The boxers, two men and one woman, stand in a half circle and seem almost to talk at once about the training they have done, the fights they have watched and the dreams they have. Williams leans against the ring and smiles. He loves their chatter, the hunger in their voices, the raw ambition in their words.
“I want to win all the titles in one year,” shouts Danielle Perkins, an amateur world champion heavyweight who is turning pro in a few weeks and plans to have Williams manage her. “Then I’m going to make Trent walk around wearing that female belt for a week!”
“I’ll wear it for a month!” he replies.
Back in Ashburn, his locker at the Washington Redskins’ practice facility remains filled with jerseys, shirts and shoes, looking as if he will be back to it at any moment. But this has instead been a lost season for the seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle, who at 31 years old has played his entire professional career with the franchise that selected him fourth in the 2010 NFL draft. He’s been one of the Redskins’ foundational players for the past decade.
His war against the team, which he has mostly directed at team president Bruce Allen, stems from a growth on his scalp that he feels team doctors did not take seriously and turned out to be a rare cancer. He sat out offseason workouts, training camp and the first half of the season hoping he would be traded. Once he returned, he says, the Redskins made him go away.
In a lengthy interview, Williams was highly critical of the leadership of the only NFL franchise he has known, accusing Allen of retaliating against him for his holdout, blaming him for the team’s failure over the past decade and describing his own feelings of betrayal by the team after playing through countless injuries, only to be left fearing for his life.
Describing the relationship between him and the team, he sadly shakes his head.
“I don’t see how it can be reconciled,” Williams says. “At the end of the day, I’m a human being. I ain’t like a dog and you can slap the s--- out of me and I’m going to come back the next morning with my tail wagging. This was a conscious decision; they didn’t burn the bridge by accident. This was something they felt comfortable doing, so I got to feel comfortable with moving on, too.”
In the absence of a football season, Williams has returned home to Houston to his gym, O Athletik, and the boxers with whom he has spent much of the past several months. Three weeks ago he went to Sloan, Iowa, to watch the most prominent of his boxers, light heavyweight Joseph George, win his first big fight, a 10-round split-decision nationally televised on Showtime over previously undefeated Marcos Escudaro, who had won all but one of his fights by knockout.
Williams says he was as nervous before the fight as he was for any game in his nine-year NFL career, knowing how much George (10-0) wanted to win that night. When it was over and the announcer declared George the winner, Williams says: “I lost myself for a second. I forgot where I was.”
For years, Williams boxed as part of his offseason training with Cooper, a former professional kickboxer. At first it was just another workout to be pounded through, but the more time he spent around the fighters who worked with Cooper, the more he felt drawn to their passion. He took on the role of managing a handful of them because he knew they needed guidance and money to keep training. He thought he could give them both.
But as happy as he is for his fighters, Williams is also hurting. He says he didn’t return to the Redskins minutes before the 4 p.m. NFL trade deadline Oct. 29 simply to sit and collect the roughly $5.9 million he would make for the season’s final nine weeks. Yes, his coming back was a procedural move, to get credit for the 2019 season and keep the team from claiming it still controlled him for two more years on a contract that would otherwise expire after next season. But as long as he had returned to the team, he was going to play.
“At the end of the day I just wanted to do it for my teammates,” he says.
The problem, though, was that Williams’s helmet from last season had stiff padding, making it uncomfortable to wear. So much of his scalp was cut during the three surgeries he had early in the year to remove the tumor and repair the wound that more than half of the skin on his head is still numb. He says he can only feel about 60 percent of his haircut, and when he puts pressure on his head, he feels tingling and a burning sensation. The doctor who did the operation told him it might take as long as 18 months for the burning to go away. And while Williams had been cleared to play, he needed a helmet that wouldn’t make his head feel as if it were on fire.
The team’s interim coach, Bill Callahan, was helping him get a custom-made helmet with spongier material inside from equipment company Riddell, and it was supposed to arrive the Monday after the team’s bye week. Williams was looking forward to trying it and practicing that next Wednesday. Instead, the team placed him on the league’s non-football injury list Nov. 7, the Thursday before the helmet was to arrive. Williams is convinced the move was made by Allen to punish him for holding out and for revealing his frustration over the team’s medical staff and his cancer diagnosis during a news conference two days after his holdout ended, Oct. 31.
“It’s kind of a vindictive move, and it just showed their hand on how they wanted to operate,” he says. “I mean, I had until Tuesday, and the new helmet Riddell was talking about was coming in on Monday, so for them to prematurely put me on the list without taking [time to see whether the helmet would work] goes to show you that they didn’t really want me to play anyway.”
