He went back a couple of times as a kid and remembered, “You talk about a guy who hated Lyons, Texas. I looked around and said, ‘This isn’t life.’ ”
The Los Angeles area – specifically Compton – is where Williams grew up and where he ended up being a high-school science teacher and a football coach. He harbored no dreams of the National Football League, or of being on the same football staff for the start of his 18th season, hired by Ray Rhodes in 1995 and kept on by Andy Reid and shepherding through the years running backs named Ricky Watters, Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook and now LeSean McCoy.
“My dream was never to coach football,” Williams said. “It was never even on the horizon. When I left college, I wanted to be the basketball coach at my high school but they didn’t have a teaching job for me. I ended up coaching football for one reason and one reason only: I didn’t want to teach junior high. I thought that age group would kill me. I was always a discipline, on-point kind of individual – that’s the way I learned coaching. I just felt like, if I was with that group, they may kill me or I may kill them.”
When he found out about a high-school opening, he grabbed it. The problem was that he did not know enough to coach football. He tells the story of his on-the-job training with an easy laugh. Along the way, he said, he learned about the game from reading books and from the kindness of strangers and friends, including UCLA coach Terry Donahue, who hired Williams as an assistant coach when he was in his mid-30s, mostly because, it was said, he liked the commanding presence Williams had established as a teacher and coach at Compton High.
When Williams is done with the story, you can understand how he still puts in the hours in what is probably the most demanding, time-consuming profession in sports – assistant coach in the NFL. But in the very beginning, Williams said, he would go to the daily staff meeting of the high-school coaches where all of the techniques would be discussed for the next day’s practice.
“After the staff meeting, everybody would go home and I would go out on the field, in the pitch darkness, and practice what I had learned.” he said. “So that, when the next day came, I could coach what I had been told and I knew how to do it.”
You can close your eyes and picture him then: hitting a sled, getting into a stance, doing a seat roll, getting to his feet, sprinting into the darkness, alone.
You can open your eyes and listen to him now: “I’ve been blessed. Never try to understand a blessing. They don’t always come around.”
In his first two seasons with the Eagles, Williams coached tight ends. Since then, it has been running backs and that unbroken line of excellence. You ask him to talk about the lineage and he just goes and goes. His description of Watters might be the most surprising.
“The greatest thing about Ricky was that he was a hard-hat, lunch-pail guy.” Williams said. “He worked on Sunday, gave you 100 percent of what he had, was beat up, got through the game… gave you 100 percent in practice and always there on Sunday. His work ethic – having been trained by the best, by Jerry Rice – really helped Ricky a great deal …
“Ricky was a professional. He was a professional in every sense of the word. I never had to coach Ricky in terms of the X’s-and-O’s and preparation – he was totally into that. There were some other things, that people still talk about, but they never bothered me.”
For who? For what?
“Never bothered me,” Williams said, smiling. “Because when I got him, there wasn’t any more of that.”
He talks about how lucky it is that Watters mentored Staley, and that Staley mentored Correll Buckhalter and Westbrook, and that Westbook mentored McCoy. You sense his manner: instructor more than dictator. He has never had a loud voice on the practice field. Williams says he does not have the power to make someone change their mind. All he can do is “feed information and direct and point and paint pictures” so that his players can change their own minds.
“I’ve been blessed with all of them understanding what my role is,” he said. “I tell them that the first day: ‘My role is to make you better.’ I think that’s what I really thrive on, seeing the positives and the negatives, the strengths and the weaknesses of each one of them.”
He tells them, “Follow me, because I’ve been there. I’ve done enough of it. I know the way. Just follow me and I’ll show you how to get it done.”
The results have been the results. And this: “A blessing,” Ted Williams said.
Contact Rich Hofmann at firstname.lastname@example.org, read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich, or follow @theidlerich on Twitter. For recent columns, go towww.philly.com/RichHofmann.