The Cleveland Browns were still deciding whom to select with the fifth pick of the NFL draft’s second round Friday evening when Ryan Williams’s cellphone began to buzz.
As Williams picked up the phone, his family and friends seated at three tables in the green room backstage at Radio City Music Hall began to gather around him. Television cameras swarmed them in anticipation.
Williams, 21, had waited in this room for almost 41 / 2 hours over two nights, sitting unselected through the entire first round Thursday night, as athlete after athlete walked on stage to join their new pro teams. One minute passed. Then another.
“Yeah, I’m still with you,” he told an official from the Arizona Cardinals, who had the next pick, as Browns running back Peyton Hillis announced that his team took Jabaal Sheard, a defensive end from Pittsburgh. “You need to hurry up and do it so I can get my tears out the way.”
The comment drew laughter, but another two minutes went by with Williams silent. He lowered his head so his dreadlocks covered part of his face and put his right hand over the piercing on his right eyebrow.
His mother, Sharon Johnson, who had missed just two football games in Ryan’s life, began to rub his back. His 29-year-old brother, Dontaye Johnson, who Williams defended in schoolyard fights, intertwined his fingers and began to pray.
The television next to Williams’s table showed the Cardinals now had just four minutes to make their selection. Williams’s eyes began to well up with tears.
Reaching the highest level of a professional sport usually requires not just remarkable talent but a single-minded focus, an overarching desire to get there. Williams has always had both — a natural mix of vision, speed, power and determination.
But at that moment, Williams’s fate was out of his control. He was at the mercy of the 32 NFL teams.
Williams, a star at Stonewall Jackson High in Manassas who declared for the NFL draft after two seasons at Virginia Tech, was paraded around New York with a collection of prospects who were invited to attend the NFL draft.
He headed to an appearance at a Nike store with his agent, Malik Shareef, and his agent’s partner, Joshua Hare.
As Williams walked down Park Avenue, the trio began speculating about where Williams will be drafted. Shareef had a hunch the New England Patriots will be Williams’s eventual destination. Hare thought the Atlanta Falcons would take him with the 27th pick in the first round.
Williams was more conservative. When pressed, he said the Arizona Cardinals with the sixth pick of the second round on Friday night. Shareef laughed at Williams’s choice, saying that’s “the floor” for how far Williams will slide.
“I don’t know if it was a gimmick, but the Cardinals showed the most love,” Williams said. “I ain’t worried about it, though. Any team that passes up on me isn’t going to want to play me on Sundays and Mondays.”
Shareef decided to sleep in Williams’s room to ensure he woke up in time for the NFL-sponsored events. “I had to iron the kid’s shirt this morning,” Shareef said. “I don’t think Joel Segal or Drew Rosenhaus is doing that,” he said of two prominent sports agents.
It was a high-stakes week for Shareef and Hare. The 31-year-old University of Virginia graduates started their own agency, Dimensional Sports, two years ago.
It’s the second year in a row they’ve had a player invited to New York, an honor the NFL usually bestows on prospects it believes will be selected early in the draft. In 2010, they signed Washington-area native Joe Haden, the No. 7 pick in the draft, who plays cornerback for the Cleveland Browns.
High-profile prospects such as Haden keep their business afloat, and the hope in this draft is for Williams to get picked early, and by a team from a major market. Though NFL agents can only collect up to 3 percent commission on a player’s contract, that figure rises to 15 or even 20 percent for endorsements.
Earlier this week, Williams signed a “multiyear, six-digit deal” with Nike that is tiered based on where he gets picked in the draft, according to Hare.
Williams’s day ended at a west side Manhattan nightclub for an ESPN pre-draft party. He mingled, but drank only water and headed back to the hotel at 2 a.m. Another long day awaited him.
“I don’t have no fear about tomorrow,” Williams said. “I just want to be recognized for my talent, and I know and I’ve shown that I’m a first-round talent. Can’t nobody tell me different.
Elaina Watley called this the “day from hell.”
