Vanderbilt Achievers: The Joejuan Williams Story

Commodore cornerback ascends from inner-city Nashville to NFL Draft pick

by Zac Ellis

Vanderbilt Achievers: The Joejuan Williams Story

The ballroom in the basement of the Omni Severin Hotel in downtown Indianapolis is decked out like a gym. Several treadmills line the middle of the room, with exercise bikes and medicine balls situated along the far wall. On the expansive grey carpet, white tape is laid flat to form makeshift running lanes, a creative substitute for training for the 40-yard dash.

At 9:37 p.m. local time, Joejuan Williams enters the ballroom wearing sweats and headphones. Rap music thumps through a nearby Bluetooth speaker as the Vanderbilt cornerback changes into running shorts and stretches with a half-dozen other NFL Draft prospects. It’s Sunday night during NFL Combine week in snowy Indianapolis, and the 6-4, 211-pound Williams is at the Omni to train with other defensive backs with EXOS, a human performance company. The next morning, Williams will run the 40 in front of NFL coaches, executives and a national television audience at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Williams takes his turn through the group’s bevy of drills, from high-knee shuttles to practice sprints. Afterwards, he gulps an energy drink, wipes his forehead and smiles when asked for his goals at the NFL Combine.

“I just want to show that overall, I’m one of the best defensive backs in the nation,” Williams said. “That’s my biggest thing. I want to show my movement skills. I want to show my speed. I want to put everything that I’ve got on display..

"It's a blessing. This has been a dream of mine since I was five. Showing these scouts, showing these coaches what I can do and what I can do at the next level, this is definitely a blessing."

That blessing once seemed nothing more than a longshot for Williams. The Commodore star grew up under trying circumstances in inner-city public housing projects in metro Nashville. The dark corners of Williams’ childhood – memories only his closest friends and family know – formed the foundation of his youth, an upbringing that featured its share of pain, anger and uncertainty.

Through it all, however, Williams’ dreams were his constant. One day, he told himself, I will play in the NFLOne day, he said, this will all be different.

“I’m almost there,” Williams said.

***

The lights are always what he first remembers.

One Christmas Eve during his childhood, Williams laid in bed at the Nashville home he shared with his mother, Stephanie Robertson, and older brother, Deontré. Christmas had never lived up to Williams’ own expectations; he never saw a Christmas tree at his family home, though “I always dreamed one would magically appear,” he says. Gifts were few and far between for the family, though Robertson often worked two jobs as a single mother to put food on the table for Joejuan and Deontré. Instead, their family was often on the list to receive gifts from the Angel Tree Foundation.

But those truths did not prevent Williams’ heart from racing that certain Christmas Eve night, when he awoke to red lights flashing through his bedroom window.

“I swore it was Rudolph,” Williams recalls. “I was like, ‘Santa is here, I better go to sleep!’ So I went to sleep, woke up, ran downstairs and there was nothing there. I went outside and saw other kids playing with their toys. That really hurt me.”

Police lights were a reminder of the ever-present risk of living in the Joe Johnston neighborhood of Nashville’s inner city. Through his youth, Williams said his family struggled to find consistent housing, more than once arriving home to find an eviction notice on the door. His father was rarely, if ever, around. As Williams got older, fights with his mother’s boyfriend would result in Williams moving in with his grandmother across town. Williams bounced around so much that he grew to abhor moving, so much so that the word “home” grew to have little literal meaning.

The risks outside the confines of home were no help. For many in Williams’ neighborhood, life offered paths littered with drugs and violence. He witnessed friends and family stumble down that route and never return.

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“You could definitely get sucked up in your environment,” Williams said. “You can hang out with the wrong crowd and very easily get in trouble. It’s so easy for kids to fall into the cycle of violence or doing stuff or doing things they don’t need to be doing.”

Williams managed to find solace in football. He and Deontré spent hours in the empty lot across from their grandmother’s house, tossing a football back and forth. When he was 5 years old, Williams spotted a sign for youth football down the street. He begged his mother to sign him up.

“That day I put that oversized helmet on,” he said, “I fell in love with it.”

As Williams grew, so, too, did his NFL aspirations. His height and talent began to sprout as he entered Nashville’s public Smithson Craighead Middle School. Soon, Williams wondered if maybe, just maybe, football could lead him and his family towards a new chapter.

“Every Sunday we’d watch the Titans games,” Williams said. “I’d see Chris Johnson, Vince Young, Keith Bullock, Steve McNair, Eddie George. I’d see them and think, ‘I’m going to get there. I’m going to make sure I get there.'”

 

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Onlookers are hushed as Williams crouches in place on the turf at Vanderbilt’s indoor practice facility. It’s Vanderbilt’s NFL Pro Day in March, where more than 50 NFL personnel and 30 pro teams are represented to watch several Commodores go through drills.

For Williams, it’s also his shot at redemption in the 40-yard dash.

