The lights grow dimmer each day when you drift into your late 20s and any objective onlooker would say this football dream just isn’t working out. Friends, family and maybe even your inner voice start asking a seemingly obvious question.
“You kinda have that, ‘Are you gonna go get a regular job, or what?’” Nick Williams said.
He can’t remember any specific person asking it and he said he never asked himself, but he sensed it hovering. The Dolphins cut him at the end of the 2017 preseason and he went home to Alabama to do some soul searching. He might not have realized that’s what he was doing, but the daily disappointment of nobody calling forced him to wrestle with what he believed.
Is it foolish to keep chasing a football career, or did he have true conviction that he could still make it? Plenty of washouts say they didn’t get a fair shake or find some other excuse to give it up, but Williams was unwilling to concede.
“Just my belief in the Lord, He had it on my heart that I’d have another opportunity,” Williams said. “So I just stayed in shape, stayed working out and when my number was called, I was ready.”
His faith was rewarded exponentially — more so, he admitted, than he could have imagined.
On a Bears defense that features world-class pass rusher Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith and Leonard Floyd, it’s the 308-pound, run-stuffing defensive tackle that nobody else wanted leading the team with six sacks. Maybe he’s the star to watch when the Bears visit the Rams on Sunday.
“That’s kind of a shocker,” safety Eddie Jackson said, delivering a massive understatement. “But with the success he’s having, hats off to Nick.”
Williams was happy just to get on the field his first six years in the NFL and never dreamed of getting sacks.
He played 300-plus snaps with the Chiefs and Dolphins without getting one, and demolishing an NFL quarterback was no more on his to-do list than becoming a pastry chef. In both cases, he was content to leave that to the professionals.
Williams was, and still is, a run stuffer first. The only difference is that at least sacks are now an afterthought rather than not a thought whatsoever.
He didn’t even realize he’d gotten one the first time it happened.
In the Bears’ Week 2 win at Denver, Williams drove Broncos left guard Dalton Risner back, and as Joe Flacco tried to escape the pocket, Williams shoved Risner aside and wrapped up Flacco for a loss of 1 yard.
The mild-mannered Williams reacted matter-of-factly until Hicks came over and head-butted him and slapped him on the back of the helmet. He initially didn’t have a theatrical celebration prepared — an egregious faux pas in today’s NFL — but after another one the following week and two against the Vikings, he settled on an understated display of flexing his giant biceps.
“He’s real chill... quiet and humble,” Jackson said. “You don’t hear him brag about plays he made or anything like that.”
Williams came through with another sack Sunday against the Lions, blowing past the left guard and a running back to drop Jeff Driskel for an 8-yard loss. He raised both arms to the roaring crowd at Soldier Field.
That one put him ahead of Mack’s 5.5 for the team lead, which Williams wouldn’t have thought possible if you’d predicted it before the season.
“I’d say you’re crazy,” he said. “But it’s just great coaching and being in the right positions and just being ready.”
Williams says things like that a lot. He talks about how much he’s learned under Bears defensive line coach Jay Rodgers and two of the league’s best defensive minds in Vic Fangio and Chuck Pagano. He often mentions, correctly, that it’s a lot easier to thrive when opposing offenses are obsessed with Mack, and he likely wouldn’t be getting this big of an opportunity if Hicks wasn’t on Injured Reserve.
But Williams has plenty of enviable assets in his own right. While it’s true that coaches have slept on him since he was in high school— he ended up at Samford and got drafted by the Steelers in the seventh round in 2013 — he’s always had a skillset that got somebody’s attention.
He knew he had that draw, even when he spent the 2017 season training at Godspeed Elite Sports Academy in Hoover, Ala. That confidence played a large role in remaining determined. It also helped that his wife Amy, an attorney, was unwaveringly supportive. Williams might have wondered if he should get a real job, or sensed other people thinking it, but he sure wasn’t hearing that from her.
He found it hard to watch the NFL, but couldn’t stay away. He’d catch games here and there and bristle about not being part of it. But one of the key differences between Williams and the many players who don’t make it back is that it spurred him rather than send him spiraling into doubt.
“He handled it like a professional and grown man,” said David Butz, who has been Williams’ agent his entire career. “There’s guys that get full-on depressed in those situations, and he was never like that. He knew he was good enough to be playing, so he was frustrated, but nothing too bad.
“You’ve gotta follow your heart on that one. If this is something you love doing and want to continue doing, you can’t go back once [give up].”
Williams had a guaranteed contract with the Dolphins that season, so he still got paid in his year away. Instead of sitting back and collecting checks, it was a financial safety net that enabled him to pour his time into the gym.
While Williams logged hours at Godspeed, Butz worked the phones knowing he had a client that teams should’ve wanted. Not many guys Williams’ size can move as quickly or agilely, and even fewer have his sense of balance. When personnel departments find that in a defensive lineman, it’s hard to resist.
“Anybody who sees Nick in person and speaks to him is gonna get excited,” Butz said.
The Bears, to their credit, have been on Williams for years, and coach Matt Nagy knew his reputation from their three shared seasons in Kansas City.
They were one of the few teams to call in 2017, and he came in for a workout at Halas Hall that impressed but didn’t lead to a job. They went back to him the following spring with an offer to be on the 90-man offseason roster, and he made the cut.
Then he made the jump that changed his career.
It’s a little bit of a mystery why it never clicked for Williams until now, when he’s 29, but the Bears seem to possess the right combination of scheme and surrounding talent for him to excel at nose tackle or defensive end.
“The things a player does in one defense may not be the same production in another defense,” Rodgers said. “You’re finding a guy who’s a fit in what we do, and he’s versatile in what he does.
“When you have versatility, you have more opportunities. He’s smart. With all those things, it gets him on the field more.”
The Bears mostly avoided injury trouble last season, and Williams played just two games. He played a fairly forgettable 41 snaps and had two tackles. What stood out, though, was his relentless work and rapid improvement in practices. He worked like someone who’d tasted the bitterness of being cut.
“When you’re out of work, you appreciate it when you’re finally back in — however that may look,” Williams said of embracing his role as primarily a practice player. “Last year just wasn’t my time to contribute to the team, so I waited it out. This year, fast-forward, now I’m trying to do my thing.”
The Bears stressed pass rushing from the onset. They asked him to work on flexibility to maximize his athleticism rather than rely on brawn, and Williams took a greater interest in the pass-rushing elements of meetings and drills.
“Taking those a little more seriously than I used to take them,” he said. “In the past, I was like, ‘Nah, I’m never gonna be in those situations.’ When third down comes, you’re jogging off to the sideline.
“In the past, I didn’t really use my hands as much as I am now. [I’m] trying to get on edges and not go right down the middle on guys. Just trying to take advantage of what they give me.”
It’s working, and Williams is a rare feel-good story in an otherwise disheartening Bears season. So many players’ haphazard career paths don’t work out like this. It’s a reminder, even in bleak times for the team, of how uplifting the sport can be.