The expectation is to drink. And drink. And drink some more through a hazy Arizona weekend.
Jamaal Williams is free, damn it.
Let’s get this dance-at-any-moment, Instagramming free spirit some shots on the company.
That’s the plan.
Lord knows he deserves to let loose after the five years he just had at BYU.
Williams chose the school even though he isn’t Mormon. He signed its “Honor Code” and became part of its miniscule black population. He endured the endless double takes—classmates making eye contact, looking away, then slowly turning back to hold a stare for one…two…three seconds. He was once suspended for—gasp!—underage drinking, and he was once exiled for a full season for—the horror!—having sex.
In spite of it all, he became the school’s all-time leading rusher. But most days, he felt like he was living on another planet.
Now, in the weeks leading up to hearing his name called in the NFL draft, he can play by his own rules. Hallelujah!
“The Henry” off Camelback Road is the perfect place to start this Friday night with dinner and drinks. Williams walks into the restaurant donning a sparkling “GUCCI” shirt with leather patches covering the shoulders and a gold necklace around his neck. Only he’s not alone. His uncle and trainer, Luke Neal, arrives with him.
We slide into a booth, and the waitress insists Williams try one of the 15 cocktails.
He looks confused.
“What’s a cocktail?” he asks. “Does it have like shrimp in it?”
Not quite. He contemplates.
“Do you have anything with strawberry? Can you put some Sprite in it?”
He’s talked into a vodka and pulp, and I roll with the Ole Kentucky. Moments later, out of the corner of his eye, Williams spots an inebriated middle-aged woman stumbling toward the restroom with arms over friends in Kellen Winslow-like glory. “She’s lit!” he howls, pretending to shoot a bow and arrow. “She’s lit!”
Then our drinks arrive, and something strange happens.
Over the next three hours, Williams takes one-and-a-half sips of his. He hates it. In fact, outside of the occasional drink with Mom at Red Robin, he says he doesn’t drink alcohol much at all. “Doesn’t taste good!” Nor does he rage until 3 a.m. “I’ll take video games over drinking and girls any day.” To him, the whole game is exhausting. He and his friends talk big, but he’d rather dance in his compression shorts, at home, alone, than waste all night on the prowl.
Here at The Henry, there’s a row of gorgeous women at the bar. Williams ignores them all.
The only person he cares about in Scottsdale is the man sitting to his left.
Indeed, three days in the desert with Williams and Neal will reveal a more profound discovery than the liberation I expected to witness.
While it’s true Williams is a free man now, he already has adopted a new code to put edges around that freedom. He traded in BYU’s Honor Code for the Luke Neal Code.
He’s put his fate—his NFL future—in his uncle’s hands.
Why? Because when Williams was on the brink, when he lost faith in everyone around him and his football career was on death row, this is the man who saved him.
This is the man who became dead set on molding Williams into the next Walter Payton.
That’s the bar. Payton.
The name comes up often around Williams and Neal. Both use it and do not flinch. When it’s 120 degrees out and Williams is attacking the “Thrill Hill,” it’s to become the next Payton. When Neal is telling the stories that explain his view of the world, the starting point is Payton.
He gets emotional at dinner as he thinks back to a summer day in Illinois. He was 16. It was 1986. Through a program for at-risk youths, he met his hero, Walter Payton. The two talked football, life, raced to the top of the running back’s legendary hill, and Neal actually beat him. “You’re pretty fast, kid,” Payton told him, “but we have 10 more of these.” Come again? Payton then toasted Neal, and the message was clear: Life, like football, is not a sprint.
Williams hears it all day every day.
He hears plenty of other made-for-HBO survival stories, too. The ones that aren’t so neat and clean.
He hears about the night Neal’s best friend, “Frog,” literally blew his own brains out. And what it’s like to grow up as the son of a prostitute. And about the many nights Neal was beaten mercilessly by his own uncle. And about the time Neal was knocked unconscious and ordered his own cousin to be killed.
He hears about the time he tried to commit suicide. And about the 13 years of therapy.
Williams hears it all.
Through all the bad memories, one good memory prevailed. Payton.
And 30 years after that meeting, Neal was given a chance to mold his own version of his hero.
When Williams was forced to take the 2015 season off from BYU after violating the Honor Code, he moved in with Neal and his life changed.
“It’s so easy to define athletes and non-athletes,” Neal says, “but it’s hard to define a human being and what the human being stands for and what the human being will do for another human being. For me, it was that Walter Payton effect. He didn’t have to take the time out for me, but he did. At 16 years old, I didn’t understand the impact then as I understand it at 48 years now. It defined who he was as a person.”
So uncle always repeats the same message to nephew: I can see your future in a gold ball. I can tell you what you’re going to do.
And these three days become everything I do not expect.
It’s a marathon of sweat, horror stories and more sweat.
“If he can be successful in the worst possible scenarios,” Neal says, “how successful can he be in the best possible scenarios?”
Williams only takes two bites of his hamburger at dinner, probably because a night out isn’t built into his routine. Neal cooks him seven meals a day. At the booth, Williams gnaws apart a toothpick, leaving the pieces in a small pile atop his to-go box.
“He was there when I was at my lowest,” Williams says. “He came when I was at my lowest. I didn’t have any guidance or nothing. … And since I had him at my lowest, I’m going to keep him at my highest. Those are the ones you keep in your circle, especially when people are looking down on you or they think you won’t come back from something.”
So tomorrow, at 11 a.m., we’re heading to the “Thrill Hill.”
Neal’s energy is inspiring, yet demanding. Part Tony Robbins, part Russell Westbrook. As he speaks—fast, always fast—his eyes grow saucer-wide, he rubs his hands together, and then he leans forward.
“Are you going to run, too?” he asks.
Williams takes one look at the two empty Ole Kentuckys across the table.
“If so,” Williams chuckles, “maybe 12 o’clock.”