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With draft bust label behind him, Mike Williams embraces life as a HS coach

After missteps and lost opportunities as an NFL player, Mike Williams is embracing his new life as a high school coach. 

Mike Williams is just getting off a practice field in early June, still settling in as head coach of the Van Nuys High School football team in suburban Los Angeles and preparing for his first season, but he’s high on his new team.

“It’s the best group I’ve coached overall,” Williams says. “I've been at schools where we've had talent and speed and 300-pound-plus linemen, but the kids were ... you had to chase them to get them to practice or go get them from the park. The commitment wasn't quite there. Where I'm at now, I've got a bunch of kids who show up early, and they stay late.”

It’s classic coachspeak, but if you know anything about Williams's NFL career, the image of him as a head coach at any level, saying all the right things, may elicit a double-take.

Wait—Mike Williams, former first-round pick known best for temporarily eating himself out of the league, is a head coach at any level?!  Yes, the receiver whose late-career resurgence with the Seahawks could only partially salvage his reputation has become an interesting example of just how far a football life can come, 10 years after his fate was sealed as a high-profile draft bust.

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Williams was a legitimate star at USC, amassing 176 catches for 2,579 yards and 30 touchdowns over two seasons, but he was ruled ineligible for his junior season after declaring for the 2004 NFL draft as a true sophomore in an attempt to follow the lead of Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett. After sitting out a year and being selected by the Lions with the 10th pick in the ’05 draft, he came into the NFL unprepared for the rigors of the pro game, and it didn't help that Detroit was in complete organizational disarray at the time.

In two years with the Lions, Williams started a grand total of six games, catching 37 passes for 479 yards and two touchdowns for three different head coaches, three different offensive coordinators and four different quarterbacks. He was traded to the Raiders on the first day of the 2007 draft, but he was cut seven games into that season after a crucial drop cost Oakland a game against the Titans. Those same Titans signed Williams a month later, but by that time he had gained too much weight to overlook, and he was released the next summer, before the 2008 season.

That was the last anyone in the NFL saw of Mike Williams for two years.

“It was a bunch of bad factors all working together,” he says. “It was a recipe for disaster. I spent a year sitting out, losing the structure of football. And I wasn't the best about being a pro. I was learning how to be a pro, but I wasn't being taught how to be a pro.”

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It took Pete Carroll, his head coach at USC, to give him a shot at redemption. Carroll took the Seahawks job in 2010 and needed a veteran who understood his motivational tactics and could explain them to what was going to be a very young team. Moreover, since the Seattle team Carroll inherited was almost completely bereft of high-caliber talent, Williams might just have a shot to make it back the right way and rebuild some goodwill with the game in the process.

“I'm not trying to point the finger or place the blame, but I remember what I was like in Seattle,” he says. “I remember how important it was to help show other guys the ropes. And I just think that was the element of my experience in the beginning that I had to learn the hard way. Before, I felt that people were out to get me. So, there was backlash and resistance when that set in, and I felt like I was under fire.”

He had slimmed down to 230 pounds from as high as 286 and was ready for the challenge, but in truth, it was Carroll's pitch that sealed the deal. Carroll and Williams had a few testy back-and-forths when Williams first declared for the draft (Carroll's staff reportedly told NFL teams that Williams slacked off with the Trojans; Williams responded by claiming Carroll ran an 'undisciplined' program), but Carroll knew what Williams had put himself through in the ensuing years, and he was stinging from his own USC scandal.

Maybe they could turn things around together in a new city.

Carroll set Williams up to succeed in Seattle, then put in a good word for him when he turned to coaching.

Carroll set Williams up to succeed in Seattle, then put in a good word for him when he turned to coaching.

When Williams arrived in Seattle in 2010, he wasn’t assured a chance to stick around just because he had a history of working with Carroll.

“That's standard Pete—he didn't promise me anything. And I was like, do I want to go somewhere else and try something with a new group of people, or try it with someone who's familiar with me? So I hit the ground, and everything started happening."

Williams made the team and was a Week 1 starter for the first time in his NFL career. Thinner, in better shape and more focused than he'd been at any point since his USC days, he caught 65 passes for 751 yards and two touchdowns in 2010—by far his best professional season. Moreover, and more importantly to his future, he became a valued mentor to younger receivers like Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, the kind of mentor he never had as a young pro. In a game against the Rams, Baldwin was having serious trouble with the St. Louis defense, and it was Williams, not receivers coach Kippy Brown, who set him straight at halftime. After just one catch for four yards in the first half, Baldwin had four catches for 67 yards and a touchdown in the second half.

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Williams helped his younger teammates even as age and injury started to catch up with him. Too soon, he was on the wrong side of the age curve, and he retired from the game after catching just 18 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown in 2011. It wasn't the career he had envisioned, but he was able to prove a few things to himself on the way out.

"For me, it was a big deal in Seattle, because I was only out to prove I was worthy to be an NFL player,” Williams says. “There were so many questions—so many what-ifs and why-nots—and when I was named a starter, that was the first step to answering those questions.”

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