Williams’ measurements and athleticism have had draft analysts licking their chops all spring. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah wrote that, “his unique build and toughness are very enticing.” At corner, Williams “possesses a wide receiver-like body at the position, as the size the length instantly stand out. Playing close to the line of scrimmage, Williams displays physicality to jam receivers,” projects USA Today.

Many of those same experts project that if Williams clocks in a 40 in the 4.5 range, he could sneak into the first round. At the NFL Combine, the former Commodore sprinted to a 4.65.

At Pro Day, Williams sets his feet and raised his arm. Suddenly, he’s off. He gallops through the finish line amid a symphony of beeps from hand-timed stopwatches.

The verdict: 4.55.

A satisfied Williams could barely contain his smile in the aftermath.

“That’s something I wanted to come out and prove, my speed,” Williams said. “I didn’t have a great showing at the combine in the 40, but I got another week out and did well. It shows NFL teams I can run. I tell all NFL teams that I have the full package: I can run, cover and hit.

“I wanted to prove to them that I can move, and that I’m one of the best DBs in the nation.”

 

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Derek Mason first met Joejuan Williams at one of his staff’s on-campus camps at Vanderbilt. Immediately, Williams’ size reminded Mason of one of his prized pupils from his time at Stanford, Richard Sherman. Sherman was also a 6-3 corner who starred under Mason’s tutelage and has since authored an All-Pro career in the NFL. Mason saw the same rare combination of length and talent in Williams.

“He really impressed me,” Mason said. “He impressed me by his strength and his competitive nature. You felt like this young man had a great presence about him.”

By that point, Williams has emerged into a touted recruit from the Nashville area and moved on to Father Ryan High School to begin his prep career. Father Ryan is a prestigious private Catholic school in Nashville, the kind of place Williams’ family would not normally be able to afford. But need-based financial aid gave Williams the chance to enroll at Father Ryan and receive a private education.

Acclimating to his new surroundings was an initial challenge for Williams. The makeup of Father Ryan was strikingly different from that of his old neighborhood. The student body was also a constant reminder of Williams’ challenges back home, which cultivated an envy he struggled to shake.

“It was definitely a culture shock, coming from where I come from in the inner city,” Williams said. “In the beginning, it was definitely a challenge academically and socially. I was jealous of a lot of people. At [Father] Ryan, friends would have both parents in their homes, huge houses. And that definitely caused a lot of jealously. I would be jealous and look at them and think they had a lot that I didn’t have. That was a hurdle I needed to get over.”

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The adjustment on the football field was less challenging for Williams. He began turning heads even before becoming a full-time starter as a junior for Father Ryan in 2014. That year, his profile grew exponentially as he registered 48 tackles, two interceptions and 11 pass breakups en route to all-state and all-conference honors.

Soon, scholarship offers began pouring in from across college football, including from every SEC program. Years earlier, an affordable college education seemed far-fetched for Williams. That made the moment of his first scholarship offer one he would not forget.

“I had the phone on speaker, and my mom was right there,” Williams said. “I broke down crying. She thought I was crying for excitement. But I was crying because I had an opportunity for her to not even worry about me. In that moment, I felt that was very special.”

Williams eventually made a soft commitment to LSU and planned to officially pledge to the Tigers on his birthday in December 2015. But Mason, who had worked to forge a relationship with Williams, turned the tide late in the process and convinced Williams to stay home and sign with Vanderbilt.

“Joejuan had a great mix,” Mason said. “He had a mix of street knowledge as well as polish from private education. Our relationship started to grow as I started to see the many layers and different areas of his life.”

***

Williams’ dream of reaching the NFL dated to his youth. But aspirations of football stardom were far from his only wishes as the product of a single-parent household in the Nashville projects.

“My biggest thing was, I always wanted to have a complete family,” Williams said. “That’s something I’ve always wanted since I was a kid. I always wanted to come home and see my mom and dad there, and they’re laughing and playing in the living room.”

Williams’ memories of his father are few and far between. Family would share stories about his dad’s own high school football career, and according to Williams, he even came around in stretches during his childhood. But, as Williams recalls, “by the time I was in middle school, he was completely gone. Those are some of the worst times.”

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That absence placed added pressure on Robertson to provide for her two sons. But it had a far more detrimental impact on Williams, who navigated through a sea of emotions as he matured from boy to man. Robertson, who Williams calls “my superhero,” stepped in admirably; her son recalls how she always kept a smile on her face, even amid trying circumstances such as multiple evictions. But all the while, Williams stewed in resentment and pain beneath his trademark smile, wondering why his life lacked the father figure he craved.

Williams soon decided to use that absence as fuel toward his ultimate goal. I’m going to be better than him he would tell himself.

“You’re always going to have that hurt,” Williams explained. “You’re always going to have that anger, that missing piece. You want to use that to your advantage.”

Along the way, football coaches helped the void. Williams and Corey Phillips formed a tight bond at Father Ryan while the latter served as the school’s defensive coordinator (Phillips now works on Mason’s recruiting staff at Vanderbilt). When Williams arrived at Vanderbilt, his connection with Mason continued to evolve. Part of it was Mason’s vaunted background as a tutor of defensive backs who played the position himself. But as Williams gradually let his guard down, he learned Mason, too, was the product of a single-parent household.

