Hamilton Tiger Cats

Chris Williams - Receiver/Returner - 2011-12 - New Mexico State

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Arden Zwelling - Sportsnet Magazine - 12-11-2012

The more you talk to Chris Williams, the more you realize he’s just making this all up as he goes along. There is no plan. There was no meticulously outlined progression of steps to take him from small-town New Mexico to pro football. No hours upon hours spent honing skills in his backyard while the other boys were killing time and chasing girls. No scouts or coaches who took Williams under their wings and promised to work their connections to get him to the sport’s promised land. It’s just like when he returns a punt. He looks up, sees what’s in front of him and tries to go as far as he can. Dashing toward the other side.


That’s how a state track champion who never even played receiver until he got to college—at New Mexico State where he shattered every receiving record the school had, by the way—can end up here, sitting on a picnic bench under the stands of an 84-year-old football stadium in the heart of a southwestern Ontario industrial town where either you’re drinking Tim Hortons or you’re visiting. Swatting away the yellow jacket wasps that infest Ivor Wynne Stadium for much of the summer, Williams can’t quite believe it either. Hamilton is a long way from home. “It’s crazy but everything happens for a reason, man,” Williams says. “To call this my job is truly unbelievable.”


That word is used a lot when people talk about what Williams has done for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats this year, just his second as a CFL receiver and punt returner. If you’ve seen the highlights, you know “unbelievable” is sometimes the only word that describes it. Williams had two punt return touchdowns in the Ti-Cats’ first three games and broke the CFL record for touchdown returns at the season’s halfway point when he took a punt back 82 yards against the Argonauts for his sixth. By week 12 there had been 11 return touchdowns across the league and Williams had more than half of them. But what makes Williams even more exceptional is that he’s also Hamilton’s primary receiving target, catching more passes and racking up more yardage than both Andy Fantuz and Sam Giguère, prized off-season additions who were thought to be ahead of him on the depth chart. Williams is third in the CFL in receiving yardage and touchdowns, with the league’s second-best yards-per-reception average among receivers with at least 30 catches.


But those are just numbers. With Williams, you’ve really got to see it. There is a moment in every one of his returns—every spinning, cutting, scrambling tear—when it looks like he’s the only guy moving. Everyone else becomes a tableau as a yellow and black blur whizzes past, as if all those yellow jackets came together in unison to carry a football. Williams says he doesn’t think when he’s returning, shutting down his brain and relying on his instincts to carry him to safety. “I can’t say this is what made me do this, this is what made me do that,” Williams says. “I just feel it.” Whatever it is in his being that’s working the controls, it’s got a pretty good idea how to move a football. Williams is rarely ever touched on his returns, like the record-setting one against Toronto in early September. Argonauts kicker Swayze Waters punted from his own 25 yard line, hanging it up there for more than five seconds to give his teammates a chance at getting close to Williams. Didn’t matter; Williams caught the ball on the Ti-Cats’ 27, took two steps to his right and like lightning he was gone, swivelling through a pair of Argos who never got a hand on him and sprinting down the sideline. By the time he hit Toronto’s 25, the three Argos pursuing him simply gave up. Nodding his head and thumping his chest as he pumped the brakes in the end zone, he had to wait around to celebrate because even his teammates were struggling to keep up with him.


So—as is the question with every supremely talented American football player who ends up playing in the CFL, earning less than a high school teacher, instead of in the NFL where the lowest-paid player will make a cool $390,000 this season—why is he here? Well, in Williams’s case, it’s not for lack of ability or exposure or opportunity. It’s just another cruel twist of football fate. After setting pretty much every track and football record in New Mexico, both in high school and at New Mexico State, and after posting a 4.28-second 40-yard dash and a 42-inch vertical at his pro day, Williams was not one of the five players with his last name selected in the 2009 NFL draft. Part of the reason for the snub is no doubt because Williams is very, very small. Not football small, which often sees men of nearly six feet and 200 lb. labelled as undersized, but normal-dude small. We’re talking about a guy listed in the Ti-Cats press guide at five-foot-nine, 155 lb. That’s how they listed him. So go ahead and chop an inch or two off that inventory and anywhere from five to 10 pounds as well. Just seeing him practise at Ivor Wynne, standing next to a lineman or six-foot-five quarterback Quinton Porter, it looks like Williams wandered in from the high school next door.


Despite the draft day disappointment, the Miami Dolphins called less than a week later and signed Williams to a contract for a tryout to be the team’s kick returner. He worked diligently throughout training camp and was, according to some, the front runner in the competition until he broke his hand. That’s when Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano called Williams into his office, gave him an injury settlement and sent him on his way. Thanks for coming out.


Williams was ready to play again three months later and caught on with the 1-8 Cleveland Browns. But that lasted just nine days as the woeful Browns—operating without a GM at the time—flip-flopped on roster decisions as their season descended in a full-out tailspin. “It probably wasn’t the right time for me to go over there,” Williams says, as if he had much of a choice. “It’s a business, man. You gotta accept it. That’s the NFL for you.”