The non-football injury designation confirmed for Williams what he had been hearing since summer, when his holdout began during the team’s minicamp in June — that Allen was the one driving the team’s refusal to trade him. The team’s stance throughout Williams’s holdout was to fine him for his absence and withhold his salary — as allowed under the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union — in the hope that the lost income would eventually drive him back.
Williams is sure Allen did not want him to return this fall so the team could claim he had two years left on his contract and potentially get more value in an offseason trade. He says Allen ignored calls and messages from his agent in the days and hours before the trade deadline, hoping to trick Williams into not reporting.
“He didn’t say anything, because he wanted that 4 o’clock to pass by because if I didn’t report by 4, of course, he could challenge to keep me for two years instead of one.”
“It just goes to show you how behind the times [Allen] is, and he still tries to use that money to hold it over black athletes,” Williams says.
When asked this week about Williams’s allegations, Allen called them “comical.” He said Williams “elected to stay away” from the Redskins’ facility with his holdout and that Williams himself told reporters upon his return that he had a non-football injury. He pushed back on Williams’s suggestion he hoped that Williams wouldn’t report by the 4 p.m. trade deadline, saying Williams and his agent had told the team since the spring that he did not intend to come back.
Allen also said the league has a specific fine structure. “Every player understands the consequences,” he said.
In Houston, Williams poses a question that has been on his mind for months and seems even more pertinent now that Jay Gruden, the Redskins’ head coach for the previous 4½ seasons, has been fired and the team is rebuilding.
“Let’s say you are a coach candidate or you’re a free agent, what does it say to you?” he asks. “… It’s not like it’s something whispered. Everybody sees how they treated me. Free agents know for a better part of the last decade I’ve been one of the only guys in those Pro Bowl locker rooms with a Redskins symbol on my helmet. So then they see somebody like that get treated like that …”
His voice trails off.
“At the end of the day, money is money, so you might have to overpay just to get people in to overcome this,” he continues. “But I know if I was [a free agent] looking at it, I’d be looking at the situation closely.”
Williams has not talked to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder since he was placed on the non-football injury list. This makes him sad, too, he says; he always liked Snyder and realizes his holdout and everything that has happened since will bring more public scorn upon the owner. When he started speaking publicly about his problems with the organization, he never said a word about Snyder.
“People will want to say this is Snyder’s f---up, and I didn’t think it was,” he says.
But he seems befuddled by the way the team responded after he revealed the cancer diagnosis at that first news conference the week he reported to the team. He had kept the cancer news secret after first learning in the winter that the growth on his head — which he claims the Redskins’ doctors had not taken seriously for six years — turned into dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP), a soft-tissue sarcoma that develops in the deep layers of the skin. He didn’t tell his teammates or even the boxers he saw every day at his gym about the diagnosis. Few in the Washington organization knew. He hoped that by being silent and not exposing his anger toward the doctors, he would be traded and no one would really know what had happened.
Instead, he was forced back by the Redskins’ refusal to trade him, leaving him with what he considers no choice but to explain what went wrong. And when he did finally tell the world about his cancer — which has been completely removed from his scalp — he was devastated that the team’s response was to ask for a review of his medical records, with some Redskins officials suggesting to reporters that the review would show the team gave better care than he revealed.
“You aren’t dealing with rational people, ordinary people, who would run a business a certain way, like how you would think — textbook,” he says. “I think their whole deal to me was to downplay it, to say it wasn’t serious, to deny, deny the whole time.”
Williams says no one from the team was with him when the doctor told him, before surgery, that the cancer had been around for so long that it might have penetrated his skull and gone into his brain and that he should get his “affairs in order.” Williams feared he was going to die. And while he was relieved to later learn that the cancer had not gone through his skull, almost assuring the cancer would be survivable (DFSP has a survival rate of 99 percent), he says the doctor told him they had removed the tumor just in time because it was indeed heading toward his brain.
What bothers him most is that he feels he gave his body to the Redskins for nine seasons, believing that by playing through sometimes agonizing injuries, he was helping the team build toward something big. For years he dreamed of playing deep into the playoffs, only — in the end — to fear he was about to die and then be shut out of the building after he had essentially come crawling back.
He wonders how much the people in charge of the team really cared about him playing through that dislocated kneecap in 2017 and why no one seemed concerned when he tore the ligaments in his right thumb against the New York Giants last year. He says that he played more than a quarter with the thumb flopping around his palm and that the following day the doctors told him the injury wasn’t serious, putting him in a cast and telling him he should be able to play the next Sunday. It was only after his agent made him see a specialist that he understood how badly he was injured.
