NFL draft prospect Quinnen Williams leans on family, football after great loss


Editor's note: The Choice is a four-part series that dives deep into four of the 2019 NFL Draft's top prospects, detailing how their early lives and decisions prepared them for this moment. Third in the series: Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams.

Wenonah High School’s football team watches game film on Sundays at 3 p.m. sharp, a vital fixture of coach Ronald Cheatham’s in-season routine.

Quinnen Williams knows the schedule well after countless Sundays spent reviewing old results while preparing for the future. He fondly recalls those formative days in the old Dragons field house, even after years spoiled by the University of Alabama’s posh training complex.

Cheatham’s film sessions perfectly line up with a rare down point in the Crimson Tide schedule, so Williams decided to pop in. College football’s best interior defensive lineman made the 1-hour drive from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, Ala., the morning after a game day, took his grandmother to church and headed to Wenonah at 3 o'clock sharp.

“I snuck in," Williams said, "and sat in the back."

Williams showed up with his hood on, lest his star power distract from Cheatham’s lesson plan. He wasn’t there to shake hands or sign autographs. He wasn’t there to discuss the now-virtual certainty that he’ll be a top-five NFL draft pick, or the real chance he’ll be the first or second player selected. Williams came to watch and observe, and then educate.

“Those guys were breaking it down to a high school level, so I thought, ‘What if I knew in high school what I know now?’ ” Williams said. “I got up there, and Coach Cheatham introduced me and said, ‘He was basically observing you guys.’ He said I would teach them how to watch film on a college level, and identify the tendencies you can watch for and use in a game. It was such a great experience for me and, I hope, for them.”

It wasn’t a one-time thing. Williams kept coming back, even as his celebrity grew with every dominant performance. Sometimes, he helped break down film. He was a motivational speaker at others, preaching the importance of hard work and good grades. Once, he stopped by so the kids could see his Alabama national championship ring.

There was one goal in all those efforts: To be a point of pride for an underserved, somewhat underprivileged part of Birmingham, living proof that dreams do come true.

“There’s character involved in that, to be that guy setting an example for kids without someone in the home to look up to,” Cheatham said. “They see him playing on Saturday. If you play at this school, and then you go on to play somewhere like Alabama, the kids know what you’re doing. They know how you played. It does make a huge difference when he’s walking in the hallway.

“He’ll walk around and just hug people. I have teachers at the middle school telling me Quinnen came back and lifted everybody up. You know how much that means around here, to see someone do so well and want to come back and say thank you? That’s priceless.”

Williams is trying to give back one kilowatt smile at a time, offering reminders that, no matter how high he’s drafted Thursday night, how far away he moves from Birmingham or how big the paycheck gets, he’s proud to call this place home.

That’s what his mother would want. She was a nurturer. Lifting people up is what she’d often do.

Strength in numbers

Marquischa Henderson Williams’ smile could light up a room just like her second son’s, with a magnetic personality and sunny outlook to boot.

It’s not the only similarity -- not even close -- between kindred spirits torn apart too soon. Those are too many to count.

Yvarta Henderson can see her daughter in Quinnen just as clear as day, in both appearance and personality. She comes to life whenever Quinnen returns to this warm, inviting home in Birmingham’s West Brownville neighborhood, bringing 300 pounds of energy, optimism and that unmistakable shared smile through grandma’s door.

“I don’t care what happened in life. Good or bad, she would still be smiling,” Henderson said. “Quinnen does the same thing. You can’t read him sometimes because he’s always smiling. He’s always happy. That’s just him. He’s always like that.”

No one smiled through the summer of 2010, when Marquischa Williams checked herself into a Birmingham hospital on the Fourth of July with complications of breast cancer. She had beaten it once, but the cancer had returned with vengeance.

That recurrence was diagnosed two months prior, but Marquischa chose to deal with this setback alone, to keep added stress off her family. She beat cancer five years before, and she'd surely do it again.

The family was devastated by the news but remained confident in her long-term health. The cancer had spread this time, gained control and never let go.

Initial optimism waned with time and, before long, Quincy Williams Sr. started preparing his four children for the unthinkable: Their mother might not make it home.

Finality came fast. Marquischa Henderson Williams died on Aug. 10, 2010, roughly five weeks after her silent struggle became known. She was just 37 years old.

Quincy Jr. was just 14 at the time. Quinnen was 12, Giovanni was 11 and Ciele was only 9. Losing a mother is devastating at any age, especially for young children unversed in cruel ways of the world.

“It was very hard at first,” Quincy Sr. said. “Losing a spouse and a mother is extremely difficult.”

Marquischa was the center of their universe, and her death left a void that remains nearly nine years later. The wound won’t fully heal, but the family has learned to carry on by leaning on each other.

