Senior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams is focused now. But he wasn’t always that way.
"I mean it was a rough road – the biggest thing about high school was [that] I started off very bad. My biggest problem was I had problems actually going to school. I also tried to work a job and I would try to work late hours to make more money and if affected me getting up and going to school every day. So the biggest thing is, I started off and I had a lot of people that tried to mentor me in the right direction, but at the time I didn’t want to listen obviously, so I would not go to school and I would skip class.
Going into my sophomore year in high school is really when it really started to catch up with me because freshman year I got by. I played basketball my freshman year and I ended up getting kicked off in December for not being eligible for the second half and I went to school my second half of my freshman year and tried to do the right thing and I actually passed every class.
But going into my sophomore year I kind of had the same problem, not wanting to go to class every day and so it affected me and I played basketball again and got kicked off midway through the season – and also they ended up kicking me out of school for the remainder of my sophomore year. When that happened, it kind of cut me, it cut me deep because I took my father to school with me when they kicked me out to try to get me back in school and when he went to the school they told him, they said, 'Mr. Williams, we’re not going to allow him to come back to school.'
So my father – he cried, and he told me, 'Son, I just want you to be successful and do the right thing.' And so I think the biggest thing that got me at the point was the fact that he told me, he said, “you need to go to alternative school and get your GED,” and I told him that I wanted to go back to school earn my degree the right way – earn my diploma the right way."
After earning his degree, the 19 year old went to work at a truck manufacturing company in Jefferson City, Missouri.
"I would say, one time when my machine head was malfunctioning the guy came over and talked to me. And when he came and talked to me he was about to retire in that March, it would have been March of 2009, and when he talked to me he said he had been there for around 30 something years and was about to retire and when I looked at him, I just kind of told him that I didn’t want to be that person and I just started thinking a lot. My father worked in a factory his whole life and I didn’t want to be that person that spent his whole life working in a factory and working in this one spot when I knew there was something better in life."
So Williams ended up at Coffeyville Community college and after two successful seasons – he came to North Carolina.
"The biggest thing, the reason why I chose North Carolina was because when I came here and I got a chance to meet some of the fans and see the stadium, and then the academic aspect, and then the great players that they’ve had in the past, I felt like they had one of the best defensive lines here and me, I felt like I was one of the best defensive lineman and I wanted to play with some of the best guys in the country. So that’s one of the reasons why I came here.
In life, I’ve been through a lot. And I know what it feels like to actually live in the real world and actually have to pay bills and your own apartment so I think a lot of guys don’t realize that. So I preach to a lot of guys, I tell them that life outside of Kenan football center, it’s a lot harder and you want to prepare yourself because like I said, at the end of the day everybody’s not going to be blessed to play in the NFL and your career can end any day, so you want to prepare yourself and humble yourself to those type of experiences that you may experience in life. And the biggest thing is I tell guys [to] work hard and work as hard as you can every day you can because at one point in your life, you’re going to have to live in the real world and it ain’t going to be as easy as you think it is.
Looking back on myself in high school, I came a long way because I feel like in high school I was a different person than now because in high school my focus was not on my future, it was more on at the moment. I always thought about the moment; like what am I going to do tomorrow, what am I going to do next week? I thought more about hanging out with my friends more than I thought about school and building a future for one day my own kids that I’ll have myself. So I can say in a sense I was more selfish than I am now, because now I care about everybody that I’m around. And I try to influence anybody that I shake hands with or [am] involved with I try to influence the person, I try to influence people who I don’t even know because I feel like I’m a better person. And I feel like anything that happened to me happened to me for a reason and if I can go back in the hands of time I wouldn’t change anything that happened to me in my life because I feel like it made me who I am today."