Williams closing in on NFL dreams

Murali Balaji

Ben Williams is getting ready to play football in Minnesota. Again.
As preparations for the Minnesota Vikings’ afternoon practice were underway last Wednesday, the former Gophers’ defensive lineman relaxed outside of the team’s dormitory, taking in the cool breeze as several of his teammates headed to the field.
It was only the third day of training camp, but for Williams, there was already a revival of hope that he could finally stick in the National Football League. And, according to Vikings’ coaches, there is good reason for his optimism.
“This is the best thing that could happen to Ben,” defensive coordinator Foge Fazio said. “He’s come into a situation where he can definitely help us.”
Williams was fresh off a stint with NFL Europe’s London Monarchs in the spring, an opportunity which gave him considerable attention from NFL teams in this country. The Vikings, however, did not wait for Williams to tour the league and quickly signed him to a free-agent contract in June.
“We knew about him before,” Fazio said. “We’ve had the chance to watch him play and we’re definitely happy to have signed him.”
For the 6-foot-1, 282-pound Williams, the feeling is mutual. Getting his first legitimate shot in the NFL since leaving the Gophers after the 1991 season took a lot more than a simple trip down Hwy. 169 to Mankato.
“If you’re in the NFL, you are good enough to play,” he said. “It’s all about being with the right team at the right time, and I think I’ve been blessed with the chance to stick here.”
Williams talked of his time with the Monarchs, who are part of the European league sponsored by the NFL. NFL Europe was designed to allow younger players from different NFL teams — as well as players like Williams — to showcase their talents and gain experience.
Williams compared playing in the league to “minor-league ball” and had less than a ringing endorsement of the living conditions of NFL-Europe players.
“If NFL Europe teaches you one thing, it is to appreciate how good we have it here,” he said, shaking his head as he reflected on his experiences. “It’s bare minimums over there. You would think that because the league is sponsored by the NFL, you would have it plush. I would take living in Sanford Hall (on the University campus) any day over living over there.”
Even the food service?
“Unless you like french fries, there is nothing to eat over there. I’m not too big on fries, so there wasn’t much to choose from for me.”
However, Williams says differences in food and lifestyle are nothing like the difference between college and pro football, no matter where it is played.
“In college, we would have to memorize a play or a page for practice,” he said. “Here, they make you memorize a section everyday.”
Williams seems to be taking the load of information in quickly, though. With the release of defensive end Fernando Smith, Williams has seen a lot of time on the practice field.
“The kid works hard and he’s smart,” Fazio said. “He’s fitting into our system quite nicely.”
Fazio said that Williams has earned a lot of repetitions at practice playing behind starter Stalin Colinet at left defensive end.
“I got here two or three days ago,” Williams said. “I hadn’t played end since college, so to be put on the second team as an end is pretty serious.”
Fazio said he’s pleased by Williams’ adjustment to the position. However, Williams knows that his opportunity was created in large part by the departure of Smith, who was plagued by injuries throughout the 1997 season.
“I’m not stupid,” Williams said. “Fernando and I are friends. I kind of feel sorry for him, but as a pro athlete you come to grips with the fact that one day it will be you getting the call.”
Williams is hoping that call does not come soon. Working with defensive tackle John Randle — considered by most NFL personnel to be the best at his position — has given Williams confidence that he can make it with the Vikings.
“I think our personalities and style of play are similar,” Williams said, referring to Randle. “We’ve become close because of the common background between us.”
Like Williams, Randle entered the league as an undrafted free agent. But within a few years, he helped tear down the stereotype of a defensive lineman being 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7 and weighing 320 pounds.
Williams said he, along with fellow linemates Randle and Tony Williams, get teased because of their almost identical sizes. The three are listed at about the same height and weight, but Williams sees the differences.
“I’m a little taller than Tony, but John has got us on height (at 6-foot-1),” Williams said. “But Tony carries a few more pounds than me and John, so I guess it all evens out.”
Unlike Tony Williams and Randle, whose roster spots are secured, Williams is fighting for a spot along the defensive line. With slightly more than two weeks of training camp left, he could open more eyes with his hard work and quickness.
Fazio predicted that Williams’ chances of sticking with the team are good, especially if they keep eight defensive linemen. But he added that Williams would definitely catch on with some team, even if he is waived by the Vikings.
“He’s a good worker and pleasant person,” Fazio said. “Teams are looking for a guy with his experience and talent. Right now, we’re concentrating on his future with us.”