Watley, who works with Shareef and Hare, awoke to learn that weather canceled flights to New York for 13 of Williams’s friends expected to attend tonight’s draft. And the suit Williams was to wear on stage arrived with pants that were too tight in the waist. “Who’s my emergency tailor,” Watley wondered aloud, thumbing through the numbers in her phone.
It was raining in New York, and traffic around Williams’s hotel was crawling. Williams was to make an appearance at a party hosted by the NFL players in Times Square.
None of the chaos seemed to affect Williams, who was more focused on a text message from a friend alerting him that ESPN analyst Todd McShay gave him a first-round grade in his latest draft projection.
“I’m just relaxing,” Williams said. “I know everybody will get here. It’ll all fall into place.”
At the party, Williams remained low key until he spotted former NFL running backs Eric Dickerson, Roger Craig and Eddie George seated at the corner of the bar. Williams had dreamed of being an NFL running back since he was 8 years old.
“I’ve seen all of your YouTubes,” a wide-eyed Williams said to Dickerson, a Hall of Famer. Craig offered a few encouraging words, telling Williams, “I think you’re gonna be something in this league.”
By the time Williams left the party, less than two hours remain before he was supposed to head over to Radio City Music Hall. But 30 minutes after Williams arrived back at his hotel, Watley came pacing through the lobby.
The belt Williams bought last week was too small for the 5-foot-9, 212-pounder. Watley returned 10 minutes later, two belts in hand from a nearby store.
Standing in his two-room hotel suite, with empty room-service trays in the entranceway and cartoons on the television screen, Williams admitted this was just the second time he had ever worn a suit. He didn’t know how to tie a necktie, and asked Loren Johnson, his high school coach, for help.
Williams then told Watley that the pants were still tight.
“I wish I could wear jeans, a sweatshirt and a vest,” Williams said. “Just do me, because that’s what you’re getting. I’m tired of this. I want to get drafted.”
It wouldn’t happen Friday. Shareef knew that Alabama’s Mark Ingram, a Heisman Trophy winner, would be the first running back taken, and hoped the Miami Dolphins would select him with No. 16 pick. But Ingram slipped to No. 28. Williams was still unchosen when the first round ended four picks later.
After 3 hours 30 minutes, Williams emerged from the green room with a solemn look on his face. Loren Johnson put his arm around Williams’s shoulder and told him to use this as motivation, that “it’s just another speed bump. We’ve been here before.”
“I know I’m gonna get picked,” Williams said. “I just gotta wait until tomorrow.”
The green room had an entirely different vibe on this night, Williams said. The top picks were gone, and there was more room backstage with just four players instead of 25.
Williams also was happy that his party’s table was right next to the stage. “They put us all the way in the dadgum back yesterday. We were with all the lame-os,” Williams commented.
Cleveland was on the clock. Williams’s phone began to vibrate. His mind was moving a mile a minute. He said afterward that he didn’t even remember who was on the other end, just that it was somebody who worked for the Cardinals.
An announcement was made that Arizona had turned in its selection to the NFL. Within seconds, Williams lowered his head and uttered his first words in close to four minutes.
“What’s up, coach,” he said over the phone to Steve Keim, the Cardinals’ director of player personnel.
His tears began to flow freely. He couldn’t muster words. He just nodded and said, “Uh huh.”
Then, with Williams still on the phone, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell walked to the podium to introduce former Arizona Cardinal cornerback Aeneas Williams, who announced the Cardinals’ selection.
“With the 38th pick in the 2011 NFL draft,” he said, “the Arizona Cardinals select Ryan Williams, running back, Virginia Tech.”
Williams began to bawl. Shareef, Hare and Watley leaped from their seats. Williams’s mother grabbed her son in a hug. His brother Dontaye looked to the sky and said: “Thank you. Thank you.”
On stage, Williams hugged Goodell, and then his friends mobbed him. As he walked off, Williams dabbed at his face and looked out at the crowd one last time before heading to a series of interviews.
“I was about 8 years old when I knew what I wanted to do,” he said later. “I just turned 21, so that’s about 13 years of hard work, blood, sweat and tears combined in about 10 or 15 minutes. That’s what it was. It came pouring out. I don’t like crying. I don’t like showing people that I cry, but today, it’s an excuse.”