As a sophomore Williams gained only eight yards on seven carries in the biggest win of the Mackovic era, a 37-27 upset of Nebraska in the inaugural Big 12 championship game, yet it was one of the best games of his career. Playing fullback, he blocked All-America ends Jared Tomich and Grant Wistrom viciously all day, providing the time for James Brown to pass for 353 yards.
Off the field Williams developed a maturity that was as strong as his playfulness. He used baseball money to pay his mother's bills when she moved from San Diego to Katy, Texas, and then to Austin. He paid for part of Cassie's tuition at Southeastern Louisiana before she transferred to Texas. Deprived by his baseball obligations of one spring semester and every summer school—the athletes' shortcut to graduation—he has chugged toward a degree in education, but will need three more semesters to graduate after this fall.
In truth there was little reason for him to return for his senior season when, on the morning of Dec. 5, he went to Bellmont Hall to meet with Mack Brown, the former North Carolina coach who would be introduced as Texas's new coach later that day. Williams grilled Brown relentlessly. Who will be the running backs coach? Are we going to play some defense? How quickly can you turn this program around? Brown had few concrete answers. "I was dreadfully honest with him," says Brown. "After the meeting, I thought he was probably leaving."
Williams sought only a reason to stay. "I just didn't want to go 4-7 again," he says. "After meeting with Coach Brown, I thought things might be O.K. This team needs discipline; we had guys out drinking on Thursday nights last year. I told him that. I told him the team needs work. I think we'll be better."
Early returns are encouraging. "This spring is the first time since I've been here that we've been coached," says Williams. "Coach Mackovic's staff, they were like NFL guys. They gave us the game plan and said, 'Play.' Coach Brown is a teacher."
There has been one delicate moment. At a January banquet, Williams met North Carolina All-America defensive back Dre' Bly, who played for Brown. Bly raved about Brown but then pointed to Williams's dreadlocks and said, "He's going to make you cut those.' "
"If he had done that," says Williams, "I was definitely out of here. These [dreads] are part of me." Brown's thinking on such matters is this: Players are expected to groom themselves as if going to a job interview every day. Dreadlocks are out. But the new coach made an exception for the old player. "He's been here three years, I'm still the visitor," Brown says. Former Texas great Earl Campbell, in honor of whom Williams is called Little Earl, has been bugging Williams to cut the dreadlocks for three years. "He told me one day, 'Those people in the stands see you in that haircut, they'll never hire you for a job,' " Williams recalls. "I said, 'I don't plan on working for them.' "
Ahead lies another summer in some minor league backwater yet to be determined. Williams hasn't batted better than .239 in three shortened pro seasons, and last summer he hit just .206 with 44 strikeouts in 136 at bats for the Class A Piedmont (N.C.) Boll Weevils. "He's a project, but if he played just baseball he'd be really good," says former Phillies' general manager Lee Thomas.
The summer will be followed by an autumn that could be extraordinary. He needs 1,928 yards to break the 22-year-old NCAA record of 6,082 career rushing yards, set by Tony Dorsett of Pittsburgh. (Campbell's Texas record of 4,443 will be history by mid-September, after which, says Williams, Campbell becomes Little Ricky.) He needs 20 rushing touchdowns to break Indiana tailback Anthony Thompson's career record of 64, established in '89. Texas promises to get at least a little better.
At sunset on a spring afternoon, Williams stood on the floor of Memorial Stadium, still wearing his orange jersey and full pads from the day's practice. He saw his mother on the sideline and Nisey in a corner of the coliseum. Williams tiptoed to the side of the field, where trainers had dumped crushed ice in a pile, and scooped up a handful. Forming the chunks into a ball, he rushed toward Nisey and heaved the ersatz snowball at her, a boy at play, living his youth for another day and another season.