AS SHORT-TERM accommodations go, it would be tough to find two settings in the U.S. as disparate as the Westin in the heart of New York City and the Comfort Suites situated in the middle of a field in Gadsden, Ala. Yet these contrasting locales were precisely where Ronnie Brown and his former Auburn backfield mate, Carnell (Cadillac) Williams, spent their respective restless nights before rising last Saturday to begin the first day of the rest of their well-compensated lives. Given the two runners' hotel-sheet-tight relationship, it was hardly surprising that Brown, shortly after leaving his plush suite on the Westin's 40th floor to attend a break-fast for the six players invited to the NFL draft, placed a cellphone call to Williams, who was still tossing and turning in his second-floor Comfort suite. "Whassup, you ready?" Brown asked confidently.
"Yeah," Williams replied. "You sound like you're ready."
"What are you doing up so early? You nervous?"
"Draft day, boy-eeeeee," Williams said, conveniently neglecting to mention that he'd never been so tense.
Four and a half hours later, Brown and Williams were back in sync in terms of attitude and latitude. With the Miami Dolphins choosing Brown second overall and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers landing Williams three selections later, the former Auburn Tigers had officially become professional neighbors, not to mention the first collegiate rushing tandem to be taken in the top five of an NFL draft--and soon to be the most highly compensated. Call it Auburn's $30 Million Backfield (the minimum the two players should command in bonus money with their combined rookie deals). "This was definitely meant to be," Williams said later, as a seemingly endless procession of old friends, curious passersby and dubious newfound relatives crashed his family's all-day draft party at the Comfort Suites. "I mean, both of us came back for our last year of college because we enjoyed playing together. Why can't we be in the same state?"
Fifteen months after separately deciding to return for their senior seasons rather than enter the 2004 draft, Brown and Williams were in a state of bliss. On a day that began with the San Francisco 49ers taking Utah quarterback Alex Smith (below) with the first pick and ended with the Denver Broncos gambling on former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett at the end of the third round, the operative phrase was Hold that Tiger. Auburn, despite its 13-0 record in '04, may have been aced out by USC for the national title, but with the Washington Redskins using first-round choices on cornerback Carlos Rogers (ninth) and quarterback Jason Campbell (25th), War Eagle was the undisputed war room darling. Not since Penn State in '95 had one school provided three of the top 10 selections.
It was also a banner day for feature backs: Texas's Cedric Benson, selected fourth by the Chicago Bears, joined the two Auburn runners as the first trio of runners to be picked in the top five of the common draft. "These are the most unselfish guys I've seen in some time," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said on Sunday of Brown and Williams. "It's refreshing to be around them. They could have easily worked against each other and created a bad atmosphere [at Auburn]. But they chose to be team guys."
On Saturday morning, as Williams sat at a Waffle House in Gadsden nervously nibbling on his final meal before finding his NFL home, he recalled the afternoon in January 2004 on which he and Brown informed each other of their plans to remain at Auburn. The shifty Williams, coming off a junior season in which he'd rushed for 1,307 yards and 17 touchdowns, was being projected as an early second-round pick. The more rugged Brown, who had run for just 446 yards on 95 carries, was attracting similar interest. He was close to earning his degree in communications, and with the prospect of having to share time (at best) with Williams, many confidants--including his mother, Joyce, and godmother, Chris Tripp--wanted him to come out.
"I know a lot of folks have been poking at you and poking at me," Williams told Brown as the two sat on a couch in Cadillac's apartment. "But I really do believe if we both were to come back, we'd help each other and also this team. I really think that, in the end, it's a win-win situation." Brown agreed, though the two wanted Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville to hire an offensive coordinator committed to getting the two backs on the field together as much as possible. Enter Al Borges, a former UCLA and Cal offensive coordinator who installed a version of the West Coast offense that allowed both runners to thrive. Last season Williams ran for 1,165 yards and 12 touchdowns, and Brown racked up 913 yards and eight TDs while catching 34 passes for 313 yards and another score.
Williams finished his story and, between bites of cheese grits, answered his cellphone. (Except in the middle of the night, for several days it had not gone more than a couple of minutes without ringing.) After listening for a few seconds he said, "Yes, sir," repeating himself several times before hanging up. "That was the Dolphins," Williams explained, "checking to make sure that I'd be at this number if they pick me. But I think Ronnie's going there."
