As dusk approached on Monday evening, two teenage boys took turns blasting a football toward a set of goal posts, trying to settle a long-standing dispute over just who was the superior place kicker.
Across the field, two grown men sat on opposite sides of a picnic bench, trying to sort out the future of one of those boys. Derrick Williams might be a lousy place kicker, but he happens to be the most highly recruited high school football player in the country.
Rick Houchens -- Derrick's coach at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt -- and Dwight Williams -- Derrick's father -- quietly traded their latest thoughts on Derrick's crop of suitors, a topic they discuss at least three or four times a week.
Oklahoma had been giving ample playing time to freshman running back Adrian Peterson, and with Derrick wanting an immediate chance to shine next year, that was a good sign. Tennessee had two promising young quarterbacks and a third on the way, and with Derrick preparing to play wide receiver in college, that was good, too.
Florida's sophomore quarterback Chris Leak had been playing exceptionally well, and Dwight Williams thought his son could become Leak's favorite target next year, which was very good. But some rumors had Leak leaving for the NFL after next season, which might be bad.
Houchens noted that Florida State's coaches were calling him virtually every day, wanting to know when Derrick could come to Tallahassee for an official visit. As the conversation ended, the coach pledged to corner his teenage star the following morning and discuss the Florida State trip.
While Derrick Williams assembled his collection of more than 50 Division I scholarship offers over the spring and summer, he repeatedly said that an 18-year-old high school senior couldn't hope to navigate the maze of promises and choices by himself. And as his decision deadline of mid-to-late December approaches, his closest advisers have each established a niche.
Dwight Williams, the father, is the executive, drawing up the family's list of criteria, submitting to countless interviews with print reporters and Internet recruiting analysts and trying to catalogue Derrick's ever-changing registry of finalists: Tennessee in, Maryland out, Ohio State in, Southern California out, Florida up, Penn State down.
Derrick's older brother, Domonique, helps his father conduct background research on the prospective schools, on their offenses and depth charts, on their coaching staffs and practice schedules.
"You can consider my father to be an agent, if you can put it in those terms, and I'm pretty much his assistant," Domonique said, adding, only half-jokingly, that he and his father should offer classes to parents on how to make their way through the recruiting process.
Houchens, who estimated that he has participated in nearly a thousand phone conversations about Derrick Williams over the past several years, acts as an intermediary between the Williams family and the bevy of persistent college recruiters while helping the family determine which schools would best take advantage of Derrick's abilities. He advises the Williams family not to include loyalty and emotions in their calculus, "because if you do, you're not making a sound business decision, and this is ultimately a business decision -- it's all about the business of your future."
Mother Brinda Williams -- "the real leader," according to her husband -- worries less about the football minutiae and more about the big picture, looking at campus environments and diversity rates and urging Derrick to get his degree because "they can never take that away from you." She prays that the family will choose the correct school and recently recruited the members of her church choir to include her family and its upcoming decision in their prayers.
And Derrick? The 3.0 student rarely looks at his mail anymore and often avoids cell phone calls from unknown numbers because they're most likely from college coaches -- "when I get home, I don't answer that joint," he said.
Some weekends, Derrick joins his father for a few minutes as Dwight Williams analyzes Derrick's suitors on television. Some weekends, he doesn't.
"I'm a create-a-player," Derrick said, referring to the video game feature that allows users to imbue a fantasy player with the attributes of their choosing. "Everybody's minds went into creating me. . . . I'm just playing the game -- my parents and Coach Rick are taking care of everything else.
A Brother's Experience
The attention showered upon Derrick Williams hasn't startled his parents or his brother or his uncles. For one thing, they've long believed Derrick was destined to become the best prep football player in the country.
For another, they've already lived through this once.
In 1996, Domonique was the one being hounded by college recruiters, his face the one plastered on glossy magazines.
During his senior year at Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine, Domonique was named an All-Met and an all-American, called one of the premier athletes in the country by a national scouting service and courted by several Division I-A powers before ultimately committing to North Carolina. Family members and friends assumed he would one day play in the NFL.
"Wouldn't you?" asks uncle Carl Williams. "He was an all-American, he's going to North Carolina with Mack Brown, and all of these schools were calling him. He had a couple trash cans full of letters -- they had so many letters that they just threw 'em away. . . . Absolutely we thought that Domonique would go to the pros. Absolutely, no ifs ands or buts."
The qualifiers came later. Brown left for Texas after Domonique's freshman season. Dwight Williams suffered a heart attack. As Domonique traveled back and forth to Maryland, visiting his family virtually every weekend, his grades suffered.
"I'm running back and forth, I'm worried as hell, I just couldn't concentrate, but that's not an excuse," Domonique said. "I still should have gotten done what I needed to get done."
He had been penciled in as a starting tailback his sophomore season; instead, he was ruled academically ineligible for not completing enough credits as a freshman. He rebounded in his third year and was again in the mix at running back when injuries forced him into emergency quarterbacking duty. Given a chance to play every down, Domonique led the Tar Heels to wins in their final two games and was widely credited with saving then-coach Carl Torbush's job.
