Chip Smith had been burned by Mike Williams before. Too often last December when the phone rang, it was Williams' number showing up on the caller ID.
Smith, the founder of Competitive Edge Sports, a sports performance training facility, has worked with more than 1,000 NFL players during a career spaning three decades. None intrigued him more, upset him more and ultimately surprised him more, than the former USC star receiver.
"I've had a love/hate relationship with Mike Williams," Smith said. "Mike did things that made me think he was one of the most gifted athletes I've ever seen, but I think Mike listened to a lot of that talk and it got to his head."
Smith's 36,000-square-foot facility, nestled in the northern Atlanta suburb of Duluth, Ga., is designed to develop nearly every part of an athlete's body. But the one part most difficult to help an athlete with -- no matter how hard he tries -- is the mind. And Williams' is the most complex he has ever encountered.
No one, not even Williams himself, can explain how someone who was once considered the best wide receiver in college football and became a top-10 NFL draft pick could suddenly lose his desire to play football, disappear for two years and resurface as a starter in the NFL as if he had never left.
"I've never seen anything like it," Smith said. "Then again, I've never seen anyone quite like Mike Williams."
'I THOUGHT HE WAS DONE'
Pete Carroll was walking through the lobby of Heritage Hall before what would turn out to be his last home game at USC when Williams walked up. He wanted to tell his old coach the good news: he was planning on returning to the NFL after being out of football for two years. He had been training on campus with former USC wide receiver Keary Colbert and wanted to tell Carroll the news.
The conversation was brief, as both recalled. Williams said Carroll "probably thought I was crazy." He might have, if he had given Williams' comeback much thought at all.
"I thought he was done. I thought Mike was out of ball forever," Carroll said. "I hate to say this, but I didn't take Mike seriously when he said he was coming back. I wish I would have taken him more seriously but based on his time away I couldn't imagine him turning it around."
Seven years earlier it was Williams who helped turn USC's football program around and helped resurrect Carroll's coaching career. Carroll was 6-6 in his first season at USC, following an embarrassing 10-6 loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl. Two years earlier, Carroll was fired after the New England Patriots finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs. He knew he would have to start recruiting nationally if he wanted to turn USC into a national power, but his track record (he was 39-37 as a head coach) and USC's recent history (the Trojans were 37-35 over the past six years) weren't in his favor. He needed one player to set an example and start the trend.
If he could steal one player from a state like Florida and have him make an impact as a true freshman (instead of redshirting as he would at most SEC schools) maybe other impatient blue-chippers would follow.
A big "if." A 6-foot-5, 230-pound "if."
If any of the football powers in Florida had believed Williams could play wide receiver he would probably have stayed closer to his Tampa home. But none of them did.
Florida wanted him to play safety, Miami saw him as a possible tight end and Florida State didn't recruit him at all. Norm Chow, USC's offensive coordinator from 2001-2004, wasn't even sure Williams could play wide receiver until he saw him play basketball at Plant High School while on a recruiting trip.
"There was a point where he was defending a guy and, I'll never forget this, his guy was coming down the court on a fast break and the guy stopped at the top of the key to shoot a jump shot and Mike jumped and blocked the shot, took the ball and dribbled it to the other side and dunked it," Chow said describing, years later, a moment of pure athleticism. "At that moment I left the gym, called Pete Carroll and said we got to get this guy."
It would be the task of Lane Kiffin, USC's 26-year-old tight ends coach at the time, to fly back and forth from Los Angeles to Tampa and sell Williams on the Trojans' vision of him as a big-play wide receiver. There was no evidence this plan would work (USC only had nine out-of-state players on its roster when it recruited Williams and none of them were starters) but Kiffin slowly sold Williams on reshaping USC's future by redefining its approach to recruiting.
As Kiffin, who replaced Carroll as USC's head coach in January, walks from the Howard Jones practice field to Heritage Hall, his face lights up when he's asked about Williams. He begins rattling off his old college statistics from memory as though he were reading it out of the media guide.
"We're going to walk by a wall here in a second and it's going to speak volumes for the kind of player he was. Underneath his picture it's going to list his accomplishments," Kiffin said. "He changed the game for us. He came in and had 81 catches for 1,265 yards and 14 touchdowns as true freshman from Tampa, Fla. The next year he had 95 catches for 1,314 yards and 16 touchdowns. [Williams], as much as anyone, and I still talk about this with [USC offensive coordinator] Kennedy Pola today, changed USC football."
