The greatest Memphis athlete of the 1970s was Larry Finch. In the 1980s, Keith Lee. The 1990s, Penny Hardaway. But the 2000s have been a Memphis sports decade unlike any before. And the days when Bluff City sports began and ended with Tiger basketball are over. The person who most embodies the spirit of the transition we fans have enjoyed is himself the latest Memphis Athlete of the Decade: former Tiger great — former Tiger football great — DeAngelo Williams.
When I told Williams of the honor I planned to bestow upon him — late last summer — he reacted as you might expect if you ever witnessed a postgame interview with the easy-to-smile, humble native of Wynne, Arkansas. "Sweet," he said. "I'm numero uno?" When I explained that the honor brought no trophy, and was selected by a committee of one, he was just as gracious. "That's sweet, man. I really appreciate that."
The only challenging debate in reflecting on more than 80 years of Tiger football is coming up with the second-greatest player to wear blue and gray. Williams was that good — the kind of player who would have starred at USC, Alabama, Texas, or Florida State. But he chose to play at Memphis.
After a modest freshman season (by his later standards), Williams shattered the Tigers' single-season rushing record by almost 400 yards, with a total of 1,430 in 2003. He also accumulated 384 yards through the air and scored a total of 13 touchdowns. A late-season knee injury kept Williams out of the New Orleans Bowl, the program's first postseason game in 32 years.
As a junior in 2004, Williams introduced himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation. In piling up 1,948 yards and 23 touchdowns, Williams had no fewer than four 200-yard games, including 262 against Houston and a school record 263 against South Florida. Labeled a "compact" back by some, Williams was a workhorse. In the Tigers' biggest win of the season — over Eli Manning and Ole Miss — Williams carried the ball 37 times. He ran for 120 yards in his first bowl game, a loss to Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl.
Williams established a third straight single-season rushing record for Memphis in 2005, with 1,964 yards (topped off by 238 in his college finale, a victory over Akron in the Motor City Bowl). His career total of 6,026 yards made Williams only the fourth running back at college football's highest level to gain 6,000 yards. (The others: Tony Dorsett, Ricky Williams, and Ron Dayne.) For the third consecutive season, Williams was named Conference USA's Offensive Player of the Year, and he earned second-team All-America recognition from the AP. His career totals of 34 100-yard games and 7,573 all-purpose yards were NCAA records.
Former Tiger coach Tommy West had the best view of Williams' heroics and sees the impact his star tailback made as being larger than the game of football. "He was the total package," West says. "I've got my DeAngelo shrine. When he returned a kickoff against the Miami Dolphins, he gave me the ball for Christmas. He's a special person. As special a player as I've ever had. I don't know that I've ever had a player that I felt I was friends with. He'd come bopping in my door, and we'd talk like two grown-ups."
And just how did such a player land in Memphis? "He came here because he wanted to be the guy," West stresses. "He wanted to be something special. If he'd gone to Arkansas, he would have been like someone else. Here, everybody else is always going to be compared with him."
After rushing for a total of 1,218 yards his first two seasons with the NFL's Carolina Panthers, Williams broke out in 2008 with 1,515 yards and a league-leading 20 touchdowns. Having already broken the Panthers' franchise record for career yardage, Williams has gained 1,022 through Sunday, good for sixth in the NFL.
In a city where basketball tends to steer conversation, DeAngelo Williams made football front-page news. It's doubtful we'll see another like him.