“We bonded close, as close as you can get, because we had to,” Quincy Sr. said. “We had to get each other to through the hard times, through the difficult times.

“We had to keep everything normal. We had to keep the kids busy with sports, basketball, soccer, baseball cheerleading camps, church plays and speeches. We stayed as busy as possible, always working to do the right thing, to prevent the mind from drifting off toward bad influences. We stayed busy, and we stayed close.

“We talked all the time. We texted. We kept an open family communication together. We had extended family always providing a positive influence in teaching and [helping bring up the kids]. It was a collective effort. Everybody pitched in and did a part. … So many people deserve credit in getting us where we are today.”

Yvarta Henderson (middle) with five of her 12 grandchildren, including NFL draft prospect Quinnen Williams (far right) (Photo courtesy of Ciele Williams)

The Williams siblings are in an amazing place.

Quinnen dominated during his last season at Alabama, won the Outland Trophy and will be a top NFL draft pick. Quincy Jr. just graduated from Murray State, and the inside linebacker should be either a late draft pick or an undrafted free agent with a real chance to carve out an NFL career. Giovanni attends Lawson State Community College following a solid high school football career. Ciele will graduate from Wenonah High in May and start classes at Alabama State in the fall, following in her family's footsteps studying elementary education. They have been able to thrive by keeping each other on the right path. 

“You can’t close yourself off from everything when your family member passes, especially when it’s a mom or dad,” Quincy Jr. said. “You have to still keep pushing and do what they would want you to do. You have to act like they’re still there and think about the positives and not the negatives.

“That’s the biggest thing we tell each other. We let everybody know that this is the reason why we’re doing things, to make our mom proud. There’s a bigger picture, other than just us doing it and living life.”

Busy lives have diverged in recent years, so getting everyone under the same roof is tricky these days. 

Technology keeps the four siblings in constant communication, though, with a group text chain that extends for miles. Quincy Jr. is the alpha there, but they all share locations and keep tabs. They motivate each other after athletic events or before big life moments -- the brothers always make sure Ciele's taken care of -- offering a line of support forged after Marquischa’s death and that never shuts down.

“It’s something they’re still dealing with, something they’ll deal with the rest of their lives,” Henderson said. “They were young when it happened, which was really hard on them. I think that, over time, it made their bond stronger.

“Honestly, they were kept so busy that they didn’t have idle time. They just threw themselves in sports and all of their activities, but even now, they still miss their momma.”

An important lesson learned

(From left to right) Quinnen, Giovanni, Ciele and Quincy Jr. after a Wenonah High School football game. (Photo courtesy of Ciele Williams)

Quinnen Williams came running toward Cheatham with tears streaming down his face, and the Wenonah coach immediately thought the worst. One of his star players must've been hurt, in the last regular-season game before the 2015 playoffs no less. Bad news, bad luck.

“I’m on the sideline wondering what the heck had happened,” Cheatham said. “I thought he broke something.”

Nope. His older brother had let him have it.

Quincy Jr. was Wenonah’s leader and star linebacker, and he demanded far better from his defense during an important game that was slipping away. He especially was hard on Quinnen that night, knowing younger brother’s vast potential wasn’t being realized right then.

Quinnen welled up, and then bolted for the sideline.

Cheatham told Quinnen that no one, not even his own blood, should rattle him during a game. Quinnen listened, learned and, after that, grew thicker skin.

Quinnen knew he had to grow up, and said so directly the next summer in Cheatham’s office.

“He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Coach, you’ll never see that again,’ ” Cheatham said. “He turned and walked out of the office, and his football took off.

"Now that sounds like a TV movie or something, but it’s not. It’s absolutely true. When he made the decision to be more mature, his game took off to the point that several SEC schools offered him by the end of the year.”

It wasn’t the first or last time that Quincy Jr. helped set Quinnen straight. Quincy Jr. always has accepted added responsibility as the older sibling, but really pushed to be a positive influence after his mother passed.

“I wasn’t a replacement in any way, but I tried to take what she taught us and keep instilling it and make sure nobody fell off the path,” Quincy Jr. said. “That was the biggest thing for me, and she prepared me for it, too.”

Quincy Jr. and Quinnen are tight. They’re less than two years apart in age, and have bonded over football. Both should be in NFL training camps this summer. They have trained together in Tuscaloosa this offseason. And, as you'd expected, they're extremely competitive. They can get serious when the mood strikes and aren't afraid to be frank.

All four kids were devastated by Marquischa’s death, but it was common knowledge that she and Quinnen were closest. They did everything together, from cooking to shopping. He’d even help when she graded homework from her elementary-school students. Quincy Jr. was always quick to pick up signs, especially with Quinnen got uncharacteristically quiet. And at times, he felt Quinnen pulling away.

