Danine Collins had never seen her son get injured in a football game.
All the Saturday morning Pop Warner games, the middle school games, the Friday nights at White Oak High School and the Saturday afternoons at Kenan Stadium — never had she seen Deunta Williams injured.
He was down on LP Field in December’s Music City Bowl, but Collins believed her boy would get up just like every other time. Then, he banged his hands on the field and fear gripped his mother.
She didn’t watch the trainers tend to her son. Instead she grouped together with family among the thousands of Tennessee fans and prayed in the stands.
Collins had to see her son. The senior safety, who had already served a four-game suspension and was a few months away from this week’s NFL Draft, had been carted off the field. He underwent X-rays on his ankle after his foot was turned to the 7 o’clock position just 10 minutes into the first quarter of the bowl game.
To Deunta’s mother, it seemed like three hours to weave through security and finally get to her son, who was sitting on the trainer’s table and looked up at his mother when she entered the room.
“I’m OK,” Williams told her. “It’s in God’s hands.”
She knew everything was going to be all right.
September 4, 2010
It was the biggest game since head coach Butch Davis arrived in Chapel Hill in 2006.
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game was UNC’s chance to show the nation during prime time that it was a national championship contender. The Tar Heel defense was touted as one of the best in the nation, and Williams was one of four members of the defense whom ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said was one of the top five returning seniors at his position.
But two nights before the game, the Tar Heels found out they would be playing without Williams and 12 others following the NCAA investigation into possible improper relations with agents along with the University’s probe into academic misconduct.
After Thursday’s team meeting, Davis asked all the players who were in doubt of participating to stay afterward.
“It was three different groups of guys: Guys that definitely weren’t going to play, guys that were kind of in the middle — that’s where I was kind of at — and guys that probably are going to play,” Williams said.
Williams had not been suspended yet, but he was held out of the game for precautionary reasons. Had he played and later been ruled ineligible, North Carolina would have been stripped of the potential win. But UNC lost 30-24 despite the best efforts of quarterback T.J. Yates and the other Tar Heels who were thrust into starting roles.
“It would have been another opportunity to showcase to the world how good we were going to be,” Williams said.
“If we would have had all our horses, it probably would have gotten ugly.”
When investigators came to Chapel Hill, they questioned several Tar Heel horses, including Williams, Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn and Greg Little.
The latter three eventually were removed from the team for violating rules on agent benefits, preferential treatment and ethical conduct. Williams knew telling the truth was paramount to getting a light sentence from the NCAA.
“I did not think I was breaking any rules, so that’s why I was so honest with everything,” Williams said. “They asked a lot of questions about the other guys and I didn’t have any answers for them. It was tough because they put you in a bad position to snitch on your friends like that. But fortunately, they weren’t telling me stories. I would hear little stuff, but I couldn’t confirm that was true and I never asked.”
The ruling was frustrating for Williams because he felt he was innocent of any wrongdoing. For what he would later call actions that were “innocent” and “pure,” Williams would have to sit out the first four games of the season.
“It was difficult, but like I tell Deunta, nothing happens unless the Lord allows it,” Williams’ mom said. “You have to look at the picture and say, ‘OK he’s not on the field, but eventually he’ll be on the field.’”
October 9, 2010
“Anyone who knows Deunta knows that he is a man of integrity, so at any point if he thought it would have come to this point or even a suspicion, he wouldn’t have done it,” Collins said.
A couple of trips to California and some drink tabs cost Williams a third of his senior season, but he was ready to get back to Saturdays on the field at Kenan Stadium. The Clemson Tigers were his first victims.
Williams didn’t want to get too high on excitement and at some points had to calm himself down. The NCAA had kept him away from the field for too long, in his opinion, and he was ready to get back to form.
Former UNC player Omar Brown had welcomed Williams and Kendric Burney to California the previous two summers. The NCAA said Williams received $1,426 in extra benefits from Brown, but Williams upholds the investigators didn’t count it correctly.
Williams said he and Burney split the hotel costs while Williams paid for everything that he did. Brown would swipe his card for the hotel and the occasional drink with the two players paying him back, he said, but the NCAA saw it differently.
“He bought me and K.B. a drink, but we bought drinks for him the other night, so it kind of equaled out,” Williams said. “But at the same time I did not pay him the money back for that drink because I paid for drinks for him the other night.”
Four games he had to sit on the bench. But Collins told her son not to waste his emotions on something he couldn’t control. She would tell him man doesn’t dictate his destiny, God does.
So when he got back to competition, Williams took his emotions out on Tiger running back Jamie Harper at the end of the first quarter. Williams timed the play perfectly and blitzed off the edge in a cover-2 defense, leapt for Harper and tackled him for a one-yard loss.
He was back in action and ready for the final seven games of the season. He had no regrets for his actions because he felt he was clean. And he was smart enough to avoid temptations and not get himself into even more trouble.
“I got invited to Miami probably 10 times since I decided to come back,” Williams said. “I would just tell them ‘no.’ I don’t want to get down with that, I want to keep my hands clean and worry about that when the time comes.”
December 30, 2010
Much like two and a half months earlier, Williams had to keep calm.
