HOUSTON — Trent Williams’s football career has often been unplanned. He was forced into playing the game at 7 years old, though basketball was his real love. Williams wanted to be a tight end in high school, but he was stuck on the offensive line.
Even during his rookie season, when Williams thought then-Redskins coach Mike Shanahan would ease him into the NFL by playing him at right tackle, he started his career protecting Donovan McNabb’s blind side from the left tackle position. His first game: lining up across future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, while still learning an NFL playbook.
The Redskins beat the Cowboys, 13-7. “My head was spinning,” Williams recalled. “Literally, [Redskins guard] Derrick Dockery had to tell me what to do like maybe 75 percent of the time.”
Williams’s potential to be great was evident to those around him based on how he handled these moments, but greatness wasn’t his aim back in 2010. He was just seeing how far a kid from Longview, Tex., could go to better his circumstances, despite the odds against a successful career in professional football.
Through his accomplishments, and shortcomings, Williams’s maturation created a mind-set that has allowed him to become a cornerstone for the Redskins as one of the best left tackles in the game. His pursuit to become one of the greatest of all time continues.
“You want your name to mean something when you actually hang your cleats up,” said, Williams, 29. “That’s what I do it for. I know I have an opportunity be considered great. In this case, I know I have what it takes. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t put the work into it and take the right process.”
Williams wants to be uttered in the same breath as Anthony Munoz, Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones, his idol, as one of the best left tackles to play the game. At the very least, Williams wants to be the greatest offensive lineman in Redskins history, a franchise that prides itself on having one of the best offensive lines in NFL history with the original Hogs.
“It’s a pretty lofty goal, but the first step is setting them, right?” he said.
Williams, now in his eighth season, is in what he feels is the midway point of his career. It’s not a career that can be assured a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame at this moment, but it’s on the right path. The five-time Pro Bowler has given up a sack every 138 snaps over the last six seasons, according to Pro Football Focus, a website that analyzes NFL statistics. The league average for left tackles in that span is for one every 98 snaps.
“His athleticism, hand-eye coordination and footwork is unmatched,” Redskins center Spencer Long said. “For a guy his size to be able to move the way he does, I’ve never seen it before. … Watching him perform is something special.”
Williams’s ambition to be great began in 2011 after his rookie season, during an offseason in which the league was going through a lockout. Williams sized himself up against other left tackles in the game and realized he belonged in the NFL. He had the size, at 6-5 and 320 pounds, athleticism and instincts to consistently play one of the most valued positions on the field at a high level.
But he didn’t have the work ethic. Viewed as a three-star guard coming out of Longview High, Williams admitted that he got through college at Oklahoma strictly on his athletic ability and instincts. He did just enough in the weight room, yet was talented enough for the Redskins to draft him fourth overall in 2010 because of his potential.
“Growing up, he was known as the lazy one,” said Fredrick Williams, Trent’s older brother. “When he learned how to walk, and took his first couple of steps, wherever he would fall, that’s where he would sleep. He’d just lay down and go to sleep.”
What he lacked in work ethic, he made up for with competitiveness. Williams spent the offseason training in Houston with New Orleans Saints running back Adrian Peterson, who Williams considers as a big brother dating back to Oklahoma. Peterson’s work ethic rubbed off on Williams over the course of seven months until the lockout ended.
Once he noticed results, he became addicted to the process. In 370 snaps, Williams allowed just two sacks and four quarterback hits during his second year.
The hard work paid off, but it didn't result in a Pro Bowl nod like Williams hoped. He was suspended for the final four games in 2011 after failing multiple tests for marijuana use. Since he wasn't an active player while suspended, his name wasn't on the Pro Bowl ballot.
Williams felt embarrassed, as he said people within in his circle didn’t even know he smoked marijuana, but he acknowledges he had nobody to blame but himself. Williams said he did it at the time to help his body recover after a game rather than using pain medication, which has given him an upset stomach dating back to high school.
“A lot of times, it’s just for that simple reason in itself,” Williams said. “Getting a concussion, dealing with headaches, whatever. Not saying that it was right, obviously I shouldn’t have done it and obviously should’ve chose a different method. But at that time, you’re caught up in the midst of the season and all you want to do is be available. It wasn’t the right decision, but if you’re looking for a reason, it’s just to try and feel better for the next week.”
The motivation from the suspension, coupled with a newly discovered work ethic, have fueled Williams to become bigger, faster and stronger as he’s gotten older. His personal trainers said that’s rarely the case for an offensive lineman this far in his career. Williams could barely bench 405 pounds after his rookie season. Now, Williams could do that nearly 20 times.
“He’s strong,” said trainer James Cooper, who has previously trained legends like Basketball Hall of Fame center David Robinson and Pro Football Hall of Fame left tackle Orlando Pace. “He really is, and I don’t gas guys up. I got the videos and pictures to prove it.”