Quinnen would sometimes start to drift into his own thoughts, isolating himself in grief. It wasn’t always easy or immediately effective, but Quincy Jr. did what he could to bring Quinnen back to the group.

“It hit Quinnen really hard. I mean, we called him momma’s boy,” Quincy Jr. said. “I had to make sure he was still good and things like that, because he closed himself off a lot. I had to talk to him a few times [then] and we still talk about it now. That’s especially true right now when he’s off by himself (during the pre-draft process), to say, ‘Mom’s proud of you,’ and things like that.

“It’s true. Our mom is proud.”

School's never out in this family

Quinnen Williams showed great athleticism at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, helping cement his status as a top NFL draft prospect. (Photo by USA TODAY Sports Images)

Quinnen Williams called his grandmother in mid-January with some exciting news: He was declaring himself eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft. He would be a top pick after an excellent 2018 season in which he moved from defensive end to nose guard for the Crimson Tide, and then became a household name.

Financial security was on its way for everyone, with Quinnen ever so close to realizing his NFL dreams.

Henderson didn’t jump for joy. Here’s what she heard, translated through an educator’s ears.

“Mrs. Henderson, I just dropped out of school.”

That was unacceptable to someone who spent a career teaching Birmingham’s youth and her own grandkids. Henderson had Quincy Jr. in her first-grade class. All four kids went to school where she worked. She took them to class in elementary school, and helped them with homework at all stages of their academic lives.

Grades before football. That’s a standard Marquischa set long ago, a hard stance meant to enforce the importance of quality education. That applied way back when. It applied that day. 

“My grandmother, my mom, my aunties, they’re all teachers,” Quinnen said. “They make sure I stay on the right path.

“My grandmother didn’t know what declaring early meant. I told her I was leaving college, and she took that like I was dropping out. She couldn’t believe it because, to her, football is secondary. I had to tell her about the process of going back to school, and then she got behind it. I’m definitely going back.”

Williams can pick up where he left off at Alabama when the time is right. He will graduate. He will earn his degree. His mother would've accepted nothing less.

“That’s something I want to do for myself, but I know she would want me to do that,” Quinnen Williams said. “She would also recognize the opportunity is a needle in a haystack for someone where I’m from. I have to take this chance and run with it.”

Opportunity knocks, and there's an answer

Da’Ron Payne blazed Quinnen Williams’ career path. The dominant nose tackle left Alabama early for last year’s NFL draft, a decision rewarded when Washington took him No. 13 overall.

Payne’s departure left a rare void on Alabama’s defense without a clear successor, and Quinnen Williams applied for the job. It didn’t matter that Williams played a different position and was 40 pounds too light for a new role.

He wanted to start. He wanted to play significant snaps. He wanted to take this chance and run with it.

Coaches approved the position switch inside from defensive end, and gave him proper tools for rapid weight gain. Williams increased size and strength over last spring and summer but somehow didn’t lose the natural traits that made him a good edge rusher.

“Quinnen was always athletic, and had really good quickness,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think sometimes he was a little undersized, and maybe that limited his role, but as he got bigger and stronger, he kept that quickness, and he became a dominant player.

“He has always played with great attitude, lots of tenacity. He’s a hard worker who tries to do everything right, and he’s a smart player as well. That combination of things helped him rise very quickly.”

”Skyrocket” is used too often in NFL draft parlance, but the term applies perfectly here. Williams was a relative unknown before the position switch, a backup end patiently waiting behind talented upperclassmen. Anonymity extended to the NFL scouting community, which didn’t give him credence as a draft prospect.

That changed after evaluators saw Williams play inside. He was dominant against both the run and the pass, big enough to move piles yet elusive enough to slip into the backfield. He did all that often, totaling 71 tackles, including eight sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last season.

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah has watched Williams extensively, and says he pops off the game film more consistently than any prospect in this draft, regardless of position.

Scouts also saw that. Williams shot up draft boards and stayed there with an excellent combine showing that included a shockingly fast 40-yard dash -- 4.83 seconds -- for someone so big.

Then came the combine meetings, individual team dinners and pre-draft visits, where his unshakable confidence and easy-going personality shine. Teams often move him to the whiteboard, which can stress the unprepared.

That’s a comfort zone for Williams, where he can break down all the film he’s studied and information absorbed quickly and effortlessly. He has plenty of experience working on film, dating to those Wenonah High study sessions. He honed the crafted at Alabama, and used it as a survival tactic during his position switch.

“People ask how I got so smart playing football. It’s from getting knocked around,” Williams said. “It wasn’t easy being 275 [pounds] playing nose guard in spring football against the Alabama offensive line, so I had to find something to beat those guys. I started looking more at film, watching tendencies. I would watch our offense’s practice every day, every single day. I just started finding clues I could use against them.

