It’s amazing how just a few words, one sentence, can change your life forever. I will say with some degree of certainty — as in 100 percent certainty — none of us will ever hear these life-changing words.
With the 28th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos select Sylvester Williams, defensive tackle, North Carolina.
This issue features some young up-and-comers in and from Jefferson City. I give you Sylvester Williams. One sentence. Nineteen words. Bam! Instant millionaire.
“Like, ‘Wow, everything I’ve worked for, this is what it’s come to,’” he says. “I couldn’t talk.”
Williams joins a team that’s run by Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. He joins a team that’s directed on the field by future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. It’s heady stuff, indeed. It’s great stuff — and certainly exciting.
But this story goes much deeper than Williams’ first-round selection by the Broncos in late April. It’s a story of perseverance, beating the odds and winning in the end. It’s a story of success.
Williams, a 2008 graduate of Jefferson City High School, didn’t have it easy growing up, being raised in a single-parent household. He had one brother and three sisters. His father worked long, hard hours to provide for the family, but these were humble roots. Williams didn’t have the things most of us take for granted.
“He had a rough way to go and put himself into some bad situations,” Jays football coach Ted LePage says.
“He had to drop out of school because of his attendance,” says Andrea’ Salmon, Williams’ mentor and longtime Jays assistant basketball coach.
Williams was at a crossroads at an early age in life. He chose the right path. For a time, just being a high school graduate was anything but a certainty.
“I didn’t want to give up on myself, and I also had people around me who wouldn’t allow me to give up,” Williams says. “I always wanted something better than I already had. My big thing at first was: ‘Let’s just graduate high school. Let’s just graduate high school.’ That was a big goal for me, and I accomplished that goal.” Williams is 6’3” and 320 pounds, but he only played football his senior year for the Jays. Well, he was on the team anyway. “He didn’t play much on Friday nights, but he did have a big impact in our practices because he was such a big body,” LePage says.
“As athletic as he was, he didn’t have many football skills at that time. But he came to practice every day because he wanted to better his life, just by being a part of the team. At one point in the season, he stopped practice and said: ‘I just want to be a part of something great. You guys don’t understand. I’m out here to make you guys better, and I’ll do whatever it takes. You need to also.’”
“I remember that was such a special moment because he had not had the opportunities a lot of our players had had,” ATTRIBUTION says. “He just wanted to be part of something.”
Graduating was just the first step.
“When I did that, it was like: ‘Let’s get a good job. Let’s get a good job,’” Williams says. “Once I got a good job [Modine], well, there was a point in my life that I didn’t want to be there anymore. My father worked in a factory all his life, and I just kind of watched him, and I didn’t want to do that. The next step was going college. … I just took my life step by step.”
In late fall 2008, Salmon took Williams to a Kansas football game to watch former Jay Richard Johnson in action. “On the way back,” Salmon says, “he turned to me and said, ‘Coach, I want to go to college and play football.’ That’s where it started. I told him that was awesome, but it wasn’t going to be easy. That’s when he gave me his testimony about how he’s going to make it happen.”
With one year of football experience under his belt, Williams went to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. He turned into a Junior College All-American and, in turn, earned a scholarship at North Carolina — where he became a Division I All-American.
“It rekindles your belief in people,” LePage says. “Here’s a young man who had no opportunities in front of him, but when given the opportunity, he’s excelled. It’s truly remarkable.”
Salmon had a big hand in this remarkable story. “Some guys will turn their backs on you when you’re down and out,” Williams says, “but Coach Salmon was one of those guys who stuck with me through everything. He’s like a second father to me. When I was low, when I was going through my down spots, he was there to pick me up.”
Rest assured, it was Salmon’s pleasure. “I’m really proud of him,” he says. “I kept supporting him and believing in him, and I kept challenging him; he did the rest. He had a lot of adversity growing up as a young person, but he turned that adversity into something positive, and he’s made something of himself.”
Williams has found success by by choosing the right path, beating the odds and doing it with class. That one sentence, those 19 words, they simply served as an exclamation point to Williams’ wonderful story because he had so many life-changing moments before that.
“The guy is a very, very special person,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora says. “He’s going to be special to me the rest of my life. He just really is. He’s a very unique man. He’s very grateful for everything that happens in his life.
“He works extremely hard for everything he achieves,” he continues. “He sets goals, and he achieves them. He will be a first-rate citizen in Denver, and I think he’ll be a person the community puts their arms around and ends up loving in the long run.”