The Illinois football weight room is nearly empty on a quiet spring morning but for the rows of weight benches, squat racks and fitness machines and the musty smell of old sweat that permeates any gym. Tucked under Memorial Stadium’s north end zone stands, it’s packed with all the fitness equipment one could ever need, yet is large enough to feel spacious. The walls are plastered with inspirational sports cliches and images of Illini past and present. Ashante Williams’ massive biceps are among them, in the northwest corner, near the Illini greats — Juice Williams, Rashard Mendenhall, Red Grange.
“That is Red Grange,” Ashante says when it’s pointed out. “Right up there next to me.”
“It All Starts Here” lines the wall near his arms, which is true for the weight room of any successful football team, but it’s particularly fitting for Ashante. As his bulging biceps suggest, he’s a gym rat. He says he was pound-for-pound the strongest player on the team before he tore both his pectoral muscles more than two years ago.
Today’s training session is a shortened one, about an hour and a half focused on his legs. He has a workout with the Cleveland Browns at the end of the week and he wants his body fresh. But that doesn’t mean a day off.
“I don’t like wasting a day,” Ashante says. “While you’re sleeping or sitting down, the next guy is up working and working real hard to be that much better than you.”
When Ashante works out his legs, he isn’t working out the same muscles most people do. Quadriceps, hamstrings, calves — all of those are already chiseled to perfection on his 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame. He’s fine-tuning the muscles that only a person hoping to make a living off athletics would often use. The tiny muscles that would give him complete control over every inch of his body, pushing it to its maximum potential, training it to compete at the highest level of his sport. His body is his livelihood.
He sets up with an exercise ball and a bosu ball — an exercise ball split into a half-moon, with a hard-plastic flat side to it — before shagging his 2-year-old son, Jayden, from the corner of the weight room he wandered off to. He plops Jayden on a nearby weight bench with a bottle of Minute Maid cranberry apple juice.
Ashante, clad in Illini apparel, alternates from one-legged squats on the bosu ball to squatting with both feet on the exercise ball, controlling his balance in veritable circus fashion. He slips off the exercise ball, just once, and falls flat on his back. Undeterred, he gets back up and continues the routine. His muscles tense under his dark complexion with every rep, his shoulder-length dreadlocks hanging behind his head, tied into a ponytail.
His intensive training program moves from exercise to exercise, muscle to muscle. He pauses only to rest and to remove and replace Jayden’s juice cap upon request.
Jayden, who turns 3 at the end of June, knows the drill. He watches patiently as always, occasionally pouring juice into the cap — but mostly on his blue jeans — and drinking from it like a tiny cup. Memorial Stadium is his second home.
“He’s like a little mascot,” Ashante says, smiling, as he always does when talking about his son.
When Jayden was younger, Ashante would often wake him up in the early hours of the morning, bring him to the stadium, wrap him in a blanket and let him finish sleeping in the Illinois locker room while Ashante got a lift in. On days when his schedule was especially tight, Ashante would bring Jayden to class.
Ashante is preparing for the NFL Draft — 32 teams, seven rounds, 254 picks. He isn’t projected to crack that 254, but he hopes that one team will take a chance on him in the closing rounds or the post-draft free agency period.
“I feel like if I get the opportunity, I’ll capitalize on it,” he says. “It’s not about getting drafted, it’s just about getting an opportunity.”
His reason for putting his body through hell and back every morning is right there, fiddling with the cap to his juice.
Ashante’s path wasn’t always headed toward the NFL. At times, it was hardly headed toward seeing the field at Illinois.
Setback after setback — mostly his own transgressions — kept him on the sideline, souring his rapport with then-head coach Ron Zook.
“It was very shaky,” Ashante said of their relationship. “We didn’t really talk.”
He graduated from high school a semester early to enroll at Illinois for spring ball, but nearly failed out of college. Adjusting to life as a student-athlete coupled with an ambitious course load wasn’t a recipe for academic eligibility. He was forced to redshirt his freshman year rather than carve out a role on the defense.
