Football practice had already started by the time Damien Williams showed up at Mira Mesa’s field back in 2008.
New to the San Diego high school, Williams wanted to join the team.
It only took a glance at the 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior for the coaches to know they wanted him on the field.
The only problem?
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They wanted him to play linebacker. He wanted to be a running back.
“We knew that we needed to get him on the field because he was a dominant player but at the time, at his size,” said Chris Thompson, then an assistant at Mira Mesa. “It seemed right to put your big, fast, physical kids at linebacker.”
But Williams was adamant. He felt he was meant to be a running back, and it didn’t matter that Mira Mesa was stacked with talent in the backfield. He believed he deserved a shot to join them.
With her son fighting for a spot, Virleana Alexander met with the coaches to lobby for Williams. That’s when one of them uttered a phrase that’s stayed with Williams through the rest of his football career.
“’You know, at the end of the day, he looks like Tarzan, but we don’t know if he plays like Jane,’” Williams remembered one of his coaches telling his mom.
“That’s stuck with me ever since then,” Williams said. “And every time I run the ball, I feel like I have something to prove.”
Williams proved it at Mira Mesa, eventually earning a spot as a running back.
And though he’s poised to start in his first playoff game with the Chiefs on Saturday, Williams still feels like that high schooler back in San Diego. He’s spent most of his football career as an afterthought, as an unknown until he was given a shot. But now in Kansas City, Williams is breaking the trend that’s defined his life.
If people didn’t know who Damien Williams was before the season, they certainly won’t forget now.
Rising to the challenge
Williams knew Kansas City had a stacked running back room.
Kareem Hunt. Spencer Ware. Charcandrick West.
All three were starters at one point. All three had seemingly guaranteed spots on the Chiefs’ roster when Williams signed with Kansas City in March 2018. But Williams wasn’t intimidated.
He liked the challenge.
“They compete up here,” Williams said. “They win. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that? The type of person I am, I love competing. I love going against the best.”
Signing with KC is reminiscent of the decision he made coming out of Arizona Western in 2012.
A one-time pledge to Arizona State, Williams had to change his plans when he didn’t make the grades in high school. Then, the coach who recruited him was fired by the time he was ready to leave junior college. Instead of heading to the Sun Devils, Williams had to choose between two teams: Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
His mom looked at the rosters for both. Oklahoma had a wealth of running backs. Texas Tech only had a few.
“Damien,” she remembers telling him, “Texas Tech doesn’t have that many, and I think it would be a little easier considering you only have two years left. If you go there, the competition will not be as steep. Oklahoma here has seven. And they’re all pretty good. I don’t know if you’re ready to walk into that lion cage there.”
But that’s just what Williams did. He signed with the Sooners and arrived in Norman to join a team that returned its top three rushers from a 10-3 season the year before.
It took only three games for Williams to earn the starting job.
Williams flourished that season, rushing for 1,003 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also had 34 catches for 320 yards and another touchdown.
But then he got in his own way again.
The next year, Williams was dismissed from the team in the final weeks of the season for failed drug tests. From there, he went undrafted and signed with the Dolphins as a free agent.
Like it has his whole life, the adversity shaped him and prepared him for the next phases of his career.
In Miami, it was more of the same. He cracked the Dolphins’ starting lineup in his fourth season after Jay Ajayi was traded to the Eagles, but four games later, he injured his shoulder. Williams missed the final five games of the 2017 season and wasn’t re-signed.
“It was like you finally get your opportunity, and this happens right at the end of your opportunity,” Alexander said of Williams’ situation. “Now here you are looking at surgery, injured running back, who’s going to pick me up? And Kansas City came to the rescue.”
Without the experiences in high school, junior college, Oklahoma and Miami, Williams wouldn’t have been as prepared to fight for his spot in Kansas City.
Instead, he wasn’t intimidated by the Chiefs’ backfield. He embraced the competition. And by the end of training camp, he earned a roster spot, bumping West off in the process.
While he waited for his chance in the offense, Williams was a special teams grinder. He did the grunt work, and he did it without complaining.
When Hunt was released midway through the season and Ware got injured shortly after, Williams was there to step into the spotlight.
“He’s done a great job,” Chiefs running backs coach Deland McCullough said. “What I’ve seen from him, obviously from tape when we looked at him during the free-agent process and then once he got here and last spring, just the way he moved around, his intensity, his explosiveness, ability to change direction, catch the ball and process our offense has been very impressive.”
To some, it might’ve seemed like he was coming out of nowhere, but that’s just fine with Williams.
“I like proving to coaches that when they come get me,” Williams said, “like, ‘OK, I see why you went and grabbed him. I see why.’”
Growth and maturity
Alexander’s noticed a difference in Williams since he arrived in Kansas City.
Growing up, Williams was always a social kid with a big heart. Raising Williams as a single mom, Alexander remembers groups of kids waiting outside her door for her son to come out. But sometimes, he struggled to find a balance between being social and staying on track academically or athletically.
““He was kind of always hitting a brick wall,” Alexander said. “But no matter what brick wall he hit, he found a way through it.”
In Kansas City, though, it seems like he’s had a breakthrough.
Not only does it show up on the field, where he’s embracing being a part of a truly unified team, but she also notices it on a personal level.
He picks on her more, in the loving way sons tease their moms. He talks with his two younger brothers more, checking in on them in group chats and phone calls. He comes home more, too, taking time to visit the high school when he does. And he still asks for her to make the same breakfast sandwiches she made for him every morning when he was in high school.
In Miami, the trips back to San Diego were few and far between. He was more distant and mostly called home when he ran into trouble.
“I’ve just seen a maturity in him all around,” Alexander said. “I don’t know if maybe some of the things that have happened, if he’s at a point where, ‘Hey, I’ve gotta fight to stay alive here.’ But he’s made some changes. … I don’t know if it was an epiphany, I don’t know. He totally made a turnaround there. I see it on the field, but I also see it at home. As his mom, I see it in so many other places than just on the football field.”
Williams doesn’t think it was an epiphany so much as just finding the right fit. Kansas City doesn’t have the same temptations he encountered in Miami. And after five years in the league, he’s finally figured out how to go about his business the right way.
“I kind of came here and focused up,” he said. “That’s how it’s turned out.”
Virleana Alexander can’t help but laugh when she hears the observation.
It’s true, she says, her son does have a knack for coming out of nowhere.
It’s been like that his whole life, from his high school days in San Diego to junior college in Arizona to college in Oklahoma to his professional career in Miami and Kansas City.
It’s not that he’s under the radar, it’s that he never stayed in one place long enough to make a lasting impression.
But after scoring six touchdowns and racking up nearly 400 yards in the final five games of the season, Williams signed a two-year extension with a maximum value of $8.1 million.
Now, he has a chance to leave that lasting impression in Kansas City and to prove that he truly belongs.
“At the end of the day, I took the hard route,” Williams said. “I went to junior college, ended up going to a great college, got kicked off the team, was supposed to be drafted, didn’t end up getting drafted and having to walk on to a team.
“If you know my story, you see where I’m ending up right now: just being signed, being able to start in a playoff game. It means the world to me.”