SI Vault
 
Question Number 1
MICHAEL SILVER
August 07, 2006
The Texans shocked the NFL world when they drafted Mario Williams first overall. Now, as training camps open, the heat is on the rookie to prove he's worth it
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 07, 2006

Question Number 1

The Texans shocked the NFL world when they drafted Mario Williams first overall. Now, as training camps open, the heat is on the rookie to prove he's worth it

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3

That formality hasn't stopped two traditionally active groups of supporters--distant relatives and prospective romantic interests--from jumping on the bandwagon (or gravy train, depending upon one's perspective). "I knew the family tree," says Williams's mother, Mary, "but now it's like, Who did you say you were?" As for his growing legion of female admirers, Mario says he can no longer navigate smoothly through the online social networks MySpace and Facebook without receiving offers of "like everything, whatever, wherever. It's crazy."

Odds are Williams will make a woman very happy someday, what with the clean-freak sensibilities first noticed by his mother. "I'd come home from work and he'd be vacuuming the house," she says. "That probably started when he was eight." Last year Williams was housemates with N.C. State defensive tackle John McCargo, selected 26th overall by the Buffalo Bills. "Mario wants everything spotless," McCargo says. "If there was an unwashed dish in the sink or a piece of paper on the floor, he'd be crying like a little girl. It got so bad at one point that he wouldn't use the kitchen; he started throwing away dishes that had been in the sink for too long."

In March 2003 Williams considered discarding his football dreams. Two months after he'd arrived in Raleigh--having graduated a semester early from Richlands ( N.C.) High-- Williams was called into coach Chuck Amato's office after spring practice for some awful news: Williams's brother-in-law, Marine Sgt. Nicolas Hodson, had been killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq four days into the war. Mario's older sister, Michelon Hodson, was left widowed with a 15-month-old son, Marius; she was five months pregnant with a second son, whom she would name Nicolas.

On the two-hour drive back to rural Richlands (pop. 928), the college freshman whose childhood nickname was Buddha thought hard about the tragedy. When he got to his grandmother's house he told his grieving sister that he would quit football and get a job to help support her and the children; she told him to stay in school and that she'd find a way to make it work.

Williams returned to N.C. State and thrived. He earned a starting defensive-end job as a freshman and was named All-ACC as a sophomore. Midway through his junior season, however, he and his team were foundering. He had just one sack and was not in the starting lineup for an Oct. 22 game against Wake Forest. Williams responded by coming off the bench to make three sacks and 3 1/2 tackles for loss against the Demon Deacons. He finished the '05 season with 14 sacks and 27 1/2 tackles for loss. Though Williams insists he "played the same way all year," Kubiak concedes that "there were people who said he didn't play at the same speed all the time. It's our job as coaches to make sure he does."

The Wolfpack, after losing to Wake to fall to 2--4, won five of its final six games, the last a 14--0 shutout of South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on New Year's Eve. The next day the Texans fell in overtime to the San Francisco 49ers, dropping to a league-worst 2--14 in a regular-season finale dubbed the Bush Bowl, so certain was the USC running back's status as the top overall pick. Young's heroics in the BCS title against USC made him a potential threat to usurp Bush, but even after Williams's impressive showing at the February scouting combine (4.70 in the 40-yard dash, 35 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press, a 40 1/2-inch vertical leap), few considered him a possible No. 1. When he visited Houston on April 10, it was widely viewed as a ploy by the Texans to force Bush's asking price down. The team later began discussing contract terms with agents for both players.

Then, two nights before the draft, Williams was visiting a New York City children's hospital with Bush and other top prospects when his cellphone lit up with a message from his agent, Ben Dogra: We've got to talk. "I knew something was up," Williams recalls. "It sounded like something really bad." It wasn't. Williams was about to join Bruce Smith (1985) and Courtney Brown (2000) as the only defensive ends taken first overall in the last 30 years.

It's not completely clear what role, if any, finances played in the Texans' decision. According to two sources familiar with the negotiations, Bush's agent, Joel Segal, had agreed in principle to a six-year, $54 million total package but was asking for $30 million as a signing bonus; Williams, by contrast, accepted a similar overall deal with $26.5 million in guaranteed money. There was also the late-breaking report by Yahoo Sports that Bush's family had lived in a home owned by a man with ties to a sports-marketing company. Charley Casserly, who resigned as the Texans' general manager shortly after the draft, insists that the team's choice of Williams was strictly a football decision. "In a normal year, if only one of them was there, it wouldn't have even been a decision--either guy would have been an obvious Number 1," Casserly says. "There was no question in my mind we could have signed Reggie Bush if we'd chosen to draft him. But with the switch to the 4--3, Gary Kubiak and I both decided Mario was the best fit for our team."

For all the pressure Williams faces by virtue of his draft position--no matter how good he is, will Bush or Young be better?--his mandate is a blessedly simple one: Get to the quarterback. If he does that, everything will fall into place. Or, as a man who approaches his table at Fogo de Ch�o puts it, "I hope you get lots of sacks, and I hope you kick butt this year." After asking Williams to pose for a photo, the balding fan with the gray goatee adds, "I know you will. Congratulations, and welcome to the Texans."

Having finally shooed away the last of the meat-slicing chefs, Williams stares at a dessert menu with accompanying drink selections. The Louis XIII cognac stops him, and he summons the waiter and asks, "Two hundred and thirty dollars? Is that for the whole bottle?" No, the waiter answers, that's the price of a single shot. Williams shakes his head in wonderment. The waiter, who by now has figured out he has a celebrity in the house, asks Williams if he'd like a "little taste." Williams nods eagerly, and a minute later he is brought a shot glass filled nearly to the top. Williams smiles. So this is how the game is played.

Continue Story
1 2 3