The best way to describe Joshua Williams is he has the confidence of Deion Sanders with the demeanor of Barry Sanders.
The former Fayetteville State cornerback and 2022 NFL draft prospect has a soft face with a low, unassuming voice mixed with a polite attitude – the exact opposite of what you envision for a confident NFL cornerback.
But don’t let the laid-back mannerisms fool you. Williams, hoping to be just the second player drafted from a historically Black college and university (HBCU) since 2020, knows he’s good. He’s known since before he was a teenager, when he started envisioning himself as an NFL player.
That confidence followed him through college, when he began telling his coaches … as a freshman … at an HBCU … in Division II … that he’d make it to the league.
“Maybe it’s because I’m delusional,” Williams said jokingly. “But, no, I always felt somehow that it was going to work out.”
The HBCU All-American has taken an unconventional path to the cusp of that very reality. Living alone as a high schooler, receiving zero Division I offers, spending a year at a prep school, not starting his first year of college football. He’s arrived at the doorstep of the NFL, expecting to be selected anywhere between the third and sixth round of next week’s NFL draft in Las Vegas.
Additionally, he represents all the underdogs at HBCUs who don’t get a shot at the pros based solely on the words on the front of their jerseys. Williams would be the first Fayetteville State player drafted since 1976. There’s a pressure generated from not wanting to mess up, in fear that your failure could have a deleterious effect on all the other Black college players coming after you.
Not that it necessarily fazed him.
“I was never able to predict the future, but I was always very optimistic,” Williams said, “even when I didn’t have the attention.”
Williams started mapping his journey to the NFL at 10 years old, growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which is located 60 miles from Raleigh and is the hometown of rapper J. Cole.
“Every city has its rough sides to it,” Williams said of Fayetteville, where countless protests occurred during the civil rights movement. Students from Fayetteville State led the charge on desegregating the downtown area, which led to, among many things, protesters being tear-gassed at the local movie theater.
Williams grew up watching the Washington Redskins with his father, George. He played other sports – he owns the Jack Britt High School record in the 100-meter dash – but only had eyes for football.
He always believed in himself no matter what others thought, even when there should have been countless doubts. While there’s a thin line between confidence and cockiness, George Williams always made sure his son practiced humility in the face of success, lest he end up like his father.
“It’s easy when you’re more or less better than others in a sport to show off,” said George Williams, who ran track when he was younger. “Basically, I was an idiot, and I didn’t want him to be that way.”
But there was no doubt when Joshua Williams suddenly switched from receiver to defensive back after his junior year of high school, having never played the position before. Even with only a few Division II offers to his name and a year spent at Palmetto Prep Academy in Columbia, South Carolina, after high school, there was no doubt.
“He kind of never really came out directly and told me [he would make it to the NFL],” said Brian Frierson, Williams’ high school position coach. “But you could kind of tell that energy, the way he carried himself, the confidence that he had in himself.”
But Frierson, who played defensive back at historically Black North Carolina Central from 2008 to 2011, has played with NFL-caliber defenders before (former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Ryan Smith) and knew what he had in Williams right away.
“I was like, ‘As long as he stays healthy, it’s a wrap,’ ” Frierson said.
Williams’ biggest test was right before his senior season at Jack Britt. His father, an Army veteran, took a contracting position in Europe with defense manufacturer Lockheed Martin, which meant leaving 16-year-old Williams home alone for the entirety of his final year of high school.
“That was a time in my life where I was just growing up, kind of understanding how things work,” Williams said. “Had to become an adult.”
While aunts and uncles would check in on him regularly, Williams lived at the house by himself, getting himself to school, keeping the house in order and making his own food. Well, sort of.
George Williams would send money for groceries, but the 16-year-old would do 16-year-old things with the cash.
“I was getting Cook Out every single day,” Joshua Williams said of the North Carolina fast-food joint. “I was doing the typical teenager stuff like that.”
(“He lived at Cook Out,” George Williams said. “I’m pretty sure he has already tried everything on their menu.”)
Williams would sometimes stay at friends’ houses or have friends over to his, but he didn’t ever dare throw a party. He was afraid his dad (reminder: the contractor for a defense manufacturer) would find out.
”I knew he didn’t have cameras, but I didn’t know what he had going on,” Williams said.
The isolation made Williams who he is. He was forced to grow up quicker than most. He had to learn discipline, routine and structure when most teens are trying to learn how to drive. It taught him resiliency.
“I wouldn’t say it was entirely challenging,” he said. “It was definitely an obstacle, but it wasn’t impossible.”
His resilience also comes from something his father has been preaching to him his entire life: to not settle.
George Williams ingrained three things in his three children: be a child of God, work hard and don’t be average. He pushed his kids to be exceptional, which Williams took to heart.
Being average is accepting that players with zero Power 5 offers can’t succeed in college football. Being average means accepting that HBCU players don’t make it to the NFL.
“If you’re reaching for something, you don’t want to just fall in the middle,” George Williams said. “You want to always reach for the top, so if you do fall short, you would still be head and shoulders above everybody else.”
But this wasn’t some “My dad pushed me to live out his failed dreams” story. George Williams didn’t want his son to be average in any walk of life.
“He said I could be a bum on the street as long as I’m a godly man,” Joshua Williams said.
But George Williams also finished that with ” ‘Don’t be no bum on the street.’ ”
Williams had offers coming out of high school from other small HBCUs, including Shaw, Savannah State and Fort Valley State. Still, betting on himself for something better and being only 17 when he graduated from high school, he spent a year at Palmetto Prep Academy to get better offers and “grow up and stuff like that.” After a year at Palmetto Prep, Williams enrolled at Fayetteville State.