Williams, who signed a five-year deal worth $68 million two years ago, has been named to the last five Pro Bowls, the longest streak by an offensive tackle in Redskins history and second longest by an offensive lineman, trailing only center Len Hauss (1967-72).
He has yet to receive first-team all-pro honors. It serves a reminder that while quarterbacks can be measured up by how many touchdowns they throw, or cornerbacks for their interceptions, winning is the most important statistic for an offensive lineman.
“You only notice the good o-linemen on good teams,” Williams said. “I could block my man to the dirt, but if we go three-and-out, who really cares? So that’s why with all-pro every year, you only see those guys with teams that are having good seasons. I continue to feel like I got snubbed out of all-pro just because of the team success, and I just kept using all of that as a driving force.”
Pro Football Focus viewed Williams as the best left tackle in the NFL in 2016, a year in which he gave up a career low two sacks. But Williams was suspended again during the season and forced to sit out four games, this time for a missed drug test, not a failed test, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation.
Williams declined to shed light on the matter.
There’s a belief in the league that a missed test is just as bad as a failed test, given that each leads to suspension and fans end up failing to distinguish between the two. It’s clear that the failed test and missed test have cast a cloud over Williams’s career.
Williams said he’s currently not using marijuana. If suspended a third time, Williams would miss 10 games, a costly punishment that would significantly impact his odds at making the Hall of Fame.
Williams believes that marijuana use for pain relief will be viewed in a completely different light 10 years from now, around the same time his career will be put into perspective by Hall of Fame voters. Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia allow recreational marijuana use, 12 have decriminalized the drug, while 21 others permit medicinal use. .
“When you’re staring down a barrel of a gun, you ain’t gonna squeeze the trigger on yourself,” Williams said. “Knowing that that’s what they’re looking for, knowing that they don’t mind ruining someone’s career over something that, I don’t really need no type of intervention or rehab to say, ‘All right, enough’s enough.’ Nah, we ain’t gonna give them no more reasons, so that’s pretty much it. Cold turkey.”
He said he doesn’t take pain medication for his aching body after a game, nor has he used alcohol as any sort of substance substitute. Instead, he said he has relied on other methods, like boxing, to help his body recuperate from a physical game where muscle aches and soreness are common the following morning.
It’s one of the many lessons Williams has learned during his career. After the Redskins lost a first-round matchup to Seattle during the 2012 season, Williams muffed Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in the face. He was fined $7,875 for letting his emotions get the best of him following his first playoff game.
The contest happened nearly five years ago, yet it still gets circulated online either as a GIF or meme. There are fans who best know him for this action he would later regret.
“I’m reminded of it a lot, probably a lot more than I would like to be,” Williams said. “It is what it is. You live and you learn. If I could take it away, yeah, I probably would. I probably would’ve made more of a level-headed decision at that heat of the moment. But when you’re a competitor out there competing, tempers flare.”
Williams passes along the knowledge gained from his mistakes down to his “Silverback” crew so that they can learn from his shortcomings as well. The nickname was established during Williams’s junior year at Oklahoma, when his friends were debating whether they could beat up a chimpanzee in the confined space they occupied. As everyone yelled their opinions, Williams spewed, “I’m a silverback gorilla! A chimp can’t beat up a silverback!”
“Well, [expletive], you right; that’s the strongest thing in the jungle,” said former NFL linebacker Keenan Clayton, who played with Williams at Oklahoma and is a member of the silverbacks. It has stuck with them ever since, with Williams as the leader of the pack.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell referenced the nickname when he called Williams’s name on draft night in 2010.
Even on game day, Williams wears custom Nike cleats with faux-fur on the back and a “silverback” patch on the tongue to represent his team away from the field.
“He’s a nice guy at the end of the day,” said practice squad linebacker Pete Robertson, who is a cousin of Williams and grew up across the street in Longview. “He’ll talk about you, and he’ll do a lot of fun and games, but he’s a guy that when you’re on your last leg, he’ll be that crutch right there when you need him. When you need him in the stretch end, he’ll be there for you.”
Williams never imagined any of this back when he was a 7-year-old stepping on a football field for the first time as a running back. He was sitting on his sidelines with his mother, watching his big brother play when the coach persuaded his mom to get him to play with kids two years older than him. Williams got pummeled by the other kids, and suffered from fumbilitis. Williams hated football so much, he would rather sit on sideline with his back to the field, watching the nearby cheerleaders, than watch the play on the field.
Now, he has sleepless nights in March thinking about games that won’t be played for another six months.
“I don’t have a storybook career,” Williams said. “I’ve had some ups. I’ve had some downs. But the ups wouldn’t feel so good if you ain’t go through as many downs. I’m just thankful for this journey so far, and I pray that God continues to bring me down a path that he wants me to be on. I just hope that I can continue to improve and play a level of football that I can be proud of.”
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