The wall Kiffin spoke of, which leads USC players from their locker room to the practice field, was blank as Kiffin walked by it. Disgraced Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush's image had been on it, forcing the school to scrap it and order a new one. But Kiffin knew Williams' stats by heart because he still uses those gaudy numbers to recruit out-of-state players. One of the first things Kiffin did when he came to USC was unofficially retire Williams' jersey number; junior cornerback T.J. Bryant, a projected starter at the time, was forced to switch to No. 38.
"That No. 1 is a special number," Kiffin said. "Mike did some really great things in that number, and when I came here and was watching things in practice I felt that number was special and should go to someone who's dominating practice like Mike."
Williams laughs when he's told what Kiffin has done with his old number. "I guess he's saving it for the next tall black dude from Florida."
Since Williams committed to USC in 2002, 42 out-of-state players have played for the Trojans with six coming from Florida. None of them have had a bigger impact on the program than Williams.
"He kicked a lot of our recruiting themes in motion and a lot of guys followed, but Mike was really the first one," Carroll said. "He was the storyline we always used in recruiting, especially for the out-of-state kids. He showed that it didn't matter where a guy came from, it didn't matter what year they were; we were going to play the best guys. Mike was the one who made others believe it could happen."
Williams' entrance into college football, where he compiled more catches for more yards and more touchdowns than any true freshman and sophomore before him, was as unprecedented as his abrupt departure. After a federal judge ruled the NFL could not legally bar Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett from the 2004 NFL draft as a sophomore, Williams decided to declare for the draft himself and hired an agent. Prior to the draft, however, the United States Court of Appeals overturned the federal judge's decision and the United States Supreme Court refused to hear a final appeal. Clarett and Williams were ineligible for the 2004 NFL draft and had to sit out the entire 2004 football season. It would be a decision that would continue to haunt both Clarett and Williams, who have never met each other.
"If I was giving a speech to young kids, I would speak against leaving school early, because I clearly struggled with it," Williams said. "I tried to accelerate my life and my career and my maturity to the next level, and it was too soon. If I had stayed a couple more years, it would have been a couple more years for me to grow into my own and understand myself a little better, and it definitely would have prepared me for the transition into the league. Besides me playing in the NFL and being financially secure there was a lot of good that could have come out of me staying in school."
'HE JUST DIDN'T CARE'
Matt Millen sighs when he hears the name Mike Williams. He serves as one of the many reminders of Millen's failed eight-year tenure as the general manager of the Detroit Lions, where only three of the players he drafted in the first round were on the roster by the time he was fired in 2008. None of his busts, however, flamed out as quickly as Williams, who was traded away just two years after he was drafted with the 10th pick in 2005.
"You do your homework and some things come out and you check them out further, and apparently we didn't do a good enough job," said Millen, now an analyst for ESPN. "We tied some of his contract to work in the offseason because we had heard he had some conditioning issues but we never saw it being a bigger deal than it was. I talked to Pete [Carroll] about him and other coaches. There are all kinds of calls you make, and we just missed it. Either that or he just didn't care after he got picked."
It wasn't that Williams didn't care after he got picked, he stopped caring when the Lions began to fine him for being above his mandated weight of 225 pounds (a weight Williams said he has never played at) and being late to meetings. Williams had 29 receptions for 350 yards and one touchdown while playing in 14 games during his rookie season, with his lone score coming in his NFL debut. By the end of the season Williams was being fined so regularly he was practically a volunteer player for the Lions.
"We fined him all the time," Millen said. "His whole first year I don't know if he even picked up a paycheck. I fined him his entire salary. Then the offseason came and part of his bonus was tied to his workouts and he didn't show up. He never showed up. He had to write me a check back for a big amount of money. That's when he started getting heavier and heavier, and when he came back the next year he was really heavy. It was ridiculous heavy. I don't remember what it was, but it was over 280. He didn't work at it. He didn't come up in the offseason. He just didn't care."
Williams was such an enigma to Millen during his time in Detroit that Millen would call the maternal figure in Williams' life, Kathy McCurdy, regularly to get her to talk to him but even her pleas fell on deaf ears after a while.
