Cary Williams cannot remember all the odd jobs he worked. He lifeguarded and unloaded trucks for FedEx. He punched the clock at Target and manned the overnight sanitation shift at a Frito-Lay factory. He took phone calls and installed satellite dishes for DirecTV.
He extends his fingers as he listed the high schools he attended. There were three in four years. He can’t keep track of all the homes he lived in, bouncing from one place to the next, sometimes spending nights in a hotel where his father was a security guard.
And he’s forthcoming acknowledging what he endured as a kid, with a schizophrenic mother and an abusive father. His cousin took him in after an intervention from Child Services because the bruises on his body became too common.
Gunshots in his native Liberty City, Fla., were daily alarms. He witnessed robberies. He saw his own home robbed. Refuge was the football field, which isn’t uncommon in the NFL. But even that didn’t go as planned — he never played division I-A football. He was kicked off the team at Fordham, took time off, and finished at small Washburn College in Topeka, Kan.
His path to a three-year, $17-million contract with the Eagles included a practice squad stint, a reserve role, and eventually a starting spot on a Super Bowl champion.
“You can’t let your circumstances dictate your life forever,” Williams said. “And I don’t necessarily look at the bad as something constricting. There’s always a way out.”
Once that contract was signed, Williams’ honeymoon was short-lived. Williams became one of Philadelphia’s most controversial athletes even before playing a down for the Eagles. He missed optional workouts in the spring for his wedding, and then to watch his daughter’s dance recital, get dental work, and finish building a home — sconces included.
Time with Williams helps to understand the person, and that helps to understand how he’s wired. He wants to be with his daughter because he didn’t have that family structure at her age. A home is important to him because he didn’t have a stable one. And that edge he plays with is a part of an ethos developed cleaning Frito-Lay trays at midnight in Kansas.
“It’s just resilience, man,” Williams said. “Being a fighter. Never giving up on my dream and never giving up on the opportunity to put my best foot forward regardless if I was a maintenance guy or I was just a guy who cleaned the streets.”
After high school, Williams spurned an opportunity to play for North Carolina State while waiting for Miami to offer a scholarship that never came, Williams was left with few options. He played for Fordham before his attitude prompted his dismissal.
Exiled from football back in Florida, Williams worked for DirecTV before the opportunity arose at Washburn. He developed into an NFL-caliber player, and was a seventh-round pick by the Tennessee Titans in 2008. Williams bounced between their roster and the practice squad before signing with the Ravens, and developed into a key player in Baltimore before signing in Philadelphia.
After signing with the Eagles, Williams finally gave his fiance the wedding she wanted. He missed a practice for his daughter’s dance recital, insisting that it was important for him to be with her. He wanted to finalize his new home because he said he wouldn’t have time during the season to do so.
“I take my responsibilities as a father very seriously,” Williams said, “because the reason you have certain things going wrong in society is it starts at the home.”
The Eagles had a walk-through last Saturday, two days after Williams fought Riley Cooper at practice. The scuffle was dismissed as two competitive players getting tangled up, but Williams didn’t speak publicly the next two days.
At Saturday’s practice, defensive coordinator Bill Davis noticed a particular focus and intensity from Williams. Davis called Williams a “fiery competitor,” and it jumped out to him during an otherwise innocuous walk-through.
Williams finished Monday’s game with an interception and a sack, playing like the No. 1 cornerback the Eagles envisioned. It was a sterling performance for a player who had not previously endeared himself to his new fans.