It wasn't that long ago that Sylvester Williams was working at Modine Manufacturing Company in Jefferson City, Mo., making radiator parts for trucks. Sunday, he will represent the University of North Carolina in Super Bowl XLVIII when his Denver Broncos face the Seattle Seahawks.
Williams' story of perseverance is one of the best and is worth re-telling.
"It's a great story of perseverance and hard work," says UNC head coach Larry Fedora. "Sly has handled the adversity in his life with class and dignity and was able to turnaround his life and become a champion. He saw what it was like working in that factory after high school and realized he wanted something more. He worked hard, received a scholarship to North Carolina and was able to achieve his dream of playing college football at the highest level. Even with his athletic accomplishments, the thing he told me he valued the most was earning his degree at UNC. It was his proudest moment."
It's Super Bowl week and Williams will be starting in the big game, so it's worth taking a look back at his incredible story of success.
Sylvester Williams is a goal-setter. When the senior defensive tackle wants something for himself, he goes about doing the work to get there. Williams wants to be the best defensive player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Given what he's overcome and accomplished to date, there's no reason to think he won't succeed.
"Life's going to throw you curves," Williams says. "I've had a lot of ups and downs, but I always stayed dedicated. I set a goal for myself, and I do what it takes to accomplish it."
Williams set a goal of getting a high school diploma. He played one year of football in Jefferson City, Mo. before graduating. From there, the goal was to get a good job. He took a job in Jefferson City, working on a line building radiators for large trucks. But he was unfulfilled. "I worked in a factory where I was isolated eight hours a day," he recalls.
He got 15 minutes to mingle with his fellow employees, many of whom were much older. So Williams did a lot of listening. "One guy told me he'd worked at the company for 30 years. For the rest of the day, I just thought to myself, 'Thirty years. Golly! I said to myself, 'I'm 20 now. In 30 years I'll be 50 years old in this same exact spot.' I couldn't do it." It wasn't a bad job. In fact, many of his colleagues had made a career in the factory. But Williams decided that if he was going to work in the factory, he wanted to be a leader, encouraging and correcting employees, and not isolated on the line. Going back to school was best for him.
"I told myself that I was never going to be outworked by anybody. I was going to do whatever I could to accomplish my goal," he says. "I took the hard work from the factory and brought it along to school with me."
Williams enrolled at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas and in addition to qualifying academically for Division I, made waves on the football field. His 52 tackles earned him all-conference and honorable mention All-America honors and caught the eye of interim Carolina defensive line coach Charlie Coiner and linebackers coach Art Kaufman, who had a connection with Coffeyville.
Even after arriving in Carolina in January 2011, Williams wasn't finished overcoming obstacles. Coiner was replaced by Brian Baker, who left to take the defensive line coaching duties with the Dallas Cowboys two months later. Joe Robinson coached the unit in 2011. Then there was a coaching change. Williams recorded 48 tackles, 6.5 of them for loss for Everett Withers. Larry Fedora brought along an entirely new staff, including defensive line coach Deke Adams, in January of 2012. "I just kept going forward," Williams says. "Anything anybody has told me in this program, I took it and tried to learn from it."
With Quinton Coples gone in the first round of the NFL Draft, and contributors like Donte Paige-Moss and Jordan Nix no longer wearing Carolina blue, Williams finds himself the leader on the defensive front. Juniors Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson bring veteran savvy to defensive end, and sophomores Shawn Underwood and Devonte Brown will have an impact at nose tackle. Senior Dion Guy has found a fit at the bandit position. But Williams, a preseason All-ACC pick by Phil Steele, will carry the flag. "At Coffeyville, I led the whole program and all of those guys looked up to me. I want to create the same thing here. I want to have the guys here follow me, because I'm going to lead by example," Williams says. "I'm playing that role that I would want to play in the factory, but instead I'm playing it in the game that I love to play. To me this is a dream come true, and I'm honestly blessed to be here."
"Sometimes the furniture gets re-arranged. A few people move out, the new ones move in. It's a big family here, so anybody that comes into Kenan Stadium and says, 'I'm part of the program,' they become family. That's just how it is. Coach Fedora's family.