"I just lost the drive," Williams said. "I was going through a lot with football and I just lost the drive to keep doing it. I started going out and not taking care of myself and that took the forefront. My weight then was a clear sign of me not caring about me at the time."
A day after trading Williams and quarterback Josh McCown to the Oakland Raiders for a fourth round draft pick during the 2007 NFL draft, Millen called Williams and told him he needed to get serious about football or he would be out of the league within a year.
"You're going to have one more chance," Millen recalls telling Williams. "You're going to get this chance and one more, and that's it. You can't blow these opportunities, because you're too talented. Don't blow this opportunity. Of course, he ended up blowing it anyway."
'WE ENDED UP HAVING TO CUT HIM'
Norm Chow was cleaning out his garage recently when his wife dusted off an oversized cardboard cover of Sports Illustrated with Matt Leinart scoring on a touchdown pass from Mike Williams in the 2004 Rose Bowl. It would clinch the Trojans' first national championship in 25 years and serve as Williams' last game at USC.
"It's a play I'll remember for the rest of my life," Chow said. "My wife saw it the other day and she asked, 'What are we doing with this?' I didn't know what to say. It brought back a lot of memories. That's the Mike Williams I'll always remember."
That Williams looked nothing like the player who showed up in Oakland after he was traded by the Lions. If it hadn't been for Lane Kiffin, who was the head coach of the Raiders at the time, and Chow, who was the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, Williams might not have had a second and third chance in the NFL after his disastrous two-year stint in Detroit.
"When we got him he was just a different person; he had a completely different body," Kiffin said. "He had gained a bunch of weight. He was just never able to get back to his old self, physically. Unfortunately, we ended up having to cut him."
Williams was so lethargic and out of shape when he arrived in Oakland, Kiffin was forced to send him home from organized team activities and told him to go to Atlanta and work with Chip Smith at CES, who had worked with Williams off and on since he left USC. Smith was the only person who was ever able to get Williams motivated and in shape, but not even he could get through to the lost wide out then.
"When they kicked him out of OTAs in Oakland, Kiffin called me and Mike was supposed to be here the next day," Smith said. "He didn't show up for three weeks. They kept calling me every day and that was a pretty low point for me. You can only help someone who wants to help themselves."
Seven games into the 2007 season, the Raiders cut Williams.
A month later the Titans signed him when Chow convinced Titans coach (and former USC Trojan) Jeff Fisher to give Williams one more chance. It seemed the only ones willing to give Williams a chance were former Trojans still clinging to the hope he would somehow recapture the fire he had when he dominated college football.
"I talked to everyone in Tennessee hard about getting him," Chow said. "Oakland had cut him and I actually wanted to trade for him, but when they cut him I fought hard for us to sign him. When he got to Tennessee, he was 286 pounds. It was unbelievable. I really couldn't believe what I saw. He could still run around, but he was too heavy to play receiver."
Chow said he would constantly talk to Williams about getting in shape and getting back to his old self, but it was as though he was talking to someone else. This wasn't the same Williams who had dominated the competition while they were together at USC.
"He actually got me in trouble, because when he got here they said, 'What are you talking about? Why would you bring a 286-pound receiver here?'" said Chow, who was fired by the Titans after the season. "It was really disappointing. I don't know what allowed him to do that. Maybe instant fame or whatever when Detroit made him a top-10 pick and gave him all that money and he just didn't have that drive anymore."
Williams was cut by the Titans before ever catching a single pass for Tennessee.
"I just didn't go to the workouts, I wasn't involved," Williams said. "Everyone was saying I was eating this and drinking that, but it wasn't that. I just wasn't committed to it anymore."
'THE NATURAL MATURATION PROCESS'
Williams never officially retired from football. Sure, he had checked out physically and mentally in Detroit, but when he returned home to Los Angeles after the Titans cut him in the summer of 2008 he was still expecting another team to call him and give him another chance. Of course that call would never come. He had burned both his former offensive coordinator and receivers coach at USC, the only two coaches in the NFL who had ever seen firsthand a physically fit and motivated Williams in action, and by the end of September Kiffin and Chow would be out of the NFL as well.
