“Approaching him was like having an audience with a king,” one teammate said.
Yet Williams was not as intimidating as he appeared. The chairs on either side of him were open to anyone who wanted to sit down and talk about anything that would keep his interest. Players have long described him as one of the kindest men they knew in football, someone who would pick up tabs and offer advice.
Because of this, Williams became the team’s most revered player, respected as much for his benevolence as for the seven straight Pro Bowls to which he was named and the career that has been on a trajectory for the Hall of Fame. All of which makes the current situation between the 31-year-old lineman and the Redskins extremely complicated.
The standoff between the front office and its best player looms over everything else going on around the team. Washington’s season appears headed to a disastrous end after a 1-7 beginning, first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins is set to make his first start Sunday at Buffalo, and all of that is overshadowed by Williams’s forced return from a five-month holdout.
A silent struggle is erupting into an all-out war, with Williams publicly alleging Redskins doctors ignored a growth on his head for years that was eventually diagnosed as a rare form of cancer, Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans (DFSP), that nonetheless has a 10-year survival rate of 99 percent. The Redskins are fighting back by asking a joint committee of NFL and the NFL Players Association representatives to examine Williams’s medical records.
“There’s no trust there,” Williams said Thursday of his relationship with the organization.
“We look forward to the joint committee’s results,” the team said in a statement later that day.
The Redskins have declined to discuss the situation further, leaving assurances from team president Bruce Allen and former coach Jay Gruden in the summer that Williams would eventually play for the team this year as their only comments.
Throughout his cancer ordeal and his holdout, Williams maintained a public silence. The only hints about his intentions came from occasional Instagram posts and random things said by friends and teammates. Until Thursday, it was not widely known that Williams had been diagnosed with cancer and that the growth had been removed.
What also wasn’t known was the depth of his anger with the only team for which he has played in his nine-year career.
Even now that Williams has revealed his frustrations with the Redskins, indicating with non-answers that he will do everything he can not to play for the team this year, his friends speak carefully, describing a smart, stubborn man who believes the franchise’s carelessness nearly cost him his life.
“If you don’t take a stand, you stand for nothing,” one friend said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk for Williams.
“He’s very principled,” the friend added. “He had a life-threatening situation. And he said: ‘No, I’m not going back to that team. I’m not doing that.’ ”
“One thing about Trent is he’s never going to change,” fellow tackle Morgan Moses said the day after Williams reported to the team. “He’s always going to be the same person; that’s who he is, man. He’s never going to change. He’s always been the same person since Day 1, since I’ve known him.”
The friend who called Williams “principled” said Williams will not back down, that he will refuse to play until the team trades him — something Williams first asked the Redskins to do June 1. The friend cautioned against buying into a narrative that the Redskins and Allen had won the standoff with Williams by refusing to trade him, waiting until the trade deadline when Williams was forced to return. He cautioned the team against fighting Williams on medical technicalities.
“They’re just trying to cover their a--,” the friend said of the Redskins’ request for a review of his medical records by the league and players union. “It’s still going to say he had cancer and they didn’t diagnose it.”
The fight between the Redskins and Williams might just be beginning, even as Williams separates team owner Daniel Snyder from his anger with the organization. In his comments, Williams directed his rage at Allen and the team’s doctors, saying of Snyder, “It wasn’t his fault.”
So far, Washington players seem unaffected by the fight between the team and its tackle. But if the Redskins try to parse a medical history to dispute Williams’s claims that team doctors did not take his condition seriously, it could damage the trust between other players and the front office — or scare away potential free agents.
That’s how respected Williams is in the locker room.
Nowhere might that be seen more than in the one-on-ones.
No drill is more tedious for an offensive lineman than the daily battle each must wage with a defensive lineman, man-against-man surrounded by the other offensive and defensive linemen who stand and watch. It’s a regular ritual in football — the two men crouched across from one another, pretending they are part of their lines and the ball is about to be snapped.
Offensive linemen dread this drill, knowing that their strength is in working as a group on the line and they are at a disadvantage lined up one-on-one with defensive linemen who operate more on their own. Many come up with excuses to get out of the drill, and the better ones often do.
Not Williams. He wouldn’t take any of them off. Dropping into position, determined to win the fight and push the defensive player backward, refusing to yield an inch. He would do this time and time again until the defensive linemen had exhausted their challenges to his dominance.
“In three years I think I saw him lose two one-on-ones, which is unheard-of,” former Redskins guard Arie Kouandjio recalled.
Redskins guard Tony Bergstrom doesn’t remember Williams losing any of them. “He’s been batting one thousand for the last eight, nine years,” Bergstrom said.
There are many tales of Williams’s generosity with his teammates. Offensive linemen remember fondly how he would fly them to Houston to train at the gym he owns with running back Adrian Peterson, helping create a bond.
Several have also talked about how Williams kept in contact with them during his holdout, watching the Redskins’ games, offering playing advice in text messages. They know, too, the pain he has endured through injuries and surgeries during his career and admire the way he often stayed in the lineup when others might ask to take off the rest of the season.
“It’s because he loves football so much,” Kouandjio said. “It’s also because Trent wants to be the best. He is already mentioned with some of the best tackles ever, and he just wants to solidify his legacy.”
Williams said he hates not playing. He wants to be on the field, but he clearly does not want to play for the Redskins anymore. The NFL has given Washington a two-week roster exemption for Williams, who failed his physical with the team Wednesday when he was unable to comfortably fit a helmet on his surgically repaired skull. Interim coach Bill Callahan says the team is trying to find a new helmet for Williams, but there is no certainty that he will accept the helmet or make an attempt to practice or play.
He seems surprised and furious that the team didn’t honor his trade request and appears uncomfortable standing in a locker room, among players he considers friends, while preparing for a battle with the team.
“This is still my team,” he said Thursday. “The guys in here, I love them to death. … I support them. I wouldn’t support any other team. These guys are my family.”
What will that family think of the public fight between their team and the man they respect as much as any player who has walked into their locker room?