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Cut that meat! Cut that meat!
Alas, Peyton Manning isn't here to reprise his commercial catchphrase, but how cool would it be if the Indianapolis Colts All-Pro quarterback were with us now: dining on a pleasant summer night with a man being paid millions to get in Manning's grill. Clogging arteries, Brazilian style, with Mario Williams at Fogo de Ch�o, a trendy Houston churrascaria. Watching in gluttonous wonderment as chefs in white linen descend with sharp knives and giant sides of alcatra (top sirloin), fraldinha (bottom sirloin), costela de porco (pork ribs), frango (chicken) and cordeiro (leg of lamb). It's this last dish, hot and fresh, sliced off the bone, that inspires Williams, the 21-year-old quarterback terrorizer whom the Houston Texans made the No. 1 pick of the 2006 NFL draft, to yield to the restaurant's all-you-can-eat temptations, over and over.
So yes, in more polite terms, Williams keeps telling the cordeiro-toting chef to cut that meat, filling his 6'7", 294-pound frame like a guy who just got voted off Survivor. And though Manning isn't there to appreciate the feast, his presence is felt. For he, if you break it down, is the reason we're here. That Williams, a virtual unknown coming off his junior year at North Carolina State, is now property of the Texans--rather than Reggie Bush, Vince Young or Matt Leinart, the Holy Trinity of draft-eligible college superstars--is largely because of Manning's domination of his AFC South rivals. In their inglorious history the Texans have never defeated Indy, losing eight games by an average margin of 15.5 points.
"If all I was interested in was selling tickets, the first pick would have been Vince Young," Texans owner Bob McNair says of the Houston native who quarterbacked the Texas Longhorns to the 2005 national title. "And our fans would've been thrilled with Reggie Bush. But here's how I look at it: For us to get to the playoffs, we've got to beat Indy. The only way to beat Indy is to put pressure on Manning. If not, he's going to make you chopped liver. Well, Mario will put pressure on Peyton. Ask yourself, with Reggie Bush, would our offense be better than [the Colts'] offense? I'd say no, which means we've got to figure out how to get after Manning defensively."
If McNair and others in his organization seem a bit defensive, they have good reason. Seldom, if ever, has a decision on a No. 1 overall NFL pick been so disparaged. And we're not referring just to talking heads with dorky hairdos or agents with a stake in the outcome. As Houston announced its selection on April 29, both New York City's Radio City Music Hall, where Williams strode to the podium to be the first to shake hands with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and Reliant Stadium, where hundreds of Texans fans gathered on the club level to watch the proceedings, echoed with boos. At draft headquarters in Manhattan, the initial jeers were followed by chants of "overrated"--surreal from Williams's perspective, considering that six months earlier he'd been a frustrated player on an underachieving team who didn't even consider himself a prospective No. 1.
"I'd have laughed if you'd told me I'd go first," Williams says as he gestures for more lamb. "Even at the end it was a shock. I know there's been a lot of talk that it was the wrong move, and I use it all as motivation. I think about that stuff all the time."
On his first day of work, Williams, like anybody thrust into an unfamiliar situation, made conversation by talking about the weather. Only this new employee, having just completed his first training camp practice at the Texans' facility across from Reliant Stadium last Friday, was discussing the stifling Houston heat and humidity with a horde of reporters more than 20 strong. Beads of sweat pouring off his forehead, a small blade of grass resting just below his left eye, Williams sounded like a man who'd grown up at the North Pole rather than in North Carolina. On a cloudy, 90� day with 59% humidity, Williams put up some staggering numbers: 12 mentions of the temperature in the first 13 questions. "And," he conceded at one point, "it's not even as hot as it's probably going to be."
Williams's challenge is to take the heat off the Texans' brass and attempt to justify his unlikely status. All he has to do is be very good, very quickly--and, perhaps equally important, be better than Bush, who went No. 2 overall to the New Orleans Saints. Before being sidelined in June after surgery to remove the smashed nails on both big toes (he had recurring infections from being stepped on), Williams made his presence felt during Houston's off-season workouts and minicamps, routinely showing up at 5:30 a.m. and logging eight-hour days. On the practice field he impressed teammates and coaches with his instincts, ferocity and versatility. He'll have to do much more than that, starting now: The Texans, who are switching to a 4--3 defense, are loaded with speed and potential on the line; they view Williams as the player who can spur the transformation of a defense that ranked 31st in the NFL last season and blew six second-half leads. "He was knocking some guys into the backfield," said new Texans coach Gary Kubiak after watching Williams last Friday. "If you run the ball his way, there is a lot of havoc going on over there, a lot of guys going backwards, and that's what he's here for."
This being the 21st century, plenty of self-proclaimed experts have already decreed that Williams won't be up to the task, that he'll be the NFL's version of Sam Bowie, the player taken just before Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft. The skeptics contend that Williams is a workout warrior who disappears for long stretches. They offer this criticism, of course, from the security of their cubicles and PDAs. "Nobody says anything to my face," notes Williams, spreading his massive arms, as if to add, Who'd want to mess with these? "Everyone I see is like, 'Congratulations.'"
This was especially true once the city of Houston's collective guilt kicked in. It began in early June at a fan-appreciation gathering in Reliant Stadium, where Williams got a 30-second standing ovation from thousands of season-ticket holders and sponsors after being introduced by Kubiak. Two nights later nearly 400 local business and community leaders, including Houston mayor Bill White, attended a reception at which Williams was presented with a white Stetson hat and a gavel. "I already see the sentiment changing," McNair said shortly after the reception. "We've had five people--five, not five thousand--who actually canceled their season tickets after the draft. I tell everyone else, 'When you see Mario play, you'll understand.'"