- Turner Walston, GoHeels.com
Sylvester Williams remembers his first impression of Larry Fedora. "He said, 'I'm here to win games and I want to be successful, and I want to win the ACC championship,' and when he said that, I said, 'OK, well that's my goal as well.'" Williams saw his new head coach as someone he could get along with. After that meeting in early December, Williams watched Fedora return to Southern Miss to coach in the Hawaii Bowl before taking on his new responsibilities at North Carolina. "He went back and coached those guys. Those guys fought for him. I think it's because he's a great coach and a great leader."
In the intervening months, Williams has been getting to know Fedora and his staff. "It's really intense with the new coaching staff," he says. "This team is coming together really strong, and we're all fighting for the same thing, which is to win 12 games."
A year ago, Williams had 54 tackles - seven for loss - on the defensive line, and he figures to be a leader on the defense in 2012. But just as the offensive playbook is changing, so too is the defense. "Last fall it was, you line up in this spot, you beat that guy and you go make a play. This time, you may start in the 'A' gap, but when the ball's snapped you may slide to the 'B' gap. It's a lot more movement." That's something Williams doesn't mind. "I feel like I can adjust to any scheme and any position on the defensive line that I need to play."
Williams - like all of Carolina's seniors - could have transferred without penalty due to the NCAA sanctions that will keep the Tar Heels out of postseason play this fall. But the junior college transfer chose to play out his senior season in Carolina blue. But in Chapel Hill, the Jefferson City, Mo. native has found home. That's the message he kept coming back to when considering leaving the team. "I had a lot of schools contact me; even very close to home. One of the things they said to me was, You're going to be right at home and play right in front of your family,' and I said, 'Well I'm already at home at North Carolina.'
Williams worked at a manufacturing facility after high school, making radiators for large trucks before enrolling in junior college and eventually at North Carolina. In December, he will earn his degree. "It's not always about football to me. It's about the tradition that this school holds. There aren't too many people in this world that are going to be able to say they played in Kenan Stadium for the University of North Carolina, and so I don't want to let that go for anything."
- Turner Walston, GoHeels.com
Senior Day 2012
They could have taken their talents elsewhere, these 12 football players that will be honored during Senior Day festivities on Saturday. When the one-year postseason ban handed down by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions in March, the Tar Heel seniors were given the option to transfer without penalty, and play immediately at another school.
These players knew they wouldn't have a chance to compete for an ACC championship, knew they wouldn't get to play in a fourth straight bowl game. Had they bid farewell to UNC and suited up somewhere else, no one would have blamed them. But they didn't. The Tar Heel seniors chose to finish what they started in Chapel Hill. Saturday, they'll take the field at Kenan Stadium for the final time in a Carolina football uniform.
The senior Tar Heels have been on quite the roller coaster ride over the last four seasons, having survived the intense scrutiny of an NCAA investigation and yet gone about their business as student-athletes. They've been to bowl games and been banned from postseason play. They've had wins stricken from the record and they've been a part of some great triumphs. They've played for three head coaches.
"I'd say (they're) a pretty special group," Larry Fedora said of his senior class. "The entire university needs to remember them, because they could have left. They love this University, they love their teammates, they wanted to be a part of what's happening now and I couldn't be more proud of those kids. That's why we'll have a great crowd at Kenan Stadium next week for Senior Night."
Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, a junior college transfer, has known four defensive line coaches in his two seasons. He was recruited by interim position coach Charlie Coiner before Brian Baker came and went to the Dallas Cowboys. He played for Joe Robinson in 2011 and now Deke Adams in 2012. Williams has become a force on the defensive line, and he too figures to hear his name called in April.
"Golly, it's gone by so fast," Williams said. "I wish I could put it on pause for a minute and think about it, but I can't. It's tough. I don't want to leave these guys." Not too long removed from the assembly line of a Missouri radiator factory, Williams said he will miss the rapport with his teammates. "God has blessed me, and I will play some more football at the next level but I'm just going to miss being around these guys. You never know how much you miss these guys until you leave and you're not going into the next stadium. At the next level, it's business, where here, it's more love, because we love each other, honestly. I've got a lot of love for these guys, so that's the main part I'll miss."