But Brinda Williams was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and Domonique was again traveling back and forth to Maryland. His coaches asked him to become a fullback, his shot at a starting job never materialized, and by the beginning of his fourth year of college he had transferred to North Carolina A&T, a Division I-AA school.
He now works as a security officer at the Department of Energy, although he recently received a conditional offer from the Alexandria Fire Department, putting him in position to pursue another childhood dream. The closest he came to the NFL was a workout with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Domonique used to sleep under his baby brother's crib; Derrick used to tell anyone who would listen that Domonique was his favorite football player. Now, Domonique's football career offers both inspiration and admonition to the younger star.
"I saw it, and I know what can happen," Derrick said. "I knew [Domonique's] ability. If he would have just stayed focused and everything worked out in his favor, he would have been in the top 15 [picks of the NFL draft]. Because he had everything -- he had speed, he had footwork, he was strong. He had everything."
Domonique said he feels "no bitterness at all" about his collegiate career -- which he said "was cool as I don't know what" -- and he dismisses the idea that Derrick's recruiting process offers him a second chance.
"I'm just helping my brother; it's just like if he needed help with his math homework, I'd help him with his math homework," Domonique said.
Family members likewise have heard the suggestion that they are pushing Derrick to atone for Domonique's mistakes, to achieve the professional success his brother never enjoyed. Nonsense, they insist -- they're as proud of Domonique as they've ever been, they have no regrets about his collegiate career and besides, "in some odd way, everything happens for a reason," as Domonique puts it.
"The reason I went through the things I went through is so we would have a better understanding when Derrick came through."
Derrick and his four closest advisers don't have formal meetings, but a college conversation is never far away.
Dwight, Brinda and Derrick discuss the decision virtually every day: in the morning, while riding to school, while eating dinner or watching television. Domonique calls his parents daily, and Derrick's football career is almost always a featured topic.
Derrick said he usually does more listening than talking -- "I guess that's how I was raised," he explained -- but the college decision still dominates his life. If he walks out of the house on a brisk morning, he'll say that Florida is looking better than ever. If his parents hear a news story about Tennessee, they might ask him his latest thoughts about playing in Knoxville.
"That's the topic right now," Derrick said. "I can't even explain how many times we talk about it in a day."Dwight and Domonique scrutinize college football games on television, looking at formations, noting the playing time received by true freshmen, watching out for hometown fan favorites with secure grips on starting jobs, trying to imagine Derrick in different lineups.
They will talk on the phone four or five times during a single game; after Florida ran a reverse for a wide receiver last Saturday, they tried calling each other at the same time to point out how well that play would suit Derrick, they said. Domonique changes the station when the team he's scouting is playing defense, because Derrick will only play offense, at least next season.
This research is no idle hobby. In one September weekend, Penn State's hopes were severely damaged after the Nittany Lions were dominated by Boston College, with Dwight Williams particularly perturbed by the team's conservative play calling. The following weekend, Tennessee -- which had already been eliminated as a choice -- re-entered the picture after the family watched the Volunteers beat Florida while using several true freshmen.
"It changes with the weather," laughed Brinda Williams. "Ask tomorrow."
Because they read virtually every word that's written about Derrick, the Williams family members have seen the suggestion that they're too involved in Derrick's decision. Some people think they're overbearing. Others suggest that they've pushed Derrick into football.
But, they ask, doesn't Derrick say that "football was like church, it was something that was made for me"? Wasn't his family just as supportive when Derrick briefly wanted to be a pop star? Didn't Dwight ferry Derrick to countless talent shows, where he would get on stage and croon Dru Hill songs?
That's just the way their family operates, they say; children select their passions, and the entire family -- including aunts and uncles and cousins -- then offers its relentless support.
"If Derrick was a great bowler," explained Domonique, "we'd be just as enthusiastic about bowling, if that's what his passion was."
So his family members make no apologies for being intricately involved in Derrick's life. Dwight and Brinda frequently watch Derrick's evening practices, offering him water bottles while his teammates head to the communal coolers. Dwight stretches Derrick's muscles on game-day mornings, takes him out for a pregame breakfast, talks to Derrick during halftime. Domonique shouts advice from the bleachers and goes down to the sideline to confer with Derrick.
And Derrick agrees that his decision is far too important to be made by one person, much less an 18-year old. He's always trusted his parents before, and they've never steered him wrong, he said. He loves seeing the crowds of family members and friends at his games -- "it's the greatest thing when you just step off the field and your family is there," he said -- and he refuses to take any official visits without his parents "to make sure there aren't any tricks, that they've got my back."
His family and coach plan to further winnow their choices to perhaps three or four schools that everyone feels comfortable with and then leave the final decision up to Derrick, who said he'll follow his gut.
His father recently asked him to start expressing his own views more frequently, and Derrick said he's ready for that step. But he can't understand why some people think his family members are too involved in his recruiting process.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, it's his decision,' " he said. "Well, it's really not. It's everyone in your corner's decision."