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Kevin Williams, NFL defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, is the best athlete from Arkansas in pro sports today. That you've never heard of him might be a consequence of his position (a good series might involve him not letting the guy in front of him gain any ground) or his demeanor (laconic in interviews, undemonstrative on the field). Or it might have something to do with Williams' circumvention of Arkansas's version of pro sports — he opted to play college football at Oklahoma State instead of for the Razorbacks.
In person, the Fordyce native is fairly undeniable. He weighs more than 300 pounds, but at 6'5", still manages to look almost lean. His hands are as big as baseball mitts. On the field, surrounded by other freakishly large men, he isn't as obviously undeniable as, say, Darren McFadden, who's the focal point of the game every time he touches the ball. Williams rarely comes in contact with the ball. He doesn't run in space. He's amassed more sacks than any player at his position since he entered the league in 2003, but his season average is paltry compared to elite defensive ends. Still, he's unquestionably the anchor to the Vikings' defense thanks in part to his unique physical make-up: He's both huge and quick.
"What makes Kevin a great player is he's so fluid," his teammate, All-Pro offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last year. "It looks like he's going half-speed and he's actually going twice as fast as you are."
With power and agility comes the ability to disrupt. Sometimes as a human wrecking ball, busting over less fleet-footed offensive linemen. Sometimes by swatting down rifled passes thrown from just a few feet away. And sometimes by being otherwise disruptive enough to draw two offensive blockers — somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 pounds of charging man — and freeing up space for another defender to slip through the line of scrimmage.
The average football fan might be even less likely to notice Williams because, as Keith Jackson, the former NFL All-Pro from Little Rock, who's known Williams since he was 14, says, "Kevin's never been a look-at-me guy. Sometimes people forget you're there just because you're quiet. If I had a choice to tell kids the right way to do it, I'd point to Kevin. He doesn't have to show how great he is [by talking on the field], but those offensive linemen know how great he is. The players know. He's a quiet dominator."
Even though much of what makes Williams great isn't reflected in any conventional stat, he still looks impressive on paper. Over the course of his first seven seasons, he was named first-team All-Pro five times, a feat only Hutchinson and Peyton Manning also achieved during that span. During that span, the Associated Press named him first-team All-NFL five times. Even last year, when the Vikings were beset with dysfunction from every direction and neither Williams nor the Vikings defense performed as well as in the past, coaches and Williams' peers in the league thought enough of him to name him to the Pro Bowl as a replacement.
In March, when a reporter and photographer visited Williams at his house in a ranch-style development near Mayflower, he was a few weeks removed from arthroscopic knee surgery. In a Coogi polo, jeans and boat-sized Nikes, he moved slowly around his house, though seemingly less as a consequence of his knee — which he said was almost healed enough for him to run — than because, in a job that involves eight months of extreme conditioning in preparation for 16 Sundays of total exertion, you walk slowly when you get the chance.
Williams has an easy smile, sleepy eyes and a South Arkansas drawl no amount of time spent in the Midwest could cure. A swirl of blank-ink flames decorates his left forearm; tattooed on his right arm is a cross, his family name and the words "family" above the cross and "first" below. Under an elaborate chandelier at his dining room table, he sank into a padded dining room chair that must've come from a big-and-tall furniture store and talked his childhood in Fordyce — a "smooth, country town" — where he grew up playing dirt basketball and football, riding bikes and fishing in creeks with his cousins. "It was hard to get in trouble. Everybody knew everybody," Williams said.
His father was a logger; his mother worked as a teaching assistant at Fordyce High School when Williams attended. "She made sure I stayed on my Ps and Qs," he said. His two older brothers are more than 10 years older. One played college basketball for Arkansas State. "They got a chance to rough up on me a little growing up," Williams said. "But when I got older, they couldn't beat me at anything anymore."
The game in Fordyce, more often than not, was basketball. An All-State forward for Fordyce High School, he said he never dreamed of playing football professionally and only started playing in eighth grade. Colleges often recruit defensive players based less on what they've accomplished on the field than on their height, weight and speed. "If you fit into their criteria, you get the nod," Williams said. "I'm thankful I was in that parameter and got the scholarship."
Williams said he thought everyone in his family wanted him to go to the University of Arkansas, but "in my mind, I wanted to do my own thing." He never made an official visit to Arkansas, instead opting to attend Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, a city that despite having a population of more than 40,000 (more than eight times the size of Fordyce) still had a small town feel that reminded him of home, he said.
At OSU, Williams started 42 games at defensive tackle and was a crucial part of the team that, in Coach Les Miles' first two seasons, notched two wins against archrival Oklahoma and helped spark the resurgence of the program that continues today. In his senior season, Williams was first-team all-conference.
In the 2003 NFL draft, the Vikings held the seventh pick, but made one of the great draft day blunders when they failed to make their selection before the 15-minute deadline expired. When the 15-minutes elapsed, the teams that held the eighth and ninth picks slipped ahead of the Vikings and quickly made their selections, leaving Minnesota with the ninth pick, which the team finally used on Williams. Minnesota later said that it wanted to pick Williams all along, but was trying to make a trade to secure one or more late-round picks, got caught up in it and missed the deadline.
Williams said he and his family weren't even paying attention during Minnesota's blunder. He was expecting to go no earlier than 12. But he took the bizarre circumstances of his selection in stride. "They tell you when you get there, 'We wanted you all the time.' 'Then why'd you let the time elapse?' I might've been 1A or 1B. But I'm happy with it. I've been doing pretty well for myself. I'm pretty sure [the Vikings] are happy with it now."
