INDIANAPOLIS -- Nineteen months after an 11th-hour rejection, Marcus Williams finally has an confirmed appointment at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Williams, the feel-good story in the New York Jets' season-opening win, will play a prominent role -- perhaps a starting one -- if Antonio Cromartie's sprained knee prevents him from playing Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts. Either way, Williams will play cornerback on the sport's biggest prime-time stage, fittingly in the building whose doors were shut on him in February 2014.
More than 300 players attended the 2014 NFL scouting combine, prospects from Washington to Maine, but that list didn't include Williams. But that's not the full story.
Williams was told he had a golden ticket to the league's most prestigious pre-draft event, and for weeks he operated under the belief that he'd be performing for NFL scouts at Lucas Oil. It made sense. He was a three-time FCS All-American at North Dakota State in Fargo, where he set the school record with 21 interceptions, including seven touchdown returns. Why wouldn't they want him at the combine?
A week before the trip, Williams was informed there had been a mistake -- a miscommunication, whatever you want to call it. There was no room for him. It was crushing. It was akin to being in high school and getting invited to a party with the cool kids, only to be turned away at the front door.
For Williams, it was the first in a series of disappointments that makes every NFL moment -- such as last week's interception of a Johnny Manziel pass -- even more special.
"That was tough for me, but all it does it keep me going," Williams said this week, recalling his combine snub. "It wasn't the first time I was overlooked. Coming out of high school, I was overlooked as well. It just adds fuel to the fire. It tells me I have to keep working and keep proving people wrong, keep fighting for where I want to be and for what I want to do."
After a so-so pro day (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds), Williams wasn't one of the 256 players drafted last year. More rejection. Twenty minutes after the conclusion of the draft, he signed a free-agent contract with the Houston Texans. By most accounts, he was solid in the preseason, but he didn't make the final cut and landed on their practice squad.
The low point came last Sept. 23, when Williams was released from the Texans' practice squad. For a young player trying to crack the NFL fraternity, there's nothing more discouraging than getting fired from a practice squad. The Texans told him to stick around town, that maybe they'd have an opening at some point.
"I guess I didn't fit what they wanted at the time," Williams said. "I don't know what that is. When they released me from the practice squad, it was kind of tough for me at the time, but I knew my ability. I knew what I could do. I didn't let it hold me down. I didn't let it bring my spirit down. When I got that call from the Jets, I knew I had to make the most of it."
Former pro personnel director Brendan Prophett had been tracking Williams and called as soon the Texans dropped him. Two days later, Williams was a member of the Jets' practice squad. Their cornerback position was in bad shape last season, and they were on the lookout for developmental players. They never imagined he'd develop so well, so quickly.
Six weeks later, Williams was in the starting lineup, facing the Kansas City Chiefs. He ended up starting the final seven games, making him one of the best acquisitions of the ill-fated John Idzik era. But give some credit to Rex Ryan and his staff; they were willing to take a practice-squad castoff and make him a starter. That took guts and an eye for talent.
Ryan, Idzik and Prophett were fired. The new folks in charge have been quite pleased with the gift left behind.
"He fits right in," coach Todd Bowles said. "You don't look at him as a second-year guy. You look at him as a vet. He goes out there and does his job. He does everything the right way. He gives you the utmost confidence to have in him, so it makes you feel comfortable."
Unlike his predecessor, Bowles isn't known for giving effusive praise, so when he calls Williams "one of my favorite players," it carries the impact of a roadside billboard.
Talent evaluators like to say, "Scouting is an inexact science," and Williams is a shining example of that. At 5-foot-11, 196 pounds, he's not the biggest guy in the room. He's not the fastest, either. But they haven't developed a method to measure instinct and heart, which is how a hidden gem like Williams can slip past 32 teams.
"He was clearly a good football player in college," said Williams' Minneapolis-based agent, Blake Baratz. "Teams are obsessed with size and speed. Marcus isn't a blazer, but he's fast enough when his pads are on."
At North Dakota State, Williams played before crowds of 19,000. It's a long way from Fargo to ESPN's Monday Night Football, but what impresses the Jets' coaches is that he never blinks and never gets rattled. That's another quality that can't be measured by a stopwatch.
"I'm not scared to go out there and compete against anyone," he said. "I'll guard whoever they tell me to. I've pretty much shown I can compete at a high level."
Welcome to Indy, Marcus -- nearly two years past due.