FROM MY SEAT: Special D 

For a community to love a star athlete is one thing; to be loved right back is priceless.

It’s long been said that sportswriters work in journalism’s toy department. And it’s 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 can’t put down, can’t keep your eyes off, and can’t 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 Williams’s 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 Williams’s 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? There’s the Williams section of the record book, then everyone else. If you take Williams’s 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 ain’t Chuck Stobart’s 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 Williams’s college career. The guess here is that it was stage fright in its purest form. When you’re 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 you’ve 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 won’t be a single performance, no 200-yard game, no 70-yard jaunt to clinch an unexpected win. No, I’ll 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 back.

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