October 21, 2018

Long Read: Perspective helped Duke re-route harrowing path

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

In early June 2013 D’haquille ‘Duke’ Williams stood on a street corner in LaPlace, La. While summer stretched itself over the small-ish city of 30,000, Williams looked at the group of people standing with him. He’d never felt more alone.

After two years of dominating the junior college ranks at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, he was a five-star recruit, a receiver pursued by a number of top-tier Div 1 NCAA programs.

Cars rolled past him and his friends. Where he might have eyed them up in the past, just to see who it might be, Williams looked through them. He’d just turned 20 years old. He had his life and a world of opportunity in front of him. He was numb.

“We were on a break from junior college. I went home and an accident had happened. One of my friends was murdered,” Williams says.

Williams stood on that corner and thought about his friend, Kyrian Gray. He was 16 but he was a seamless fit in the group. Williams was the youngest of eight, but Gray felt like an extension of the family; he called him a cousin. They were at a graduation party on May 25, 2013 when police were called over a noise complaint. By the time they got there, Kyrian had been shot down the street from the party.  

This wasn’t the first time Williams had seen death. It was the third that year. There are realities that come with growing up where Williams did. He may not have accepted it but he understood it. Then death came for Kyrian and it felt like the final straw. Whatever he’d accepted, whatever he understood was all turned upside down.

“I was right there,” Williams says.

“It felt like a movie. Just watching him run and watching him fall. Watching him take his last breath. I was just standing there trying to see what’s wrong with him.”

“Once I’d seen that I didn’t care about nothing. I didn’t want to play ball no more. I was just one of them bad kids, I’m running around now. I’m bad, I don’t care.”

D’haquille Williams on seeing his friend, Kyrian Gray, murdered

Steve Hiscock/CFL.ca

Williams held Kyrian while the ambulance made its way to them. He looked at his friend and told him he’d be OK, that they were going to get him out of there. He remembers Kyrian’s scared face staring back at him, telling him he didn’t want to die. The ambulance took him to the hospital.

“You’re going to be good. You’re going to be alright,” Williams told him as the paramedics put him on the stretcher.

“That was the last time I saw him and talked to him,” Williams says.

“When he got murdered at this party, I didn’t want to go back to school. I wasn’t eating. I was basically a lost soul.”

That soulless body stood on that street corner in LaPlace, overcome with grief, oblivious in a place where your survival depends on being the opposite. Pain replacing his appetite, he’d quickly lost a good 20 pounds.

“Once I’d seen that I didn’t care about nothing. I didn’t want to play ball no more. I was just one of them bad kids, I’m running around now. I’m bad, I don’t care,” he says. “My friend was just killed. But all of that was an excuse to escape that reality I was living in.”

Williams stood there while a car slowed and pulled up to him, the window rolling down. The driver told him to get in. It was Raffeal Neal.

Neal is a juvenile probation officer in Louisiana’s 40th judicial district court. He was also Williams’ youth football coach, mentor and a family friend.

“He came through and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do and we’re not taking no for an answer. Either you’re coming with me or I’m making you come with me.’ I went with him,” Williams says.

» Bio: Duke Williams by the numbers
» Rewind: Williams on The Waggle Podcast
» Morris: Walker, Williams emerging as top receiving duo

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Neal had known Williams and his family essentially from the time that Duke and his family — his seven siblings and their mom, Janie — had arrived in LaPlace from Los Angeles. Janie wanted to get her kids out of the environment surrounding them in L.A.’s Pueblo Del Rio housing project in the city’s south side.

“Basically we moved from here,” Williams grins and gestures with right hand, “to that environment,” holding up his left hand.

“But we made it happen. We adapted to the system when we got there. It wasn’t much different than what we had seen, but we just had to fight through it. Everybody’s not built the same, everybody’s not built to last. We were just thankful for the people that were on our side when we needed help and it all worked out for us.”

Neal was one of those people. He taught Williams the game and when Janie couldn’t take him to practice or pick him up after — she’s a nursing assistant and was constantly working to take care of the kids — Neal would make room in his car for Duke. His day job also carried a lot of weight with the kids that he coached.

“He knew the rough kids coming up, these bad kids, we had some of the bad kids on the team. He’d be their probation officer,” Williams says.