"It was tough because I always wanted to play," Williams said. "Living in L.A. you can't go anywhere without someone coming up to you and saying, 'Aren't you Mike Williams? Didn't you used to play at SC?' I was constantly reminded about football and about what had happened."
As much as Williams wanted to play football, he was smart enough to realize he had blown chance after chance after chance and wouldn't be getting any more. So he refocused his energy on other aspects of his life. He had married his girlfriend, Gigi, a year earlier before Raiders training camp, and he began spending more time with their daughter Laila, who turned 7 two weeks ago. He also started a record company named The Right Way (TRW).
It didn't happen overnight but eventually the selfish, apathetic athlete turned into a hardworking husband, father and entrepreneur.
"I started my record company from scratch and learned the ins and outs of the business and understood that it's OK to take some chances even if they don't work out," Williams said. "While I was running my company I realized that I'm older, I'm a little more mature, I'm smarter, and sat back and I said, 'Look at the effort and everything I'm putting into this company.' I thought if I was putting all this effort into this company, let's see what would happen if I put that kind of effort into my first passion, which is football."
After everything he's been through it's easy to forget Williams is just 26. He remembers sitting on his couch last October with his daughter watching the NFL Network when a program on the top 10 NFL draft busts came on. Williams grimaced at the prospect of hearing his name but the sad reality was Williams' time in the NFL wasn't even noteworthy enough to be included on the list.
At least all-time busts are annually remembered; Williams was already a forgotten man.
Laila had never really seen her dad play football. She had seen the pictures and jerseys and trophies but she wanted to see him play and do what he loved. "Daddy, I want you to play football again," she said.
"I think you have the natural maturation process when you have to take care of someone else and you have different responsibilities like kids," said Williams, who along with Gigi welcomed another daughter, Ava, to the family six months ago. "That naturally changes how you are and dealing with different priorities. I've always [kept] to myself, but there were a lot of people who genuinely cared about me and wanted to be involved. One of the main things that really changed in me is having a family and understanding it wasn't just about me."
'IT WAS TOUGH BUT IT MADE HIM STRONGER'
Kathy McCurdy smiles when she thinks of Williams as a husband and a father of two beautiful daughters. It wasn't too long ago that she welcomed a 15-year-old troublemaker with nowhere to go into her house, making him part of the family.
McCurdy, a 5-foot-2, white attorney from Tampa, and her husband Jack, a chief executive of a medical group, have known Williams for years. He would often come over to their house with Gertrude Lawson, his great-aunt and guardian since he was 2 years old, when Lawson babysat McCurdy's three young children, Chris, Ryan and Ali.
One day during the summer of 2000, McCurdy saw Lawson crying at a YMCA near her house. Williams had been suspended from school again. He was getting mixed up with the wrong crowd and making the wrong decisions. Lawson had done her best to take care of Williams after his biological mother began battling addiction. Lawson, however, didn't know what else she could do. Williams had never met his father and continued to get into trouble.
McCurdy promised to take care of Williams. She went to his school the next day and told him he was coming back to their house. Not just for a couple of days, but for good. He went from struggling to find a roof over his head at night to sharing bunk beds with Ryan, who was 12 at the time. He once kept his belongings in a 1983 Honda Civic. Now, he would go shopping with Ali, who was 8 years old, and play video games with Chris, who was 14.
"When Mike moved into the house that was it. It wasn't like he was moving into the house for a little bit," McCurdy said. "I told him, 'This is what you're part of now, and that's the way it is.' The boys were his little brothers and Ali was his little sister. He came in and treated her the same way Chris and Ryan treated her, and was protective and confided in Chris and Ryan like they were his brothers. When you look back on it and try to put it into words you can't. That's just the way it was. It was just natural."
The bond between Williams and the McCurdys actually grew stronger when Williams left for USC. He would call home almost every day and when his family would come to visit him for games he would always introduce Kathy and Jack as his mom and dad and Ryan, Chris and Ali as his brothers and sister. Even when he went to Los Angeles they still made time to take a picture for their annual Christmas cards, which would always feature Williams towering over the rest of his family.
It was a Hollywood screenplay. Before "The Blind Side," before Michael Oher was a household name.
