AS SHORT-TERM accommodations go, it would be tough to find two settings in the U.S. as disparate as the Westin in the heart of New York City and the Comfort Suites situated in the middle of a field in Gadsden, Ala. Yet these contrasting locales were precisely where Ronnie Brown and his former Auburn backfield mate, Carnell (Cadillac) Williams, spent their respective restless nights before rising last Saturday to begin the first day of the rest of their well-compensated lives. Given the two runners' hotel-sheet-tight relationship, it was hardly surprising that Brown, shortly after leaving his plush suite on the Westin's 40th floor to attend a break-fast for the six players invited to the NFL draft, placed a cellphone call to Williams, who was still tossing and turning in his second-floor Comfort suite. "Whassup, you ready?" Brown asked confidently.
"Yeah," Williams replied. "You sound like you're ready."
"What are you doing up so early? You nervous?"
"Draft day, boy-eeeeee," Williams said, conveniently neglecting to mention that he'd never been so tense.
Four and a half hours later, Brown and Williams were back in sync in terms of attitude and latitude. With the Miami Dolphins choosing Brown second overall and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers landing Williams three selections later, the former Auburn Tigers had officially become professional neighbors, not to mention the first collegiate rushing tandem to be taken in the top five of an NFL draft--and soon to be the most highly compensated. Call it Auburn's $30 Million Backfield (the minimum the two players should command in bonus money with their combined rookie deals). "This was definitely meant to be," Williams said later, as a seemingly endless procession of old friends, curious passersby and dubious newfound relatives crashed his family's all-day draft party at the Comfort Suites. "I mean, both of us came back for our last year of college because we enjoyed playing together. Why can't we be in the same state?"
Fifteen months after separately deciding to return for their senior seasons rather than enter the 2004 draft, Brown and Williams were in a state of bliss. On a day that began with the San Francisco 49ers taking Utah quarterback Alex Smith (below) with the first pick and ended with the Denver Broncos gambling on former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett at the end of the third round, the operative phrase was Hold that Tiger. Auburn, despite its 13-0 record in '04, may have been aced out by USC for the national title, but with the Washington Redskins using first-round choices on cornerback Carlos Rogers (ninth) and quarterback Jason Campbell (25th), War Eagle was the undisputed war room darling. Not since Penn State in '95 had one school provided three of the top 10 selections.
It was also a banner day for feature backs: Texas's Cedric Benson, selected fourth by the Chicago Bears, joined the two Auburn runners as the first trio of runners to be picked in the top five of the common draft. "These are the most unselfish guys I've seen in some time," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said on Sunday of Brown and Williams. "It's refreshing to be around them. They could have easily worked against each other and created a bad atmosphere [at Auburn]. But they chose to be team guys."
On Saturday morning, as Williams sat at a Waffle House in Gadsden nervously nibbling on his final meal before finding his NFL home, he recalled the afternoon in January 2004 on which he and Brown informed each other of their plans to remain at Auburn. The shifty Williams, coming off a junior season in which he'd rushed for 1,307 yards and 17 touchdowns, was being projected as an early second-round pick. The more rugged Brown, who had run for just 446 yards on 95 carries, was attracting similar interest. He was close to earning his degree in communications, and with the prospect of having to share time (at best) with Williams, many confidants--including his mother, Joyce, and godmother, Chris Tripp--wanted him to come out.
"I know a lot of folks have been poking at you and poking at me," Williams told Brown as the two sat on a couch in Cadillac's apartment. "But I really do believe if we both were to come back, we'd help each other and also this team. I really think that, in the end, it's a win-win situation." Brown agreed, though the two wanted Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville to hire an offensive coordinator committed to getting the two backs on the field together as much as possible. Enter Al Borges, a former UCLA and Cal offensive coordinator who installed a version of the West Coast offense that allowed both runners to thrive. Last season Williams ran for 1,165 yards and 12 touchdowns, and Brown racked up 913 yards and eight TDs while catching 34 passes for 313 yards and another score.
Williams finished his story and, between bites of cheese grits, answered his cellphone. (Except in the middle of the night, for several days it had not gone more than a couple of minutes without ringing.) After listening for a few seconds he said, "Yes, sir," repeating himself several times before hanging up. "That was the Dolphins," Williams explained, "checking to make sure that I'd be at this number if they pick me. But I think Ronnie's going there."