“When I got good at that, I started to see the way I play change. That gave me confidence that I could play well despite being smaller than usual at my position.”

Williams is a big guy now, toned over an intense training stretch following Alabama’s season that continues to this day. He’s now 302 pounds of muscle, with excellent individual test scores, dynamic game film and off-the-charts football smarts.

Williams might not be picked No. 1 overall, but many consider him the best overall player in this NFL draft. Sources believe there’s little chance he’ll make it past the Raiders at No. 4, but he might not be there, considering most draft experts consider him a rare can’t-miss prospect with tremendous upside.

Still home sweet home

“When he walks in this house, he’s just Quinnen,” Henderson said. “He’s still the kid who used to jump on our bed and take over our kitchen. He likes coming home and just being himself.”

Yvarta and Charles Henderson have lived in the same place for more than for 20 years, just four blocks from where grandma grew up. This house, this neighborhood, is home base for all 12 of her grandkids, no matter where they live now. There’s comfort in that, especially with so much new swirling around Quinnen these days.

“They would come here every day after school,” Henderson said. “[Marquischa] was in school then, too, with her computer sitting at that table. She’d come and cook. The kids would do their homework, and I would help them, and she would do her thing.”

You almost can see the scene play out as Henderson describes it, with everyone doing their part to get through the evening routine. Marquischa was working on her master’s degree in early childhood development back then, and the table where she studied remains in the living room, with a kitchen adjacent to it.

Marquischa would typical prepare the meal, often with Quinnen by her side.

“He would be home cooking with her when everybody was out playing,” Henderson said. “They would watch the cooking channel and then make what they watched. ...

“There was a very strong attachment. They were just [so close].”

Quinnen can be a tough read to even his grandmother -- his smile can bring you in or keep you at bay -- but there's evidence he’s growing and carrying on, with Marquischa always by his side in spirit.

“He’ll come here and just start cooking,” Henderson said. “He loves pancakes for some reason. He hasn’t had it lately because he’s in training, but he still comes over and cooks. We’re not little people in this family, so he must be pretty good at it.”

Henderson loves those visits, because she can see firsthand that Quinnen is as grounded as ever. She’s worried about the celebrity changing him, that all the money and pats on the back will mark a personality shift. That’s highly unlikely, given Quinnen’s commitment to his family and his home, but grandmothers worry even about those raised properly.

“Family is first,” Henderson said. “[That phrase] is tattooed on Quincy Jr. No matter what happens, you can always depend on each other.”

The group rallied together after Marquischa died, from Quincy Sr. to her children, and on to the outer branches of this family tree.

“Everybody did their part,” Henderson said. “I did. Her sisters did. Their dad was there, too. Everything worked out as well as it could have. We were all devastated. I certainly was, but I had to keep going. It was a task, and it still is. But I can look at them and how well they’re all doing and see we must’ve been doing something right.”

Quinnen appreciates the unconditional support given to him during tough times, and welcomes the opportunity to pay it back.

“I do everything I’m doing right now for my family,” he said. “My older brother doesn’t have the same opportunity I have. My little brother doesn’t have it. My sister is just in high school. I feel like I’m setting the tone for everybody.

"I can take care of everybody with what I’m doing now. I don’t even mean financially. If they need a back to lean on, I’ve got them. I’m the anchor of the family. I’m blessed to be in this position, to be able to do that.”

His mother used to be the anchor. It’s only right that Quinnen works to take that place.

Ready for a bright future that honors the past

Quincy Williams Sr. has a busy week ahead. He’ll be in Nashville on Thursday night for the NFL draft, where Quinnen will hug the commissioner, sport a brand new hat and hold up his new team’s jersey.

Then he has to drive back to Birmingham on Friday for Wenonah High’s awards night, where Ciele will be honored at a big event leading up to graduation.

He’ll have the phone close Saturday in case Quincy Jr. ends up being an NFL draft pick. If not, he’ll be eager to hear where his oldest signs as a free agent.

Quincy Sr. hasn’t spent much time absorbing all the big things happening with his children these days -- there’s always so much to do -- but he’s proud they’ve found a way to persevere and thrive.

“We have a very close bond within our family,” Quincy Sr. said. “Since my wife passed, we’ve bonded closer because, as we said after she was gone, ‘We’re all we’ve got.’ That’s what makes the family bond so tight.”

They remain a family of six. Marquischa’s best qualities now exist in her children, who do everything possible to honor her beliefs, her spirit and her memory.

“I can see it every day. We actually live for her,” Quincy Sr. said. “… You can see her in all of them, through big and little things they do. She is with us every single day.”

On Thursday, in the final installment of "The Choice": Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen leaves New Jersey to live in small-town Alabama, then returns a new man humbly prepared for stardom.

Other stories in the series: Nick Bosa I Rashan Gary

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