Leonard Williams’ untamed mane finally has been freed from underneath his helmet.
He is exhausted, but his boyish smile remains.
The full weight of his 300-pound frame collapses on a metal bench inside the Jets’ chilly indoor fieldhouse, where the images of former franchise greats loom large on the team’s Ring of Honor wall.
As the second-year defensive lineman reflects on his humble beginnings and his transformation from a shy, unsure teen to a rising NFL star, he casually states his objective.
“I want to be remembered for years to come,” Williams, 22, told Newsday.
In Florham Park, New Jersey, of all places, the former first-round pick has found more than just a team. He’s found stability.
Williams, the middle child of five, was born in Bakersfield, California, but moved with his family from one place to the next, with stops in Sacramento, Michigan, Arizona and Daytona Beach, Florida. While he was growing up, money was scarce at times, and there were weeks spent in homeless shelters. But the biggest disruption, Williams said, was the absence of his father.
Clenon L. Williams III currently is serving prison time for several offenses, including burglary and robbery with a deadly weapon, according to the Florida Department of Corrections database. He is scheduled to be released from the Marion Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida, in 2019.
“Sometimes I go through a period where I’m really mad at him for what he did,” said Williams, a former USC star, who later became the top-rated prospect in the 2015 draft and fell to the Jets at No. 6. “I’m mad that he wasn’t a part of me growing up and my whole football career, and even mad at the fact that he hasn’t been able to be in my youngest brother’s life [he’s now 11].
“But then there’s also parts where it’s like, I’ve made mistakes in my life, everyone makes mistakes, so I obviously have to forgive him,” said Williams, who leads the Jets with 6 1⁄2 sacks. “I love him, he’s my dad. It’s just a bunch of mixed emotions. I’m definitely ready for him to get out. The cool thing is, when we do talk, he’s always telling me that he sees everything, he sees me play.”
Leonard Willams was 12 when his father was sentenced to prison.
“The main thing was drug use,” Williams said, adding that he currently talks to his father about once a month or less, though they’ve had periods in which they’ve spoken once or twice a week. “That’s why he ended up doing crazy stuff all the time. Like, one time he was gone for two or three weeks and then we figured out he was in jail.”
Though Williams said his father had “a lot of personal problems, he was still a great dad to us. He would always take me to do anything that I ever wanted as a kid and always take us fishing and outdoors-type stuff.”
Clenon Williams — who, according to his son, played college football for “a little bit, but it was a small school in Texas” — never saw Leonard play in person. “But he was definitely the one who got me into football in the first place,” said Leonard, who has a 3-year-old daughter. “He was a big Cowboys fan and loved DeMarcus Ware, and so that’s why I always wanted to play D-line.”
With his father not around, others helped to fill the void — such as his mother, Aviva Russek, his older brother Nathan, his Uncle Rocky and Daytona Beach Mainland High School coach Scott Wilson, who gave him rides to school just to ensure that Williams would show up to class.
“When he first left, it was like losing a best friend or something like that,” said Williams, admitting that he “acted out” as a result of his father’s absence. “But as the years went by, I knew I had a lot of support from a lot of other people. Coaches helped guide and mold me into who I am today. So I’m thankful for that. Also my mom, she’s a really strong woman.”
Now he finally feels settled.
“It feels great being somewhere stable,” Williams said. “Even though I was at SC for back-to-back years, it still wasn’t stable because we had coaches in and out.
“This is my first time since high school having the same coordinator two years in a row. All my life I’ve been moving all around. I’ve been in multiple states, in and out of different schools.”
It’s already been a long journey from Bakersfield, but Williams won’t rest until he leaves his mark on the game. As he scans the near-empty fieldhouse, he mentions Patriots three-time Super Bowl champion Richard Seymour (to whom draft experts compared him when Williams was coming out of the draft), Giants Hall of Famer Michael Strahan (who set the NFL record for most sacks in a season with 22 1⁄2 in 2001) and Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor (arguably the greatest pass rusher in NFL history).
Williams notes that Jets defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, who won two Super Bowls with Taylor and the Giants, shares memories “all the time” of playing with LT and other NFL greats.
“I just want to be something like that,” Williams said. “Where people can tell stories about me in the future.”