In fact, Williams and the McCurdys were approached by movie producers after USC beat Michigan to win a share of the national championship in 2004. The conversations, however, fell apart when Williams unsuccessfully tried to follow Clarett into the NFL draft a couple months later.
A year later the relationship between Williams and Kathy McCurdy almost fell apart when Millen constantly called McCurdy to try to motivate Williams into getting in shape and taking football seriously.
"It was difficult to get those phone calls," McCurdy said. "Mike is a wonderful athlete and he wasn't getting it, and Matt Millen would call me several times to get me to help and let me know what was going on. Mike knew and it was hard. Anytime your boss calls your parent it's not good and the discussions between Mike and me were not good. Mike and I had discussions about it and those were rough times. That's rough when I have to call Mike and tell him what his boss is telling me."
Williams would end up spending quality time with the McCurdys when he was out of football, going to watch his brothers and sister play sports just as they had to watch him during his career.
Chris would go on to graduate from the University of North Carolina where he played on the school's club baseball team and was named the club baseball World Series MVP in 2007. Ryan was a four-year starting catcher for Duke's baseball team and signed with the Houston Astros in June. And Ali is currently a freshman libero for Duke's women's volleyball team and was named an ACC Freshman of the Week in September. All of their player profiles proudly list Williams as their brother. Ali was a bridesmaid at Williams' wedding three years ago on St. Pete Beach while Ryan and Chris were groomsmen.
"As part of immaturity, you don't want to talk to people that tell you something different," McCurdy said. "So there were time frames where it was tense, but when you're family you always come back to family. It wasn't all good during those years. It was tough, but it made him stronger. It made us all stronger."
'OK, LET'S SEE YOUR SIX PACK'
Chip Smith wanted to believe in Mike Williams. He really did. But everything Williams had done the past seven years since leaving USC told him not to. He can still vividly remember waiting for Williams to show up for a 9 a.m. workout before the 2004 NFL draft and watching him stroll through the doors of his training facility at 11 a.m.
"Where have you been, Mike?" Smith asked.
"Mike Williams shows up when Mike Williams show ups," Williams shot back.
Smith, whose facility is lined with the pictures of Pro Bowlers and Olympians he has trained over the past 20 years, got in Williams' face and said, "'Dude, do me a favor. Your first day of camp, show up two hours late and when the head man asks you where you've been tell him what you just said to me."
Williams and Smith went at it countless times over the years, but Smith was always able to get the best out of Williams. He never gave up on him. Not only was Williams one of the most physically gifted athletes Smith had ever seen, he couldn't remember anyone else overcoming as much adversity as he had. Smith looked at Williams' checkered path to the NFL as both a positive and a negative.
When Williams was at USC he would routinely say that if his career ended in college he would be proud he was even able to make it as far as he did. He would also say nothing he encountered in football could match what he had endured growing up in Tampa.
That might partially explain Williams' relaxed and content attitude after he was drafted and signed a five-year, $13.5 million deal with the Lions with $10.5 million of the contract guaranteed. By the time Williams put on a Lions uniform and stepped onto the field following a brief holdout it was the first time he'd played an organized football game in 19 months.
Williams wasn't just rusty, his skills had completely corroded.
When Williams called him late last year, Smith wanted to help even though he knew the chances of him making it back were slim. Smith was just hoping for the first time he'd get a motivated Williams. In the past, things that would normally motivate others -- money, job security, fear of failure -- didn't impact Williams at all.
Smith, like Millen, would routinely talk to Kathy and Jack to get a sense of what he needed to do to light a fire under Williams.
"I remember I sat down with him one day before he was drafted and I said, 'Mike, do you realize the difference between being a top-five pick and a top-10 pick? The difference in money is huge.'" Smith. "He looked me right in the eyes and said, 'I'm not motivated by money.' He really wasn't.
"I called Jack [McCurdy] and I said, 'Jack, you have to help me understand Mike. What is it about Mike? What is it about Mike that he's motivated by?' Smith recalled. "I came to the conclusion that Mike wants to be the best at what he does but only when he wants to. I'm not a psychologist, so I don't know why he made the decisions he made and did the things he did, but when he came back he was ready."
Williams was more than ready. For the first time since he left USC in 2004 he was motivated. His old teammate, Keary Colbert, saw it when they would meet him back on campus early in the morning for workouts.