He touched down in Nashville and reflected on his four seasons at North Carolina — his ACC defensive rookie of the year award, his six interceptions his junior year and everything that had transpired in the past season. Now he stood four quarters away from the end of his college career and the next chapter in his life.
Williams had gotten into the zone just 10 minutes into the game and knew where Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray was going to throw the ball. The UNC defense was playing a cover 3, and Williams started moving toward the intended target as the ball was snapped.
Bray went to his empty check, a short pass to tight end Luke Stocker, and Williams collapsed on him. But Williams couldn’t get his right foot planted correctly on LP Field, and it slid underneath his leg and turned 210 degrees to the 7 o’clock position.
As Williams rolled on his back, linebacker Kevin Reddick recognized his teammate’s situation and quickly grabbed Williams’ foot and turned it back to its regular position.
“He hit my foot trying to stabilize because my foot was hanging to the side,” Williams said. “And I appreciate him for doing that because by the time (trainer) Scott (Trulock) and them came on the field, I had all the feeling back in my leg. So it would have been extremely painful for them to do that to me.”
Williams yelled out twice before falling quiet. He knew “football’s a man’s game,” and he couldn’t be out there “screaming like a little child.” Meanwhile, his teammates watched the replay on the big screen.
“To see a senior and a leader and an extraordinarily good player that was going to help us in a game like that go down, I know everybody was feeling for him,” Yates said. “It was a pretty nasty injury, so it shook people up.”
The trainers put a splint on his leg and helped him onto the back of a John Deere Gator. Members of UNC’s secondary approached him to offer words of encouragement, but Williams had no time to be down on himself.
“I was telling them to watch out for this or that — that’s what I was trying to do,” Williams said. “I’m trying to make sure we would win this game.”
After one of the wildest finishes in the bowl season was complete, the Tar Heels walked away with a 30-27 victory and went back to the locker room, where they greeted Williams with his championship hat and T-shirt along with several hugs.
Davis explained to the media that it was a minor fracture of the fibula, but “the good news is it’s something that’s going to be fixable.”
Williams had a long recovery ahead of him, but just how long depended on his faith and his will.
March 31, 2011
Nearly three months to the day since Williams suffered his injury, UNC held its Pro Day in front of hundreds of NFL scouts. He sat in the bleachers for support, hiding his disappointment of not being on the field.
Weight rooms, pools and treadmills had been Williams’ life during his rehab process. His main focus was regaining flexibility and strength in his ankle and he used calf raises and ankle bounces to get that back.
Williams would backpedal on the treadmill using a special vest that lifts some of his body weight, making him lighter on his feet when he runs and putting less pressure on his ankle. He spent four days a week in the weight room because he didn’t want to lose his upper-body size. At Pro Day, his arms were measured at 32 3/8 inches.
“When that injury happened, it hurt me so bad. He’s a warrior and he’s going to keep his head up and always be on the positive side, so I just wish the best for him,” Burney said at Pro Day. “And I’m sure when he comes back and able to do the things he do, it’s going to be remarkable.”
Earlier in the month Williams went to Indianapolis for the NFL Combine. He watched the other top safeties compete in front of scouts and got sick to his stomach. Williams didn’t throw up, but he had to leave the event early.
“I was watching these guys competing, and I know my numbers in the back of my head,” Williams said, “so it was kind of tough just to sit back and watch, knowing you can do better than that and everyone would be in awe of what you do.”
He turned to his Bible and began reading the Book of Job. He read about Job’s tribulations, how he lost every possession and every loved one, but remained faithful to God. From the book, Williams drew wisdom.
“God started asking Job, ‘Were you there when I taught the clouds how to be in the sky or taught the sun how to set and how to rise again?’” Williams said. “So when I looked at that, it kind of makes you think, ‘Well who am I to question God’s will for my life?’”
April 15, 2011
Just a day before, Williams had surgery to remove the screw in his foot. But rather than taking the pin out of his foot, doctors had to take out pieces of it.
“My screw broke a little bit earlier than they thought it was going to break, but that can just be attributed to my healing going a little bit better,” he said.
He walks around his apartment, barefoot on his left foot with his right wrapped tightly with a blue sock covering the bandages. He has to keep his foot propped up, so he sits on his bed with his back supported by the wall. He said he’ll be back to 100 percent by June 1.
Williams has plenty of faith, both in God and in himself. He believes God will take care of him, and he also believes he’ll be selected in the second or third round of this week’s NFL draft.
His mother is in the next room with a box of Mexican food as her son’s lunch. Collins drives to Chapel Hill from Jacksonville about once a week, or so often that her car “knows the way here by itself.”
She’s been preparing herself for draft night and all the emotions that will come. She’s trying to stay calm, but she’s already poured through online NFL stores shopping for what apparel she wants when his name is announced.
“I know I’m going to be crying and thanking Jesus,” Collins said. “I really can’t imagine, but I will be so happy for Deunta because this period has been a trying experience. I know everyday wasn’t a good day, but Deunta always stayed positive.”
Williams watched his injury a few times after it happened, but since his rehabilitation started he said he hasn’t watched it since then. He’s moved on from the injury, and he feels NFL teams should as well.
“This is really how I feel: If a team passes up on me because of my injury now, then they lost out. They missed out,” Williams said.
“And that’ll be something I use as fuel when I play them.”
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