His troubles didn’t end there. He was suspended for one game in 2009 after testing positive for marijuana. Oversleeping for 6 a.m. workouts, arriving late to practice, bouncing on and off academic probation, missed meetings, it all added up. He had fallen out of favor with the coaches.
“Everybody matures at a different rate,” Zook said. “He got to college, got a little freedom and tested that out a bit.”
“He was probably on his high horse like any good athlete coming out of high school,” said his stepfather, Christopher Williams. “You think the world revolves around you.”
Even when Ashante’s slate had been clean for months, he still watched from the sidelines on Saturdays. He played sparingly, mostly on special teams, making the occasional spot-start for an injured teammate.
“Every little thing I did, Zook would pile up on me and just make it that much harder for me to dig myself out of the hole,” Ashante said. “And it just seemed like every day, I was digging myself in a hole further, and further.”
Feelings of depression set in. He shied away from trips back home to Mayfield, Ohio. He didn’t want to look his parents in the eyes, thinking he was a disappointment. He felt ashamed and alone. Once the star athlete in high school, now he could hardly get on the field.
His teammates’ words rang in his ears — You should be on the field with us, Ashante. We know you’re the best player for the position. — making it all that much harder as the seasons went by.
“All that talent that I had to offer, everything that I had worked for to come to college, it was all just going to go down the drain and nobody was ever going to see the real Ashante Williams,” he said. “I felt like everything I did and everything I touched turned to darkness.”
Midway through the 2011 season, senior defensive back Trulon Henry was moved from safety to play ahead of Ashante at the SAM linebacker position, a position unfamilliar to Henry. Ashante said it could have helped the defense to keep Henry at his natural position and insert Ashante into the lineup.
“They just had me on the sideline standing next to him. ‘Hey, tell him what to do every play,’” he said. “And that was just like a slap in the face, but I understood the consequences of what I did.”
When Henry would make a big play, Ashante couldn’t help but think of what should have been. It wasn’t jealousy; it was feelings of helplessness and lingering frustration. Four years into his career at Illinois and he had yet to make an impact.
“The coaches felt like they couldn’t trust me, and I don’t blame them because it felt like every time they would give me a little leeway, I’d get back in trouble.”
Ashante understood he had abused Zook’s trust, but he started to lose hope he could ever regain it. He was frustrated. It seemed that no matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t clear his name.
His parents offered him an out. Transfer to a different school. Consider a Division-I AA school. But Ashante declined. He was going to stick it out.
Ashante really isn’t one for birthdays. His 21st was set to be a low-key affair. Dinner and a movie. But with one phone call, dinner and a movie became shopping at Wal-Mart for baby supplies.
A woman from his recent past surprised him with a request for child support. She thought he might be the father to her 8-month-old son, Jayden. Ashante took a paternity test the day after she contacted him. The results came in on his birthday, Feb. 15, 2011.
All the responsibilities of fatherhood hit him at once. Nine months were condensed into 72 hours. Ashante’s mom transferred money into his account and he dropped $300 at Wal-Mart. As he waited in the checkout line, his cart stuffed with Pampers and formula, he shook his head in disbelief.
“I couldn’t believe I was a father.”
Jayden was dropped off the next day, and father and son have been together since. He and his girlfriend, ChrisDell Harris, whom Jayden now calls mommy, plunged immediately into parenthood.
Ashante’s thoughts kept going back to his own mother, Andrekia Williams, who had him at age 16. The odds were against her, but she battled her way to being the first person in her family to graduate from high school and is now a consultant making over six figures with two master’s degrees.
“All I could think about is what my mom was doing when I was younger, and that was fight,” he said. “Even if we were struggling, she didn’t let me see her struggle. All I could think of in the back of my head was fight.”
Ashante’s biological father isn’t part of his life. They met once, when Ashante was in middle school. He brought Ashante the latest copy of “MLB: The Show.” They talked for an hour or two and left it at that.