The only time Williams acknowledged a crack in his confidence was after his freshman year at Fayetteville State, when he considered transferring. He didn’t start until later in his freshman season, and believing that he was worthy of being a starter, Williams briefly wanted out.
But he thought it over through the winter, spoke with Frierson and his father, and by spring he was certain he’d be the starter. That sense of failure was only brief, so he decided to stay.
“Just young people’s thoughts,” he said. “I don’t know.”
His NFL future was further tested less than two years later, when a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic brought the world to a halt in March 2020. While many sports took a few months off to create return-to-play health protocols, not a single HBCU played football in fall 2020, with a handful of teams deciding to play the following spring. Fayetteville State opted out of both the fall and spring seasons.
During the year off, Williams did just three things: trained (he gained 12 pounds between his sophomore and senior seasons), attended classes, and worked, splitting time between delivering pizzas for Domino’s and security at Walmart. They were good-paying jobs that put gas in his car.
Enough to fill a gas tank in 2022?
“They would,” he said. “But I would’ve had to work a couple more hours.”
Williams had family members attend HBCUs – including his mother, who died when he was 6 months old – and he lived in the same city as the school where he eventually enrolled. Still, Williams didn’t understand the importance of HBCUs until his senior year of high school.
Jack Britt is a predominantly white high school, which Williams believes doesn’t “give you a real sense of how you will have to navigate as a Black man in the world.”
But once on Fayetteville State’s campus, he fully embraced the HBCU experience. The culture. The Black fraternity life (Williams is a member of Omega Psi Phi). The Black intellectualism.
The campus taught him how to navigate the real world and helped him see the inequalities that Black people face.
“Going to an HBCU,” Williams said, “it just shined a light on a lot of things I was ignorant to, thinking the world was completely fair and skin color didn’t matter.”
That fairness applies to HBCU athletics as a whole.
There’s a large difference between the money coming into HBCU athletic departments compared to other programs. For the 2019-20 fiscal year, the top-four grossing Division I schools made a combined $1 billion, according to USA Today. That same year, the four schools that made the least amount of money, all HBCUs, combined for just over $16.2 million.
Thus, Division II and non-Power 5 Division I programs are at a severe disadvantage both in competition and the eventual draft prospects of its players. Williams was one of just two Division II players – and the first from Fayetteville State – invited to the Senior Bowl, and was one of two Division II players, and one of four from an HBCU, invited to the NFL draft combine.
Antoine Bethea, who was drafted in the sixth round of the 2006 draft out of Howard, said there’s a belief among NFL decision-makers that players from HBCUs are less than due solely to attending a Black school.
Bethea was a three-time All-Conference selection in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a three-time Black College All-American and a two-time All-American through his four years at Howard. But when a team scout met with him before the draft to watch film, the scout told Bethea he couldn’t “play on the next level.”
All Bethea did was start on a Super Bowl-winning team during his rookie season and play 14 years in the league.
HBCUs have obvious financial limitations – “We ain’t have the sexy s—, but weights gotta get lifted,” Bethea said – but teams have to not be jaded by a school’s circumstances when evaluating talent.
“A scout wants to protect his job,” Bethea said. “It’s going to be a lot harder for him to go sell a player from Howard University or Fayetteville State to his boss rather than it to be, like, ‘Hey, this guy from Miami is a good player, this guy from Oklahoma is a good player.’
“It’s easier for them.”
Never mind that, historically, HBCUs have produced some of the best NFL players of all time. Even if you take out Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Walter Payton (Jackson State) and Michael Strahan (Texas Southern), schools such as Morgan State and Grambling State have as many Pro Football Hall of Famers (four each) as Florida State and Georgia. One of the best linebackers in the league right now, the Indianapolis Colts star Darius Leonard, is a product of an HBCU (South Carolina State).
Being one of the few – or, God forbid, the first – in an industry can be both lonely and demanding. You’re essentially on your own, but also carry the burden of representing your entire community, whether it be at a marketing job, the White House or the NFL.
But Williams says the only pressure he experiences comes from the expectations he puts on himself. While he wants to pave the way for those HBCU players behind him, “at the end of the day, I just do what I do,” he said.
“I play football, I say my prayers, and let God handle the rest.”
Williams acknowledges the path may have been easier at a Power 5 program. That he may have been “bigger, faster, stronger” if he had had access to, say, Clemson’s strength and conditioning program, but that point is moot because he’s still on the cusp of making it to the league.
And he didn’t miss out on all the perks of Division I. The NCAA’s new name, image and likeness rules, which allow college athletes to be paid, applies to all levels. Williams had a deal with Church’s Chicken, which, he added, did not come with a lifetime of free chicken.
Despite all the marks against him, Williams doesn’t believe he has to oversell himself to prospective teams. He has similar measurables (6-feet-3, 197 pounds, 40-yard dash: 4.45) to a Richard Sherman (6-feet-2, 195 pounds, 40-yard dash: 4.56 seconds), and the game tape of him holding his own against some of the best receivers at the Senior Bowl speaks for itself.
That’s translated to top-30 visits with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, and interest from the Baltimore Ravens, according to Pro Football Network and confirmed by Andscape. He could go as high as the third round.
But you wouldn’t be able to tell any of that by speaking with Williams.
When asked about the prospect of being drafted into the NFL, a lifelong dream that, as he’s said, has had “loops and twists,” Williams doesn’t expect to be overly emotional.
“If I shed a tear, that’ll be good. I need it to look like a nice, genuine moment,” he said with a laugh.
“I’ma just be more happy than anything, and just ready to work.”