Perhaps now is as good of a time as any to say that, while Williams has been one of the Vikings' greatest draft picks in recent history, the team and its fans haven't been happy about much of anything lately. After coming within a few plays of the Super Bowl in 2009-10, Minnesota finished last season a dismal 6-10, bad enough to rank last in their division. The team's year was haunted by distractions: ineffective and oft-injured quarterback Brett Favre was constantly in the news over sexting allegations; Vikings head coach Brad Childress was fired mid-season not long after trading for All-Pro receiver Randy Moss and subsequently dropping him, and the roof of the team's home venue, the Metrodome, collapsed under the weight of 17 inches of snow.
"If you wrote out a checklist of all the things that could've gone wrong with a team, we might've hit a check on all of them," Williams said. "But that's just the nature of the business."
In March, the league was still locked out over labor negotiations and the Vikings' 2011 line-up hadn't been finalized, but even then Williams knew that he was facing a new-look team.
"Some people call it a rebuilding year, but I hope it don't go that far," he said.
But as the season approached, it began to take on that tone, as Minnesota acquired aging veteran Donovan McNabb to play quarterback, let star receiver Sidney Rice and defensive end Ray Edwards go in free agency and saw Pat Williams, the long-time immovable force of a nose tackle, who with Kevin Williams formed the vaunted "Williams Wall," retire.
During the team's training camp before the season, Williams said by phone that the key for the defense regaining form was "getting back to the basics."
Thus far, that hasn't gone well. The defense has struggled mightily, particularly in the second half. In the first three games, the team held halftime leads of 10, 17 and 20 points, and lost all three games. Only last Sunday did things gel for the team as it notched its first victory over the lowly Arizona Cardinals in a blowout.
The first two losses came without Williams. Though his foot was ailing (with plantar fasciitis), he undoubtedly would've played had he been able. Instead, he was left watching the first two games of the season at home and working for free for the first four games of the season as a consequence of an incident that stretches back three years:
Before the season began in 2008, Williams and former teammate Pat Williams (no relation) took a diuretic called StarCaps. Both were to receive bonuses for reporting at certain weights. Several months later, the NFL informed the players that they would be suspended for taking a banned substance commonly used as a masking agent for steroids. The players appealed the suspension, claiming that the label didn't include the banned ingredient, and eventually filed a $10 million lawsuit against the NFL, claiming the league knew StarCaps contained an unlisted banned substance, but didn't notify the players. The case stretched on for years, bouncing from court to court and allowing both Williamses to continue to avoid suspension, though Kevin Williams said in March that the case evolved into something more significant than simply fighting for personal vindication.
"Once we got into it, we wanted them to correct what was wrong with the system, and maybe help guys that come behind us."
Last year, he estimated he'd spent a million dollars on the case. In March, sensing a court victory was not forthcoming, he elected to stop fighting.
"If you want a fair shake with those guys, you had better seek [legal] advice," he said in March. "Because they will stick behind the letter of the law. They could be as wrong as two left shoes, but they'll stick by it."
Just before this season began, the NFL announced that it would suspend Williams for two games and fine him for four games. Four games worth of Williams' $6 million salary amounted to $1,411,764.
"I'd do it again," he told the ESPN Twin Cities website. "I still think those guys are wrong, but only one side gets punished."
"Daddy, where mommy go?" Kevin II, Williams' toddler son, who he calls "Deuce," wants to know as he scoots through his Arkansas dining room.
"She's hiding; go find her," Williams drawled with a smile.
"He's into everything," Williams said of Deuce. "I'm trying to get him adapted to fishing. I show him how to throw the rod. But he keeps throwing them in the water. And he's always flipping the switches on the boat. I thought we were stuck one time; we had to troll back to the dock. I took the motor in to be serviced, and it turned out he'd pulled the emergency switch."
Normally, when pro athletes return to Arkansas during the offseason or on breaks, Keith Jackson said they usually want everyone to know where they're going to be hanging out. Or you see them out socializing.
"You don't know when Kevin comes into the state. That's not his personality," Jackson said.
When Williams is in Arkansas, the only public appearances he makes are at fishing holes. Mostly he fishes in South Arkansas, but in March he said he'd just started to explore nearby Lake Conway. "I'm figuring out that the crappie fishing in Conway is big time. I just got to figure out how to catch 'em."
Otherwise, you'll find him at home. "I sit in the house and play with the kids," he said. His wife, Tasha, a former college basketball standout from Louisiana Tech who grew up in Kingsland, confirms: "He cooks. He cleans. He changes diapers." In March, the Williamses were adjusting to life with a second child, 6-week-old daughter Aubrey, who looks like a doll in Williams' arms. "I bet he's changed just as many diapers as I have," said Tasha approvingly.
For fun, the Williamses sing karaoke. Tasha said Erica and Jermain Taylor got her and Kevin hooked on karaoke (Erica was Tasha's college teammate at Louisiana Tech). But rather than go out, the Williams have invested in karaoke set-ups in their houses in Minnesota and Arkansas. "We are serious karaokers," Tasha said. "We have the strobe lights. We have huge speakers that sit on stands."
Kevin thinks "he's the karaoke king," Tasha said. "He sings Elvis. He thinks that's his niche. He also likes the Michael Jackson experience. He moves pretty well."
"I was skeptical at first," Williams said. "But you get a little liquid courage, and we have a good time."
This is Williams' ninth season. He's under contract with Minnesota until 2014, and he said he hopes to add some more years to that. The end isn't near enough for Williams to consider the specifics of his post-NFL career.
"After football, hopefully I save enough money, so I can relax for a year or two. Hopefully, when I retire, my wife will kick in, and I'll be a stay-at-home dad."