“I know who he is, but I don’t know who he is,” Ashante said.
He’s open to a relationship — he’d love to meet the five half-siblings who live with his biological father — but doesn’t require one. His stepfather, Christopher Williams, filled that need. He adopted Ashante and his brother Amare, and they eventually took his last name.
Christopher Williams ensured that Ashante would have a father growing up, and Ashante is determined to do the same for Jayden. He refuses to go down the same path as his biological father.
“I don’t hold it against him because I don’t know what he went through, what separated him from me,” Ashante said. “I just know that I want to be in my son’s life.”
A hot summer night in July 2011 had Ashante, ChrisDell, a friend and his girlfriend indoors for a movie night. Ashante, five months into parenthood, wasn’t really one to go out anymore. He had been there, done that.
He had two margaritas. After two or three movies, his friends were ready to go home. They had been drinking too. Ashante suggested they spend the night to avoid driving under the influence. An argument ensued, and Ashante, hoping to keep it from escalating to the point of waking a sleeping Jayden in the next room, offered to drive them home himself. He didn’t feel drunk, and they didn’t live far.
His gas tank nearly empty, he pulled into the corner gas station. A police squad car soon followed. As Ashante pulled out, so did the officer. Ashante nervously and cautiously continued down the road, stopping at every stop sign — complete, not rolling stops — peering into his rearview mirror every so often as they traveled, block after block of a drive that suddenly felt much longer.
He finally reached his friends’ street, flipped the right turn signal on and glanced back at the cop in his mirror. Lights and sirens followed and Ashante was slapped with tickets for improper lane usage, speeding and driving under the influence.
He still doesn’t know what prompted the officer to pull him over. He didn’t think he was speeding and was ticketed for illegal lane usage on a one-lane road. Wearing a white tank top, athletic shorts and flip-flops, he was told he initially arose suspicion for fitting the description of a suspect. It wasn’t until a few hours later at the police station that he was read his Miranda rights and given a Breathalyzer test — his BAC was registered at 0.177.
He thought his football career was over. He had turned over a new leaf and kept his slate clean as a new father. Camp Rantoul was less than two weeks away and this was his season to shine.
But trouble followed him like an unwanted shadow.
“I couldn’t get away from it.”
Zook suspended Ashante for two months. He missed summer camp in Rantoul. He couldn’t work out at Memorial Stadium, couldn’t be around the team for practice. It continued into the season where he dressed for the first three games but didn’t play.
Ashante was never convicted of his DUI, but it didn’t matter. News spread quickly. The damage to his reputation was done. He couldn’t fall back into feelings of depression this time, though. Accountability was no longer optional; a 1-year-old at home demanded it.
“All of a sudden it wasn’t about him, it was about somebody else,” Zook said. “Here he is trying to raise a young man and go to school and play football. He had a lot on his plate, and I don’t think there’s any question in my mind that it did make a difference. He grew up quickly.”
Ashante had filed for full custody of Jayden on March 30, 2011, soon after he arrived on his doorstep. On Jan. 17, 2012, he finally had it. Jayden’s biological mother has supervised visitation every weekend but rarely uses it, Ashante said.
“He definitely puts it all in perspective,” Ashante said. “I want him to be able to look back and say his dad did something with his life.”
Jayden got him out of the rut, but as far as football was concerned, he was still stranded deep in the hole he dug himself.
Ashante needed a fresh beginning and got exactly that after the 2011 season. Zook was fired and Tim Beckman was hired.
“I told him, ‘I don’t care about your past; this is now and forward,’” Beckman said.
Jayden got Ashante’s life back on track, and Beckman cleared his slate. He was never late, never absent. Beckman lauded his work ethic and leadership. He rarely drinks anymore. And if he does, he has the phone number for a taxi service programmed into his phone.
“You won’t catch me in that situation again.”
Beckman, Zook, it didn’t matter. Ashante just needed a fresh start. And he wasn’t going to get that from a coach he disappointed time after time.
