Monday September 22nd, 2008

Pat Williams walked through the Vikings parking lot like a car dealer through a showroom full of new Range Rovers. "That one's got 26-inch rims," he said. "That one's got the black wood interior. That one's got the Strut grill. And that one..." He paused, staring at the Range Rover owned by Vikings running back Chester Taylor, who replaced the words "Range Rover" on the front and back of the vehicle with the words "Chester Taylor." Williams shook his head disapprovingly. "I don't know about that one," he said.

Williams, the Vikings 317-pound defensive tackle, is also their resident gear-head. When he is not stuffing runs, he is pimping rides. Williams is part owner of Automotive Concepts, a 17,000-square foot shop outside Minneapolis that bills itself as "an industry leader in automotive restyling." When a Viking wants to customize his car and dent his signing bonus, he just hands the keys over to Williams, usually along with a five-figure check. The car comes back in a few weeks, tricked out to specification.

Perusing the Vikings parking lot like a proud father, Williams said: "Just about every one of these is mine." Some of them are literally his. Williams keeps 12 cars at a given time and all of them are for sale. He buys them, accessorizes them and then flips them. Williams does not usually get under the hood himself, but he does most of his own designs. "Adrian Peterson bought my car," Williams said. "Darren Sharper bought my wife's. I have to tell my wife all the time, 'Don't ever get too attached to your car.'"

Williams grew up in Monroe, La., car crazy before he was old enough to drive. "I looked up to the drug dealers because their cars were so nice, but I knew what they were doing was wrong," Williams said. "I told myself I would do it the right way."

He signed with the Bills as an undrafted free agent in 1997, and four years later, launched his own automotive customizing business in Buffalo. The business did well, but Williams sold it when he signed with the Vikings in 2005. In order to acquaint himself with his new home, Williams spent hours driving around Minneapolis, often with no clue where he was going. One day, while lost, he found Automotive Concepts and walked in.

Williams, needless to say, was good for business. Automotive Concepts now counts customers from the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. Just about anybody who played with Williams in Buffalo gets his car done in Minnesota. Williams beams when he sees an "AC" sticker on the back of a car, the logo for Automotive Concepts. Even Vikings coach Brad Childress, hardly a souped-up kind of guy, let Williams put 24-inch rims on his Cadillac Escalade, a source of endless amusement in the locker room.

Williams is built sort of like an SUV himself, with a motor that never gives out. He helped the Vikings hold Carolina to 45 yards rushing Sunday, one week after they held Indianapolis to 25 yards on the ground. With Williams, Kevin Williams, Jared Allen and Ray Edwards, the Vikings probably have the best defensive line in the NFL. With Peterson, one of Williams's most reliable customers, they probably have the best running back in the NFC. But this remains a league run by quarterbacks, and for all the gifted players that the Vikings have accumulated in recent years, they may still be one short.

The Vikings went into this season with Super Bowl aspirations and Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. After losing the first two games, they benched Jackson in favor of 15-year veteran Gus Frerotte, who may not have Jackson's upside, but also does not have his penchant for game-altering mistakes. Frerotte completed 16 of 28 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown against Carolina. Just as important, he only threw one interception, on a tipped pass. The Vikings won their first game and finally looked like a contender. Given their defense and running game, they do not need a quarterback who throws for 300 yards. Rather, they need a quarterback who does not get in the way.

For Williams's sake, the Vikings have to win now, or at least soon. He is 35 and the next few years he will likely retire to his home back in Monroe, with its nine-car garage. He plans to turn his hobby into a full-time job, accessorizing cars for anybody who can afford his services, even quarterbacks who have given his team a particularly hard time.

"Peyton Manning is from down south, so I'd probably get him an F-150 and jack it up for him with real big tires," Williams said. "Then I'd get him a nice new sound system, with 12-inch [subwoofers], so he could listen to his country music real loud."

Spoken like a true car salesman.

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