"From the first day he came out here you could tell he had made a choice," said Colbert, who is now the tight ends coach at USC. "We were coached here that rule No. 1 is just showing up and he just began showing up in the weight room and started lifting and came back every day. He's naturally talented as a player so it was just about him coming out and showing that dedication, and that's when I knew he was serious."
After training on campus for a couple months, Williams and Colbert flew to Atlanta to work with Smith. Williams was like a machine. He would wake up every morning before the sun came up, eat egg whites and grits and spend at least four hours a day at CES working out with Smith and Colbert.
"He was here a good three months, which is a long time for us," Smith said. "After the first week I knew Mike, who trimmed down to 228 pounds, was serious. He showed up every day on time and did every rep like it was the first rep and I knew Mike was serious and was here to work. Our staff would constantly talk about his metamorphosis. There were some days when he was in here for over six hours training."
The McCurdy's would see the new and improved Williams toward the end of his training .
"Going to Atlanta was probably the best thing he ever did," Kathy McCurdy said. "After Mike had worked out, he came to Ali's volleyball tournament and went to Ryan's baseball game and that's when we saw all the weight that he had dropped. You looked at him and you could tell he was serious and we all said, 'OK, let's see your six-pack. Let's see what you got.' It was incredible to see how much he had changed."
Williams was given a chance at a comeback when Carroll, who left USC in January to become the new head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, signed him. It seemed like a charity signing at best.
"When we brought him in he had already made the turn in Georgia in terms of looking like he was back," Carroll said. "He had already made the turn by physically dedicating himself to getting right. He was fast and strong and in great shape and determined and he had leaned out and everything. He had already made that determination on his own and then when he got here he needed to quietly go about his business and prove it. He did that. He was very consistent. We reserved judgment because he had some bad times but he proved himself."
'THE FACT THAT THIS BECAME A REALITY IS AMAZING'
Williams made it a point not to talk to Carroll during training camp. He didn't want there to be any perceived favoritism between he and his old coach. He wanted to prove he belonged as though he were an undrafted free agent.
It wasn't until three days into camp that they actually exchanged their first words.
If there was any doubt whether or not Williams was back to his old self, he began silencing them during camp when he would make some of the leaping one-handed catches that he had become known for at USC but that no one had seen him perform since he left college.
"When I did well in camp, I would call the house and tell my wife and maybe I'd send a picture or two online just to let her know how I was doing," Williams said. "As camp went on and plays started coming together and I was having some consistency, I just kept thinking, let's keep this going. ... I knew I had to fight, claw and scratch just to make the team. That was always my mindset."
Williams' consistency in practices transferred into the preseason. He had a 51-yard touchdown catch in Seattle's first exhibition game, a 20-18 win over Tennessee, and finished the preseason with 10 catches for 177 yards.
"That touchdown was like a blur," Williams said. "You just can't script it any better. You can't say this is what I'm going to go through the past few years and the very first time they throw the ball to me in my first game back against the last team I played for I'm going to score a touchdown. You can't script that kind of stuff."
Williams contends he's just beginning to write the storybook ending to a career that was cut short before it began. Carroll and the Seahawks seem to think so and are doing their part by making Williams the No. 1 receiver on the team.
Suddenly the player who was just looking to make the team in camp is now the go-to receiver on a team in position to win the NFC West. On Sunday, Williams had a career-high 10 catches for 123 yards as the Seahawks beat the Chicago Bears for their first road win outside of the division since 2007.
Williams, who has started all five games this season, stands in the middle of Seahawks' locker room after a recent practice. He looks around at the other lockers around him and smiles when he gets to his nameplate.
"They all thought I was crazy," Williams said. "I told some of my best friends, and they remember times when they were in my office or at the house and I said this is what's going to happen. Sometimes my aspirations are way different than reality and the fact that this became a reality is amazing."
After a long practice and even longer team meetings, Williams finally packs up his bags and heads out of the Seahawks' training facility to meet up with Gigi, Laila and Ava. No matter how his comeback story ends he's just happy he's still writing the chapters to a career he never got to finish the first time around.
"They don't care that daddy didn't do well in football," Williams said. "But it's going to be a good story when they get older and I tell them how this whole thing went down."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Markazi reported this story from both Seattle and Los Angeles.