Bama boys in N.Y.: Quinnen Williams, his wise mentor and the G-gap

Jets defensive linemen Steve McLendon, entering his 11th year in the NFL, and Quinnen Williams, a rookie, have formed a tight bond this offseason. Rich Cimini/ESPN.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It started with a question.

"Steve, how old are you?" Quinnen Williams asked that day in the spring.

This was in a meeting room at the New York Jets' facility. The precocious rookie sat alongside fellow defensive lineman Steve McLendon, the resident Yoda. Williams received a smile and an answer -- "33" -- that prompted some quick math. When the meeting was over, he shared his findings.

"You got to the NFL when I was in the sixth grade," Williams told his new teammate.

McLendon busted out laughing.

In addition to A-gaps and B-gaps in the middle of their defensive line, the Jets have a G-gap, as in generational. McLendon and Williams are 12 years apart, three lifetimes in the NFL, but they have already formed a tight bond. They're sons of Alabama -- McLendon from rural Ozark, Williams from urban Birmingham -- and now they're a teacher-pupil tandem that operates in a moving classroom.

The field. The sideline. The locker room. The cafeteria. The trainer's room.

McLendon talks, Williams listens.

"He stays in my pocket," McLendon said.

Said Williams: "I'm taking everything he's doing and basically following him, following his lead, following everything he's doing."

In McLendon, Williams has the ideal mentor, an 11th-year player who has experienced extreme highs (the 2010 AFC Championship with the Pittsburgh Steelers) and extreme lows (the past three seasons in New York). He's unselfish and likes to talk. He believes he has an obligation to share his wisdom, paying forward what he learned so many years ago in Pittsburgh.

McLendon came up the hard way. He likes to tell people he was the first pick in the ninth round of the 2009 draft. Spoiler alert: There was no ninth round. He was an undrafted free agent out of Troy and received a $500 signing bonus.

Williams was the No. 3 overall pick in April, landing a $26 million signing bonus -- $6 million more than McLendon has earned in his entire career.

McLendon forged his work ethic as a kid. He spent summers at his grandfather's farm in Alabama, growing corn and helping with the chickens and cows. He still loves the great outdoors. He owns two lots in Alabama, totaling 360 acres. His dream is to reach 1,000.


"I'm a city guy," the rookie said, smiling.

Williams likes to tease McLendon about his choice of locker room music. The big nose tackle plays gospel (Fred Hammond and Marvin Sapp) and jazz (Luther Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass).

"He loves old-school music," Williams said. "Every time he plays a song, I'm like, 'That's your generation.'"

Said McLendon: "I like the older guys. I need to understand the words. Some of the words these [current] guys are saying, I just don't understand it."

They're from different worlds even though they hail from the same state, but McLendon has embraced the former Crimson Tide star. It's one of the most fascinating dynamics in professional sports, the older player teaching the tricks of the trade to his eventual replacement. Some players would turn a cold shoulder to the new hotshot. McLendon isn't wired that way.

"I've been blessed with a lot and I'm required to give it away," he said. "When I die -- when I leave this game -- I can't take this gift with me, so why not give it to some guys to pass it along? I'm going to try to pass everything I have -- knowledge-wise, technique-wise, life-wise -- to him."

When McLendon was a free agent in the offseason, he asked his 9-year-old son how he'd feel about him re-signing with the Jets. At the time, he knew there was a good chance they would draft a defensive tackle, adding risk to his decision. The boy responded by recalling a father-son conversation from two years earlier.

"Dad, remember what you told me?" the youngster asked. "Some people need us more than we need them."

McLendon heeded the call, not knowing exactly how he would be needed. A month later, he knew. The Jets drafted the uber-talented Williams, who dominated the SEC in his first season as a starter.

So much promise, yet so inexperienced.

"I know I'm athletic, I know I'm fast, I know I'm big, I know I'm strong, I know I'm smart, but I have a lot to learn," Williams said. "I want to know what he knows. He's very wise. That's why I stick to his hip. I know, playing this game for 11 years, I know he's going to lead me the right way."

So they talk technique. They talk X's and O's. They talk about the importance of punctuality, post-practice recovery and proper nutrition. (Williams dropped a few pounds before camp by eating vegan-based plant protein.)

"I tell him to treat his body like a growing plant," said McLendon, known as one of the team's hardest-working players. "If you want to be like one of those big trees, the right stuff has to go in you."

They also talk about football history -- well, recent history. Williams grew up an avid football fan, and he likes to ask McLendon about his old Pittsburgh teams. What was it like to play with Troy Polamalu? What were two-a-days like?

"I love football to death -- I'm a huge fan of players -- and we always speak about that," Williams said.

McLendon has the gift of gab, and he's not shy about sharing his inspirational messages.

"Rule No. 1: Don't be No. 2."

"The gym is always open."

"Don't think about yesterday -- better yourself today."

Williams has heard them all -- or he thinks he has. McLendon is a walking, talking Tony Robbins video, except he's 310 pounds and still can help the team as a first- and second-down run-stuffer. He doesn't have Williams' athletic gifts -- never has -- but he overcame long odds to last more than a decade at one of the game's most demanding positions.

"I'm thankful to have him," Williams said.

Said McLendon: "I'm molding him to play a long career. I get it. I'm happy for him. Accept the man for who he is. Don't look at the dollar signs or the name on the jersey. I accept the man for the man he is in his heart."

McLendon won't say how long he's planning to play football. Right now, he's still needed. There's a young stud who covets his wisdom. Luther Vandross will continue to play.