A middle-aged man approached the table, as many other diners had before him, and said, "You don't know me, but I used to coach against you when you played for the Roadrunners. I don't know where you're gonna go today, but I know the Lord is watching over you. You've done more for yourself and for this community than most people will ever acknowledge."
Williams thanked the man, then dropped his fork. "I'm so excited," he said, "I can't even eat." Cadillac left the restaurant, hopped into his black Escalade (what, you expected a Ford?) and drove around his hometown for the next 45 minutes. The previous night Williams had been in an uncharacteristically grumpy mood after his agent, Ben Dogra, called and urged him to speak to an Arizona Cardinals official. The Cardinals, who picked eighth, had largely ignored him to that point, and Williams--apparently having watched too much television over the previous several days--was down on the predraft process. "I'm sick of all this crap," Williams told Dogra. "Players are being used as pawns. I don't want anyone calling me unless they're picking me."
His frustration, like that of Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers, stemmed from an excess of predraft speculation. Even after adding 15 pounds to his collegiate playing weight, Williams (5'11", 225) supposedly was being downgraded for his lack of size. Tampa was his preferred destination. But though he had bonded with Gruden and his assistants at the Senior Bowl--and though Gruden told Williams just before he ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, "You know I'll be calling you in April"--Cadillac feared he'd be snubbed. It didn't help matters when he learned that former USC wideout Mike Williams, a Tampa native, had dined with Bucs general manager Bruce Allen that night.
Brown, too, was unsure of his status as the draft neared. On Wednesday he and his agent, Todd France, arrived in New York, filling the next several days with various predraft activities, as well as side trips (shopping on Fifth Avenue; a turkey burger at Carnegie Deli). On Friday, Brown was joined by a large entourage, which included members of his own family and that of Chris and Andy Tripp, the godparents whom he regards as a surrogate mother and father. Everyone was optimistic, and with good reason: Brown's size (6'1", 234) and pass-catching skills, plus a breakout performance at the combine, had vaulted him to the top of most experts' draft lists for backs. Yet he correctly assumed the Dolphins were receptive to trading down, which could have made for a much longer draft day. Only the Tennessee Titans had flown Brown in for a visit, and on Saturday morning France said, "Anyone who tells you they know what's going to happen is lying."
The suspense ended 30 minutes into the first round when Brown took a call from Dolphins coach Nick Saban. As the pick was announced on ESPN, Williams's mother, Sherry, stood up 900 miles away and began clapping and screaming. Room 220 at the Comfort Suites quieted until, with the Bucs on the clock, Cadillac got a call from Dogra, who told him, "They're in the war room right now going back and forth between you and Mike Williams." The nervous runner watched helplessly as most of Tampa Bay's allotted 15 minutes passed; it turned out the Bucs were having trouble getting through to his cellphone. Finally, he flipped it open and stood as Gruden intoned, "Cadillac, you ready to be a Buc?"
"You know it, Coach. Let's go!" Williams replied, and from then on the room resembled Times Square on New Year's Eve, providing a telling image for ESPN's viewers even as the network's announcers continued trying to divine the Bucs' intentions. As Cadillac's parents, five siblings and another two dozen relatives and friends whooped it up, the man of the moment sat smiling, singing, over and over, a church song he'd memorized as a child: "I got a feelin' ... everything's gonna be all right ... be all right, be all right, be all right ... all right."
Five hours later, after posing for photos with what seemed like every Gadsden resident--some undoubtedly alerted to his presence by the marquee outside the Comfort Suites: TO GOD BE THE GLORY. CONGRATULATIONS CARNELL. GO CRAZY IN THE NFL --Williams was already aware that his life had changed forever. "People are coming out of the woodwork, including many of my so-called cousins," he said, laughing and rolling his bright brown eyes. "People I've never seen before are coming up and saying, 'Don't forget me....'"
Brown is one man whose shared sacrifice Williams will always remember fondly. "Usually, when you have two great backs sharing the ball, it's chaos," Cadillac said. "For us to put aside our individual goals definitely helped both of us in the draft. Both of us in the top five? Man, that's crazy."