It was also the end of the NFL for Williams, who joined a United Football League franchise in Hartford for a spell before rolling up to Hamilton in 2010 and signing with the Tiger-Cats. Williams’s career has changed directions more times than he does on his returns, but in Hamilton ability finally collided with opportunity as he caught 70 passes for 1,064 yards and six touchdowns in 2011, earning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie award. Halfway through 2012, he’s on pace to beat those numbers easily. “I’m truly blessed to be here,” he says, again and again.


Just 24, Williams already has a three-year-old daughter, Karissa, who splits her time between her parents. While her mom lives in Rio Rancho, N.M., Karissa spent two months in Hamilton this summer living in the apartment Williams shares with fellow receiver Bakari Grant, who also has a young daughter. Karissa has a developing understanding of daddy’s strenuous job and likes going to games; she asks a lot of questions. “She’s a normal, crazy child,” Williams says, beaming. “It’s hilariously funny to just watch her run around and play. It’s a beautiful thing.” Williams’s girlfriend of two and half years also lives in the apartment and is currently seven months pregnant with his second child, a son. She’s due on Sunday, November 11—the first day of the CFL playoffs. “We better be here,” Williams says, not particularly receptive to the idea of a road playoff game the day his son is scheduled to arrive. “His mother will be in Hamilton. I’ll just kind of roll with the punches.”


Of course he will. Who needs a plan when you can scramble your way out of everything, think on the fly, improvise. Most kick returners live their lives this way. Also, like sprinters, short-distance swimmers and other athletes whose success is reliant on prodigious speed, they tend not to be short on bravado. “As a returner, you’ve got to have a little bit of swag,” Williams says. “I have to feel like if I’m ever one-on-one with somebody—he’s not making that play.”


The bluster is both inherent and a byproduct of his role on the team. But it can be a dangerous balance. There was, of course, the second quarter play in week four when Montreal Alouettes kicker Sean Whyte pushed a 49-yard field goal attempt past the outside of the right upright and into Williams’s waiting arms. Williams carried the ball out of the end zone, hesitated on the one yard line as his blocks developed, and took off up the left hashmarks, zigging and zagging his way to midfield, leaving a trail of Alouette bodies in his wake. By the time he reached the Montreal 30-yard-line there was no doubt he would score, so, as young football players are wont to do, he showboated, spinning 180 degrees and running backwards from the 20 yard line on. This allowed his teammate, Ryan Hinds, to catch up at the five yard line and smack him on the helmet in celebration. It also allowed Alouettes linebacker Brian Ridgeway to catch up. As it happens, Ridgeway was not particularly interested in celebrating and grabbed Williams around the waist, driving him to the turf on the one-yard line as Hinds looked on. “I can be a little cocky,” Williams concedes. “At least I didn’t fumble. It could have been so much worse.”


But at some point there must be a plan. Some day the speed and elusiveness that makes Williams such a threat will leave him; his legs will slow as they give way under the never-ending waves of time that will eventually take us all out to sea. So what will he do after football? Williams, usually quick with a boilerplate answer to any question, takes a second with this one, looking down at the picnic bench in front of him and tugging on his shorts. He even loses track of the wasps for a second. “Well, I have a biology major,” Williams says, making air quotes to emphasize the fact that he’s still a few credits shy of receiving a diploma, although he plans to finish it when he gets a chance. “I could really imagine being some type of scientist and maybe getting a master’s and messing around, trying to figure things out.” Sure, why not? If Williams has shown he’s adept at one thing, it’s being presented with a problem and solving it. But hardly a beat passes before another thought pops into his head and he’s off in a completely different direction. “And I have some family members who are accountants,” he says. “I could see myself doing that. I enjoy it. I don’t know, man. I guess I have options.” That’s Williams for you. Just winging it.

 

-- statistics --

 

 

  Receiving      
Yr Team C Yds Avg Lg TD
2011 Ham 70 1,064 15.2 71 6
2012 Ham 83 1298 15.6 93 11
2015 Ott 88 1214 13.8 84 5
Total 3 241 3,576 14.8 93 22

 

    Punt Return  
Yr Team No Yds Avg Lg TD
2011 Ham 12 81 6.8 30 0
2012 Ham 78 1,117 14.3 89 5
2015 Ott 57 338 5.9 22 0
Total 3 147 1,536 10.4 89 5

 

    Kick Return    
Yr Team No Yds Avg Lg TD
2011 Ham 12 252 21.0 93 1
2012 Ham 0 0 0.0 0 0
2015 Ott 5 82 16.4 24 0
Total 3 17 334 19.6 93 1

 

-- NFL --

 

 

    Punt Return  
Yr Team No Yds Avg Lg TD
2014 Chi 4 30 7.5 13 0
Total 1 4 30 7.5 13 0

 

    Kick Return    
Yr Team No Yds Avg Lg TD
2014 Chi 24 579 24.1 101 1
Total 1 24 579 24.1 101 1