Its long been said that sportswriters work in journalisms toy department. And
its true. But once in a blue moon, the teams and games we cover deliver an Evel
Knievel Wind-Up Stunt Cycle . . . the kind of toy you cant put down, cant keep
your eyes off, and cant stop talking about. Such was the gift DeAngelo Williams
became upon his arrival in the fall of 2002.
This Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, Williams will be playing for his life as a
college athlete when his Memphis Tigers host the Thundering Herd of Marshall.
Win and the U of M gains bowl eligibility and more than likely a postseason
stage for Williamss sendoff toward his pro career. Lose and Williams falls
immediately under the scope of draft analysts from coast to coast. Either way,
this is the last time the greatest Tiger football player of all time will play
on Memphis soil.
As jaw-dropping as Williamss rushing numbers have been, to be fully appreciated
they must be digested with a dose of historical perspective from the U of M
record book. Before Williams donned his number 20 jersey for the Tigers, the
program had seen exactly two backs gain 1,000 yards in a season, Dave Casinelli
in 1963 and Gerard Arnold in 1998. Williams pulled the trick each of his last
three seasons for Memphis, topping 1,400 yards each time.
Before Williams, the Memphis program 90 years old had witnessed 200 yards
rushing by a player in precisely three games (Casinelli in 1963, Skeeter Gowen
in 1969, and Larry Porter in 1990). Williams has rushed for 200 yards in a game
. . . eight times.
Career numbers? Theres the Williams section of the record book, then everyone
else. If you take Williamss career rushing yardage (5,660 through the Southern
Miss game last weekend, fourth most in NCAA history) and subtract the total of
the next most prolific Tiger running back in history (Dave Casinelli with 2,636
yards), you find that Williams has rushed 1.7 miles(!) more than any other ball
carrier in Memphis history. Calls to mind Secretariat in the 73 Belmont, no?
Best of all, Williams made University of Memphis football relevant again, beyond
the tight circle of the Highland Hundred and the loyal denizens of Liberty Bowl
Memorial Stadium. Surrounded by SEC barking, Williams added bite to what had
been a fairly innocuous Tiger growl. With the help of quarterback Danny Wimprine,
Williams led a program that had played all of two bowl games in 90 years to
back-to-back postseason appearances his sophomore and junior seasons. (A sad
epilogue to the DeAngelo legend will be that he missed the first bowl game with
a knee injury, then broke his leg during a losing cause in the second.)
You want relevance? Williams appeared on the front page above the fold of
the November 12th Wall Street Journal. It was a tiny picture, but this was
University of Memphis football . . . on the front page of the Wall Street
Journal. This aint Chuck Stobarts program anymore.
The irony to that bit of national exposure, of course, is that it came on the
day Williams never left the sideline in the Tigers 20-16 loss to Tennessee in
Knoxville. Who knows what went through the mind of Williams or that of Memphis
coach Tommy West for that matter in what amounts to the single, solitary
blemish (however large or small) on Williamss college career. The guess here is
that it was stage fright in its purest form. When youre used to performing in
front of 40,000 fans, 100,000 orange-clad crazies can be more than a little
disconcerting. Throw a sore ankle into the mix, and youve got the kind of
controversial disappointment the Memphis program has known all too well, even in
its best seasons.
When he takes the field against Marshall, Williams may add to the multivolume
collection of memories Tiger fans will be sharing for generations, and he may
not. As for me, the lasting image of this greatest Tiger of them all wont be a
single performance, no 200-yard game, no 70-yard jaunt to clinch an unexpected
win. No, Ill carry the image of Williams in front of a podium in the Tiger
athletic office building last January, making the announcement every teammate,
booster, coach, administrator, and yes, sportswriter wanted to hear. He was
coming back to school for his senior year. It came down to the NFL versus the
city of Memphis, he said through that Hollywood smile, and Memphis won, hands
down. You want to know the legacy of DeAngelo Williams in Memphis? In a modern
sports world where idolatry comes in far too casual a package, this community
fell in love, helmet over cleats, with an athlete whose star quality only began
when he donned a uniform. And the beauty of DeAngelo Williams? He loved right