Turner Walston, GoHeels.com
Pro Day 2013
It's all about the numbers. "How many times can you bench press 225 pounds? How fast can your run 40 yards? How quickly can you touch that line, then that line, then that line again, then run through that line?" Numbers. To an NFL hopeful, those numbers, next to a name on a sheet of paper can mean the difference in a professional football contract and, well, something else. It doesn't seem fair, but it's the way it is.
For better or for worse, those numbers are the great equalizer. Given two similar prospects, it's likely that an NFL team is going to lean toward the one that is just a hair faster, or stronger. But they don't tell the whole story. They don't tell the story of Sylvester Williams, who was working on a factory line, manufacturing radiators, before deciding he wanted to play football. Williams went to junior college and then came to Carolina to make his dream come true. The guy that worked on the factory line knew he didn't want to be there, so he took the steps toward a better life.
"The guy that worked in that factory is the same guy that's here," Williams said. "I was a hard worker. I gave it everything I had, and I'll do the same thing here. That factory showed me a point in my life that I never want to be at again."
Turner Walston, GoHeels.com
At UNC pro day, Sylvester Williams measured 6 feet 2 and 3/8 inches tall and 311 pounds. With scouts, coaches and representatives from all 32 National Football League teams in attendance, Williams had quite the audience as he competed in positional drills for the defensive tackle position.
His place among the best of North Carolina's senior offerings was expected. After 42 tackles, 13.5 for losses, six sacks and six quarterback hurries this past season, Williams will likely be picked in the first or second round of the upcoming NFL Draft.
But a few years ago, this was all a dream.
"For me, it's been exciting because a few years ago I never saw myself in this position," Williams said. "Being able to be here today, a few weeks ago at the Combine and the Senior Bowl and even here at Carolina the last two seasons was a blessing. So I take advantage of everything I get a chance to do."
After all, Williams played just one year of high school football. Following graduation he worked at Modine Manufacturing Company making radiator parts for large trucks before realizing he wanted to give both football and a degree another shot.
Putting in two years of work at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas first, Williams arrived at Carolina in December 2011. Fast forward through two standout seasons, the defensive tackle now has a Communications degree in hand alongside a promising future in pro football.
Since earning his diploma, Williams has been working out in Phoenix, Ariz., focusing on keeping his weight under control and conditioning, all while learning from greats like Warren Sapp. He said he used Pro Day as a chance to show the NFL that he is versatile, athletic, quick, coachable and able to do everything scouts ask him to do.
Beginning an NFL career in just a few short months will be just another step in Williams' plans to prove his doubters wrong. But the first part of that plan has already been completed. The pride Williams' takes in his education is a done deal.
"It's a blessing," Williams said. "That's one of the reasons I came here - to get a degree from this great university - and I was able to do it. Having that degree means more to me than anything I've accomplished in my life up until this point. Football is the most important thing to me, but that degree is up there with it."
- Megan Walsh, GoHeels.com
North Carolina defensive tackle Sylvester Williams was selected No. 28 overall by the Denver Broncos Thursday night in the first-round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Williams is the 22nd overall first-round draft pick in Carolina history and the sixth in the last six years.
No other ACC school has had as many first-round picks (6) as Carolina since 2008.
"I'm so proud of Sylvester and what he's accomplished in his life," said head coach Larry Fedora. "He's worked incredibly hard to accomplish his goals and Denver will be a great fit for him. Sly overcame several obstacles in his past to earn his degree from North Carolina and be selected in the NFL Draft. He was a selfless leader who did everything to help our team win."
Williams enrolled at Carolina in January, 2011, after two seasons at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. He worked at Modine Manufacturing Company making radiator parts for large trucks before enrolling at Coffeyville.
At Carolina, Williams was a standout defensive tackle who earned first-team All-ACC honors in 2012 and was chosen to the Pro Football Weekly All-America team. He finished the season with 42 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for losses and six sacks.
He started all 25 games in Chapel Hill, playing through an ankle injury last season. As a junior he posted 54 tackles, 7.0 tackles for losses and 2.5 sacks.
"He could have been a top 15 pick and no one could have argued," said ESPN Draft analyst Mel Kiper. "The Denver Broncos defensive line just got a lot better with that pick."