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Receiver Mike Williams returns to hometown Tampa as Seattle Seahawks' leading receiver

Despite all the judgmental volleys lobbed at Seahawks receiver Mike Williams during the most unfulfilled years of his once-promising career, few managed to leave permanent scars.

When he packed on 50 pounds and people called him fat, he got over it. He could live with being considered a disappointment. He even handled being labeled as lazy.

But one thing, to this day, still stings.

"The only thing that would bother me is when people said I didn't care about football," said Williams, amid a comeback campaign that brings him to his native Tampa for a game against the Bucs on Sunday.

The Plant High graduate says he always has cared deeply about the game.

"I've been playing football for 21 years, and I'm 26," Williams said. "It's hard for somebody who I'm sure never played football to tell me what I feel about it. But I've gotten older. And now I kind of think back about all the stuff that was said about me, and it was self-inflicted. I just kind of say, 'Hey, look now.' "

Indeed, now there's plenty to see from Seattle's leading receiver.

The 10th pick in 2005 out of Southern Cal spent the past two seasons out of football. The idea that anyone would put their neck on the line to grant him another opportunity seemed far-fetched.

In fact, not long ago, even Williams — who caught 95 passes as a sophomore at USC in 2003 — would have admitted the prospect was, at best, remote.

It was the summer of 2008, and the Titans' training camp was getting under way. But the beginning of a new season marked the end of Williams' latest last chance. He was cut from his third team in three years, and his world unraveled.

"I didn't even try to work out for another team," Williams said. "I was just, emotionally, kind of exhausted. I just kind of couldn't pick myself up. I needed to get away. I knew I was still young. I knew I could still give myself a chance. But I just didn't want to keep piling on bad (things) or going to another team and just keep piling on the negative stuff. I just needed some time to get away."

The setback didn't prove permanent.

"I just got to the point where my mind was right, and now it was time to get my body right," he said. "I came up with a plan, and it took me about 11 to 13 months to turn it around and get in great shape and then give myself a chance. I never thought it would come to fruition like it has."

The image of Williams dominating college football and looking a lot like the NFL's next great receiver had long been erased from most minds — especially those in NFL front offices.

But Williams resolved himself to embark on a final comeback. In November 2009, he visited then-USC coach Pete Carroll, telling him of his intentions. Carroll didn't seem enthusiastic about Williams' chances.

"I wished him the best and hoped that something would turn for him," Carroll said Wednesday.

Two months later, Carroll was hired to coach the Seahawks. And he could still recall those images of Williams having his way against defenses. Carroll brought in Williams for a workout but with realistic expectations.

"We had high hopes that maybe he would have some juice in him that other teams didn't see," Carroll said. "When Mike came to us, he was in great shape. He was determined and fired up and wanted to prove that he was worthy of being in the league.

"And he never took a step backward from doing that."

Williams, 6 feet 5, 235 pounds, has 60 catches for 720 yards and a touchdown in 12 games, and he has been Seattle's most consistent threat.

"This year is just a (result) of perseverance and fortitude," said Williams, who had 44 catches and two touchdowns in his three previous seasons. "I know a lot of people wrote me off. A lot of people back home wrote me off. So to be in the position that I'm in now is just a blessing."

Now, people are talking about Williams again. But many of them are defensive coaches.

"He's got a big presence about him," Bucs defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. "He plays big. And he has extremely good hands. He's definitely something to deal with."

There are lessons in Williams' story and the path he took. He derailed largely because of his own decisions.

First, he declared for the 2004 draft after former Ohio State star running back Maurice Clarett won a legal challenge allowing sophomores to do so. (The NFL requires players to spend three years in college.) But the ruling was overturned, and Williams and Clarett were barred from entering the draft. Because Williams had hired an agent, returning to USC was not an option. A year away from football proved a poor alternative, too.

"The decisions and the choices that he made didn't work out for him," Carroll said. "It was hard to watch that. Those guys are like your own kids. You recruit them, and you coach them. … It was easy to see (the problem). He was overweight, and he just wasn't right."

He was selected by Detroit in 2005, but his time there became a series of failures. His work ethic was nonexistent.

"Maybe I didn't have the standard that I hold myself to (now)," Williams said. "I was a young guy. Along the way, I had a bunch of people around me who just told me everything I wanted to hear, and I just went astray."

Now Williams is back on track.

"He's got 60 catches, and he's just getting started," Carroll said. "It's almost like Mike's rookie season."

And as for all those things that were said about Williams once upon a time, most don't hurt. But they certainly aren't forgotten.

"It's motivation for me," he said. "Every day I go out there and I think about all the things I read … about people saying about me or what people said I was.

"I'm moving forward."

Receiver Mike Williams returns to hometown Tampa as Seattle Seahawks' leading receiver 12/22/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 23, 2010 7:21am]
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