“If the roles had been reversed,” his stepfather told him, “if Coach Beckman would have got you as a freshman and Zook got you when you were a senior, you would have thought Zook was the best thing since sliced bread.
“It wasn’t those two. It was you.”
In the 2012 season opener, Western Michigan lined up with a three-receiver set, two to the left and one to the right. Quarterback Alex Carder waited in shotgun with a halfback to his right.
The Illini defense disguised its man coverage, lining up with the illusion of zone. The center snapped the ball; Carder dropped back — three steps, just like Ashante and his stepfather had seen on film.
Christopher Williams was in town for the month, helping take care of Jayden as Ashante prepared for his first season as a full-time starter. Christopher and Jayden would make their way to Memorial Stadium for an hour or two of film study after Ashante finished practice.
It was there they spotted Carder’s gunslinger tendencies.
“Some quarterbacks just think no matter how tight the window is that they can just get the ball in there,” said Christopher, a former college football player himself.
Carder looked center, then left and fired the ball into his receiver, who cut back toward the ball just beyond the first down marker, a timing route.
Ashante jumped the route and the ball was right there. He caught it and stumbled, his momentum propelling him forward. He regained his balance and streaked 60 yards to the end zone along the visitor’s sideline, where Jayden and the rest of his family were watching from the stands.
“It made me believe in myself again,” Ashante said. “It just was a huge weight off my shoulders knowing that I could still play.”
Ashante became the full-time starter at the hybrid linebacker/safety STAR position and started on three of four special teams. He finished second on the team in tackles with 78, logging close to 1,000 plays in 12 games, the most on the team, hardly leaving the field except for the occasional sip of water and a few plays off for a minor shoulder injury.
If it weren’t for this season, Ashante would be unknown. NFL scouts from the Chiefs and Ravens wouldn’t have stayed nearly an hour longer at Illinois’ Pro Day to issue him aptitude tests. The Eagles, Dolphins, Broncos, Rams, Colts and Texans wouldn’t have called him. The New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns wouldn’t have worked him out.
“It started here. It might not have been a smooth ride, but in my heart, I know I fought like no other,” he said. “And I feel like in the end, that’s all going to pay off.”
A dejected atmosphere engulfed the linebacker’s room, used for postgame player interviews. Indiana, then the worst team in the Big Ten, had just trounced the Illini 31-17 on their home field. The Illini were 2-6 and wouldn’t win another game all season.
The lingering members of the Illinois media contingent had run out of questions, and the players had run out of answers.
“I’ve never been through this before,” remarked a disheartened Ashante to a small group of reporters. His responses were curt but earnest. The blowout losses were piling up.
But his mood shifted on a dime when asked about his son. Ashante lit up, all traces of the loss vanishing from his face.
“At the end of the day, I still have this little boy at home that looks up to me,” Ashante said. “And no matter what I do, he still runs up to me, smiling, talking about Da-da.”
The NFL Draft may come and go without mention of Ashante Williams. All he wants is an opportunity, just one chance to show his talent. He’s hoping one team will see in him what he’s always known is there.
A minimum salary of about $400,000 that only increases each year he remains in the league would mean a better life for his son. Even if he doesn’t make it through final cuts, practice squad players haul in roughly $100,000.
Just over a week before the draft, Ashante received a letter from an NFL general manager inviting him to training camp. No matter what happens during or after the draft, he has at least one opportunity. And if you ask him, one opportunity is all he needs.
He shared a teary-eyed conversation with his mother the next day. They discussed his past, his failures, his successes. He thanked her for teaching him how to fight, how to keep on. All the emotions of five years at Illinois came out at once.
“You made it hard for yourself, but you’re definitely going to get an opportunity,” she told him. “From where we started to where we are now, that’s just phenomenal.”
Ashante Williams is chasing his dream, and even if he doesn’t reach it, he’ll always have a little mascot cheering him on.
Chad can be reached at email@example.com and @cthornburg10.