Antonio Williams was not your average rookie in the NFL in what was an unusual season in 2020. All of the ups and downs he went through have only made him into a more determined football player in an attempt to master his craft. With a year of experience under his belt and an opportunity to make the team in 2021, Williams will do whatever it takes to make the team and win a championship.
Growing up in the small town of New London, N.C., which has a population of just 702 people, Williams had seen some success before. His county had produced several NFL players, including Titans defensive lineman Denico Autry and Giants defensive lineman B.J. Hill. He had seen guys make it to the NFL before.
“For it to be such a small place, we’re producing some guys,” Williams said. “I think that’s pretty cool.”
For Williams, he had always had the spotlight on him, especially coming out of high school. As early as eighth grade, he had received interest from some power five football programs. By the end of his senior year, Williams was a four-star recruit who received offers from Alabama, Auburn, and Clemson. Williams would ultimately decide to take his talents to Columbus, Ohio, and suit up for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
“Going from New London to Columbus was a huge change, but I adjusted though.” Williams said.
Things would start well for Williams. During his sophomore season, he’d be a key member of a running back committee, including Mike Weber and current Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins. That season, Williams would rush for 290 yards and score three touchdowns on the ground. However, after some circumstances with his family, Willams felt it would be best for him to transfer back home and play for the school that showed him interest back in eighth grade: North Carolina.
In his first season with the Tar Heels, Williams would show exactly why he was such a big recruit coming out of high school. He would rush for 504 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. What makes these numbers the more impressive is that Williams dealt with some injuries, which held him out of three games that season and limited him in some other games. Following that 2018 season, Williams thought about leaving school early to go to the pros, but something happened in that offseason that would change his plans.
“I was actually thinking about trying to leave early, but then we hired Mack Brown,” Williams said. “Coach Brown is a heck of a speaker, so he got me to come back.”
With Mack Brown in charge, Williams wanted to stick around one last season and continue to work on his game. Unfortunately, due to some injuries and the emergence of future pros, Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, Williams would see his role in the offense shrink. He’d finish his senior season with 322 yards and three touchdowns, despite averaging 6.7 yards per carry. With that, Williams would finish his collegiate career with 1,144 yards, 11 touchdowns, and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
Going into the pre-draft process, Williams knew he would have to show out and work hard to get his opportunity. However, in the middle of the process, the world would be flipped upside down as the Covid-19 pandemic would change everything.
“Coronavirus bothered a lot of things. We ended a virtual Pro Day here at UNC, and my numbers went really well. I tested pretty good. I think if teams were able to be at that Pro Day, I might have had a higher stock.”
Heading into draft weekend, Williams knew that he would either be a late draft pick or undrafted. He knew that regardless of what was about to happen, he had done enough to get a shot on an NFL team. Right as the Giants, who were in contact with Williams, were on the clock to make the final selection of the draft, Williams got a call from Buffalo.
“The Bills called me as soon as the timer went off… [other] teams called me right after that, but in my mind, I was like, ‘I think Buffalo is the right spot for me.’ So I came there.”
Life as an undrafted rookie was not always easy. After being the guy for so long, it was frustrating for Williams to be in the background not getting his opportunity. Not to mention, that throughout the season, Williams would get cut several times and even retired from the NFL at one point.
“It’s tough, man. It’s tough,” Williams said. “You really got to embrace that underdog mindset because if you don’t, I don’t think you’re going to last.”
It wasn’t easy for Williams to be at the bottom of the roster. The competitor in him wanted to help the team win. Yet, Williams understood that everything was done for a reason and that due to how good the Bills were, he would have to be patient.
“It was definitely frustrating, but I also understood it,” Williams said. “I knew we had a really good team and Brandon Beane, everything he’s has done so far has worked, so I knew there had to be a purpose with it.”
Despite all of the ups and downs as a rookie, he would finally get his chance that he had been waiting for. In the final game of the regular season, Williams would get his number called and take most of the hand-offs in the second half. He would put on a show, rushing for 63 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 attempts while also hauling a reception for 20 yards.
“I wasn’t nervous; I was pissed off. That’s that chip I have on my shoulder,” Williams said. “If you keep that chip and you just keep being angry, people don’t want to tackle you if you’re a bigger back anyways, and that’s just how I went out there and approached it.”
This game gave Williams confidence heading into the offseason that he could help the Bills get over the hump and go after what they set their eyes on a Lombardi Trophy. This offseason, Williams has been working on many aspects of his game, including his lateral movement and showcasing his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Williams will do whatever it takes, even if it means playing special teams (something he won an award at North Carolina for).
“I’m a big team guy. Whether I’m a special teams ace or whether I’m in the backfield getting carries I want to be the best at what I do. Whatever that is just expect that when 28’s out there, he’s going to give you his best shot.”
Heading into the 2021 season Williams knows what is at stake for him and the team: a roster spot, a chance to contribute, but more importantly a chance to win the Super Bowl.
“I’m just excited to get back to Buffalo and get to work,” Williams said. “We got to the AFC championship. Everybody knows where we want to go to next. I don’t even have to say it. We got the pieces, we got the players, we’ve got the mentality, we got the coaches, and we got a heck of a city in Buffalo to go out there to represent, so I’m excited to get back for sure.”