Two years ago, the big question at the University of Texas was whether Roy Williams, the Longhorns' stellar wide receiver, was ready for the NFL.
Amid state-wide speculation that Williams, who had just been named the most valuable player in the Cotton Bowl, was about to enter the NFL draft that April, he decided to have a little fun when he got the chance to settle the matter at a football banquet.
"I had that whole group going that night," Williams, now a rookie starter with the Detroit Lions, said recently as he stood in front of his locker in the Lions' training facility. "I got up there and said, 'You fans have been great. It's been great playing for Coach [Mack] Brown. I've loved playing for you, and I've loved playing with my teammates.' And then I really got 'em. I said, 'I guess I'm just going to have to take my abilities . . . back to the University of Texas!' "
His timing was impeccable that night and throughout his senior season. Williams caught 70 passes for 1,079 yards and nine touchdowns as the Longhorns went 10-3; he became the first Texas player to have two 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Considered by most a first-round pick after his junior year, he was selected by the Lions with the seventh overall pick in the draft last April. In his first season, Williams, who turns 23 next month, has been an instant impact player, a major factor in the team's 4-3 start. It turns out that he and the NFL were ready for each other.
"He's already one of the most productive receivers in the league," said Coach Steve Mariucci. "Maybe this is silly, but the fact that he stayed in school his senior year gave him some maturity. He was loyal to his school. . . . When he came here, the games didn't seem to be too much for him."
Williams, who has missed two of the past three games because of an ankle injury, is expected to play for the Lions on Sunday, when they host the Washington Redskins. He has caught 24 passes for 362 yards and five touchdowns, the most by any rookie receiver in the league.
Williams was the NFL's rookie of the month in September, even though he was not expected to be the Lions' go-to receiver this year. That distinction belonged to Charles Rogers, the second overall selection in the 2003 draft from Michigan State. But Rogers, who missed all but five games his rookie year with a broken collarbone, suffered the same injury against the Chicago Bears in the opener and will be out the rest of the year. The Lions moved Williams from split end to flanker the next week against Houston, and he will stay there at least until Rogers comes back next year.
"He's just a natural," said Lions quarterback Joey Harrington. "The first thing you notice for a guy his size [6 feet 3 and 215 pounds] is that he's got tremendous hands. Usually the big guys are the physical types who use their bodies to catch the ball and the little guys with speed have the hands. This guy has both, and speed, too, the whole deal."
Williams said there was plenty of pressure on him to leave school early, and he was constantly bombarded with calls from agents or people purporting to represent NFL teams. He said he was particularly offended by remarks made by TV analyst and former Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin, saying he had made a huge mistake by not leaving early.
"He went hard on me during the draft," Williams said. "But I knew he was wrong, telling kids not to stay in school and go pro. I liked school. And you've got to trust your teammates. We still won 10 games my senior year. If I'd have left, there was no telling who I was going to play for. And Austin is a great town, great campus, the girls, everything.
"I stayed in the same dorm all four years. People thought I was driving around town in an Escalade with those spokes on the wheels. Man, I didn't own a car. I didn't have a fancy apartment. I tried to keep it all in perspective, and I had things I wanted to work for. I didn't drink, I didn't smoke. I liked playing college football."
So did his older brother, Lloyd Hill, a 32-year-old insurance executive living in Dallas. Hill was a standout wide receiver at Texas Tech who spent several years in the Canadian and Arena Football leagues. He has always been his little brother's greatest admirer and toughest critic.
"He watches or he records every game we have," Williams said. "He'll give me a grade for every game. When there's zero-zero on the clock, he'll leave me a message. He's been doing it since my freshman year in college. He doesn't care about the good plays. He gets on me about the bad plays. But I know he's living his dream through me."
Lloyd Hill admits: "I do wish it was me. But this is something Roy has always wanted, and he's not letting anything get in his way. Tell you the truth, I always thought he would lean to baseball. But then I started seeing what he could do in Pop Warner. He was a running back, like I was at that age, and he was just so much better than everyone. They switched him to receiver in junior high, and he would dominate. And he just loved the game."
Roy and Lloyd grew up in Odessa, Tex., a hotbed of high school football. Both starred for Permian High, the school featured in the H.G. Bissinger book "Friday Night Lights," which recently was released as a movie. Lloyd played on the 1988 Permian team Bissinger wrote about, and Roy Williams has a bit part in the movie. He plays an assistant coach for Permian's arch rival, Midland Lee, and has one line in the film -- "He ain't gonna play, coach."
"We did my line in two takes, and it wasn't my fault because [the director] changed some of the words after the first one," Williams said. "I know those movie people work real hard. They were out there from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day shooting it. Sure, some of those actors are making $14 million a picture, but I don't see that happening with me. I'll take a game check over a movie check every time."