“The specialist called and said: ‘You should have been in for surgery yesterday. Your ligament that holds your thumb in place … not only did it come out, but it wrapped around your thumb,’ ” Williams says.
And still Williams came back to play three weeks after the surgery, finishing the year with what looked like a club on his hand, as the team lost six of its last seven games while trying to replace several injured players, including quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colt McCoy.
He stops and begins to think about the other players who have gone through the Redskins since he was drafted in 2010, Allen’s first year as president. He sees in his mind so many talented players who came in through the draft and then left as management made business decisions. What about Kirk Cousins? he asks. Or Preston Smith, the pass rusher who left as a free agent last year and has 10½ sacks this season for the Green Bay Packers?
Williams has been asking himself these questions a lot now that he has had time to think in broader terms about the only team for which he has played. He says he has started to realize the playoff runs he had been chasing all those years would always elude him as the Redskins kept trying to jump-start winning only to stumble into more losing.
“There’s no shortcuts to the top,” he says. “It’s a long, grueling road, and right now I don’t even feel like the organization is on a road; it’s on a track that’s going in circles. You get to a point where you say, ‘All right, we’re about to break through,’ and in less than a year you’re back to rebuilding.”
Then he says this about Allen, who has overseen the team during a 10-year span that includes a record of 62-93-1:
“I just don’t understand,” he says. “In any business world, when the employer has someone who is underperforming, he finds another one. I don’t know in the last 10 years if there is a worse record [for] someone who has held their job for 10 years and performed the way they performed and still have a job. I don’t know. That would be good to look up and [see] just who else is in that company. I would be thrilled to find out.”
Asked for a response, Allen said, “I’m much more concerned about the Green Bay Packers than that,” referencing the team’s upcoming opponent.
Williams’s sanctuary during these challenging months has been this gym and these fighters who show up every day, desperate for a chance at greatness. His first boxer was a man he trained with named Christian Montoya. He loved how hard Montoya worked and could see how hard it was for the fighter to make money on the long climb to the top.
“They’re so used to being given the least, the minimum,” Williams says. “Boxing is a poor man’s sport. It is. There’s no other way around it. So a promoter can bring guys out [for fights] and gives them the bare minimum, and they can’t complain because it’s what they’re used to.”
When Williams talks about boxing, the word he uses a lot is “organic.” Nothing about the sport or the people he manages is contrived. The money is so small that everything is about work, and all of the fighters he has taken on are ones he has known for years and has spent hours talking to, learning their stories, understanding how desperate they are to someday be great.
In many ways, he is their lifeline. How else would George, who has five children and has been working two jobs in moving and construction to make ends meet, have the chance to fight on Showtime for a shot at the big time?
How else would Quinton Randall, a former U.S. amateur champion, be able to turn pro in his late 20s and already be 6-0? Randall was in a gang on the north side of Houston growing up. He spent two years in prison vowing to change his life, and the day he got out he went straight to a boxing gym. His inspiration was his young son, Quenell, who was going to grow up knowing a father who did things the right way, no matter how long it took.
Eventually, Randall found his way to O Athletik, working every day with Cooper and his coaches on the other side of town. It took years for Randall to break through, to be named captain of the U.S. team and win the national tournament late in 2016. Then the next January, while finishing his final training session with Cooper before heading to the U.S. facility in Colorado Springs for a training camp, he got a call.
Quenell and his mother had been in an accident on the way to see him before his trip. Quenell was being rushed to the hospital. Days later, he died.
“He was my motivation,” Randall says. “My motivation was gone. I took it as a challenge. What is my motivation now?”
When it came time to turn pro, Williams asked him what he needed. Everything would be taken care of.
“I told Trent,” Cooper says, “ ‘you know how to pick them.’ ”
What will happen next between Williams and the Redskins? When asked the question, he shrugs. He misses his teammates and the locker room. He loved the short time he was back, sitting in meetings, pulling younger players aside and talking to them about ways they could be better.
He watches a lot of NFL games and is amazed by how poor the left tackle play has been around the league. He figures a few teams will be interested in a player who has been to seven Pro Bowls and is still young enough to make a difference. He assumes the Redskins will want to make a trade.
“Hopefully when the season is over with, they will feel like they put me through the wringer enough,” he says. “I mean, they already kept my salary and my fines. I feel that’s what Bruce wanted. Hopefully they got what they wanted and they can just let me go to somebody who wants me.”
Williams shrugs again.
“All good things come to an end,” he says.