“I can remember me and Joejuan talking and sharing our experiences, me sharing my background of not having my dad growing up,” Mason said. “It was letting him know that it didn’t define him. He was going to have an opportunity to do great things without that particular influence.

“I know it can make you empty. I now it can make you hardened. But you can’t hold that in. You can’t close yourself off to people. Then, you can miss the best parts of what life has to offer.”

On occasion, Williams would call Mason just to chat. The coach would swing by his player’s dorm on Vanderbilt campus and pick him up. The two men would drive around Nashville for hours talking – and rarely about football.

Williams was not used to letting male role models into his life. Yet, this felt natural.

“I told him my whole life story, and he told me his,” Williams said. “We come from the same background. Growing up, I never talked about my feelings. I just always bottled everything up and held it in, and here I am just talking to Coach Mason. He was someone that understood me. He became an outlet and someone I could lean on.”

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As his relationship with Mason grew, Williams’ star shined brighter on the field. He played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2016 and started 24 of his final 25 games at cornerback over his final two seasons. Last fall as a junior, Williams established himself as one of the top lock-down corners in the SEC. He set single-season career-highs with four interceptions, 18 passes defended, 48 solo tackles and 61 total tackles in 2018. Plus, Williams’ 14 pass breakups and 18 passed defended led all SEC players.

Williams even put his heroics on display on several occasions, including a game-winning pass breakup in overtime against Ole Miss last November. His defense helped Vanderbilt remain alive for an eventual bowl berth.

After conferring with his family and with Mason, Williams decided to leave school after his junior season and declare for the NFL Draft. It was the next step in pursuit of his dream. Mason had watched Williams grow at Vanderbilt, and along the way, he’d recognized a familiar fire within his star pupil: Williams’ goals were as much about his past as they were his future.

“He hated to lose because for him, losing represented the idea that, maybe, he had to go back,” Mason said. “I don’t think everybody has that. I don’t think everybody can control that, and he learned to control it. He’s learned how to channel it.”

***

The moment comes down from an unlikely source late Saturday night in Nashville. Dont’a Hightower, the veteran linebacker of the New England Patriots, steps to the podium on the enormous stage at the NFL Draft on lower Broadway. The Los Angeles Rams have just traded the 45th overall pick to the Patriots. Hightower clears his throat and booms into the mic in front of thousands of fans in downtown Nashville and millions more on ESPN…

"With the 45th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the champs select Joejuan Williams -- DB, Vanderbilt,"

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Williams, seated in an adjacent green room with friends, family, Mason, Phillips and Vanderbilt staffers, bows his head in disbelief. As his entourage applauds, he stands up, takes a breath, and engulfs his mother in a tight embrace. It’s a storybook ending fit for a country music ballad out of Music City.

“She was the first person I went to go hug,” Williams tells NFL Network moments later. “That was one of the happiest moments of my life. I’m so happy about it. Everything she’s been though, the struggles that we went through, the sacrifices she made for me, I can’t even replace it.”

Williams’ goal, years in the making, comes true in his hometown. He becomes the highest Commodore draftee since wide receiver Jordan Matthews was taken as the 42nd overall pick in 2014. As he makes his way to the NFL Draft main stage, he points his finger to the sky, a subtle nod to his answered prayers.

“This is special, man,” Williams says. “This is special. [I was] born and raised here, went to school here. Just growing up, man, it’s special. It’s such a blessing. I’ve got no words.”

Joejuan Williams’ story has featured its share of ups and downs, of ebbs and flows. But an unorthodox mix of pain, hard work and steadfast belief led Williams to don a New England Patriots hat on national television. Williams was born and bred in Nashville. He played college football at Vanderbilt, which he helped lead to two postseason appearances in his three seasons. And finally, his journey came full circle as he officially became an NFL draft pick in his hometown. Plus, once his NFL rookie season wraps, he plans to graduate from in May 2020.

“He did what very few had the vision to do,” Mason said. “For him to have taken the walk, a walk that many people said that he couldn’t do here, at a place like this. ‘He couldn’t do it here. Maybe he could only do it at Alabama or LSU.’ But he did it here, in his city. He did it in front of his folks and his town. I don’t even know if I can put it into words. This thing has been bigger than him. It really has been bigger than him. He’s going to inspire somebody to grow up and, hopefully, be just like him.”

As the night wraps up, Williams grabs an iPhone and films a quick shout-out to Commodore fans, to be shared later on the team’s Twitter account. To no one’s surprise, his smile spreads ear to ear. Williams is home – in more ways than one.

“Vandy nation, man, I’m excited,” Williams said. “I’m a Patriot! Drafted here in Nashville, drafted here in my hometown. I’m so excited. I just want to say thank y’all for everything. Y’all mean the world to me, I’ll always be in y’all’s corner and will always be supporting y’all. Thank you, and Anchor Down!”

Vanderbilt Achievers: “The Joejuan Williams Story”