,’ because I’ve never caught him without his headphones on, singing out loud. It don’t matter where he is.”
Q: Can he carry a tune? It doesn’t have to be (senior wide receiver) Gerald Jones quality, but can Nelson sing well at all?
WILLIAMS: “Oh, yeah. He can carry a tune. Every time I see him, I catch him rapping something or singing something. It’s always one or the other, man. Always. I’m telling you, always.”
Q: If I stole your iPod right now and pushed the play button, what would I hear?
WILLIAMS: “Probably some R&B.”
Q: I can roll with that. What’s your favorite movie?
WILLIAMS: “I love lots of movies.”
Q: I love lots of women, but you can only marry one at a time. Pick one movie.
WILLIAMS: “(Laughter.) I still do and always will love the (Teenage Mutant) Ninja Turtles — the original.”
Q: Oh, snap! I was a Ninja Turtles freak when I was a kid, too! Which one was your favorite?
Q: Awesome. That’s my favorite, too. He was my favorite because he was the smartest.
WILLIAMS: “Yeah, he was the smartest. But he also had that big stick (a bo staff.) I used to whip out the stick. That was the easiest (Ninja Turtle weapon) to make. I could just go out in the yard, grab a stick, put it behind my back, and I’m Donatello. And I’m whooping up on people.”
Q: Were your buddies the other Ninja Turtles?
WILLIAMS: “Oh, yeah. My older brother and my cousin and me, we’d go out in the yard and play Ninja Turtles all day in our pajamas. We were just playing around the house. It was great.”
Q: Who’s the smartest guy on this team?
WILLIAMS: “We have a lot of smart guys on this team.”
Q: I don’t believe that.
WILLIAMS: “Well, you better believe it. Because we do.”
Q: Whatever. But seriously, who’s the smartest?
WILLIAMS: “I’d go with (senior fullback) Kevin Cooper. That guy’s pretty brilliant.”
Q: Come on, Gerald. I know Kevin, and he’s a good Chattanooga boy from a great private school (Baylor). But you and I both know he missed Saturday’s game with an unspecified team academic rule violation.
WILLIAMS: “I know, man. I know. But Coop’s brilliant, man. We all mistakes. I’m just saying that in my personal experience with him, from what I know, I’d go with Kevin. (Former offensive guard) Jacques McClendon, he’s really smart, too. (Sophomore cornerback) Marsalis Teague is really smart, too.”
Q: I’ll buy that. McClendon’s a smart guy, for sure. And Teague seems like a sharp guy.
WILLIAMS: “No doubt. Teague was named student of the month last month.”
Q: I didn’t know you guys had an award for that. Do you get a trophy or a plaque or something?
WILLIAMS: “No, man. You just get a round of applause, because that’s just what you’re supposed to do.”
Q: Good answer. OK, double-major genius, when you will be named student of the month?
WILLIAMS: “Hopefully next month, man. I’ll let you know when I get it.”
Q: Would you rather settle back home in South Florida or in Knoxville? Or somewhere else?
WILLIAMS: “There’s pros and cons to both (home and Knoxville). I don’t know. I’d be fine with either. I also really like the Atlanta area, but there’s nothing wrong with going home or staying around here or something.”
Q: Lots of guys who play here settle in the Atlanta area, and I have a theory on why that happens.
WILLIAMS: “What (do) you know about it?”
Q: Big city, tons of colleges, both of which mean tons of young, good-looking women.
WILLIAMS: “Yes, sir.”
Q: You’ve become a smart guy in more ways than just those books, Gerald.
WILLIAMS: “Yeah, lots of women. But it’s different when you’re married.”
Q: Are you getting married, too? What’s with you guys? I tried to warn (senior tight end Luke) Stocker about this, but I’m pretty sure he’s still engaged.
WILLIAMS: “(Laughter.) No. Not at all. I’m not engaged.”
Q: Are you heading that way?
WILLIAMS: “No, I’m not heading that way. I’m not married yet. Not that that’s a bad thing. Hat’s off to Luke. That’s a man with a plan right there. But I’m just not ready for that yet.”
Q: If you could only have one more meal, what would it be?
WILLIAMS: “Good question. I’d go with ribs — lots of ribs, man — and some macaroni and cheese, some yams, some collard greens, some rice and a big bucket of Kool-Aid.”
Q: What color of Kool-Aid?
WILLIAMS: “Red. ...Naw, naw, hold on. ...Uh, I’ll go with blue.”
Q: That’s a pretty awesome meal. I’d add cornbread, but I love everything you just mentioned. Can I split it with you?
WILLIAMS: “Not if it’s my last meal.”
Q: What if it’s my last meal, too?
WILLIAMS: “OK. You can have some. Maybe a little.”
Q: Thanks, man. I’m done with you now. Go get your learn on. Go fight the battle against ignorance.
WILLIAMS: “Yes, sir.”
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739.
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