“That’s what made it better for us because we had a probation officer that could keep us out of this system that’s designed to…if you do this, you’re going down. That’s for anybody and that’s what it was. We had to avoid that system.”

That day, Neal took Duke, bought him some fresh clothes, took him to see Janie and drove him the two hours back to Mississippi Gulf Coast. Football season was over but he still needed to get the necessary credits to become a D1 transfer. He brought Duke to MGCCC coach Steve Campbell and told him he didn’t want to see Duke in LaPlace again.

“I said, ‘Look, if he leaves this campus, you let me know,’” Neal told the Opelika-Auburn News in 2014.

“He’s got to stay. He can’t come back to St. John’s the Baptist Parish, because if he do, I’ll talk to (40th judicial circuit judge Mary Hotard) Becnel, I’ll talk to whichever judge we need, to the DA, do whatever we need to do if he’s hanging out with the wrong crew, we’ll send a message and he’ll be that example we use and let everyone else know.

“(Shoot), we ain’t have no problems after that, because he knew it was real.”

Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca

. . .

From the time he picked up a football, there seems to be a story to go with it of Duke being an exceptional talent. His coaches tell stories of him being physically dominant when he was eight and nine years old. His mom Janie told a story of how he was approached once after playing pickup football to join a semi-pro team. The man had no idea that Duke was only 14 (Duke says it happened when he was 16). When he got to high school, his coach, Larry Dauterive, told AL.com that he saw the NFL in his future.

Dauterive added an important caveat in that story: “If he stays on the straight and narrow.”

With the violence and negative temptations that surrounded him in LaPlace, that caveat lingered on the periphery of Williams’ life like pilot fish with a shark. Williams realized he could be great when he was 12 or 13 and he knew what that could mean for him.

“That’s where I learned, maybe, you could be different. Maybe this could take you far in life, take you away from this environment you were raised in,” he says.

But the pull of what was around him was strong. Like anyone, he made friends with the people around him at school, the people in his neighbourhood. He’d tell the adults in his life that he couldn’t just sit inside all the time. The people around him may have gotten into trouble here and there, but that wasn’t Duke’s business. They did what they did and Duke racked up yards on the football field.

“He’d go home and you never were sure he’d come back, but he always did,” Mississippi Gulf Coast defensive coordinator Steve Davis told AL.com.

“He graduated with a 3.3 (GPA) and did a great job, but there were always questions like if he was going to go challenge the guy who killed his cousin, things like that.”

“Football was just an escape from everything,” Williams says. “Once I stepped on that field, I didn’t have no worries. But once I got off, the problems,” he snaps his fingers, “still came.”

Auburn University

After nearly giving it all up in 2013, Williams went back to Mississippi Gulf Coast and got the grades and credits he needed. He made his first efforts to really distance himself from the life he knew when he decommitted from Louisiana State University and chose Auburn. He was hailed as the No. 1 JUCO recruit in the country. He was on campus in January, 2014, a good 5.5 hours away from home, living in Alabama.

When football season rolled around, he was ready. He had nine catches for 154 yards in the Tigers’ season-opening win over Arkansas. As he put together a 45-catch, 730-yard season with five touchdowns in 10 games, the talk of his NFL future picked up. Behind the scenes, the little things were starting to pile up. Even if it were just a few seconds or a few minutes, he was late for meetings and the coaches didn’t like that. Despite his strong season, he caught the ire of the coaching staff and was suspended for the team’s appearance in the Outback Bowl. In fall camp in 2015, he was suspended again over what the team called a discipline issue. On Oct. 6, 2015, the school announced that Williams had been dismissed from the team. A report later said that Williams got in a fight at a bar and had punched four people, breaking a teammates’ jaw.

“Once I got in trouble the first time it was like I’m walking on thin ice. I felt it going away,” Williams said.

Auburn was the first time in Williams’ life that just being an excellent receiver wasn’t enough. Those little things mattered and they added up. Perhaps the most gifted pass catcher on his team, Williams could feel his opportunity slipping through his fingers and he felt like there was nothing he could do to stop it.

“Coach Dameyune Craig, the wide receivers coach, he was like prophet,” Williams says.

“He always told us it’s bigger than football, but it went in one ear and out the other. He knew because he’d been through decades of kids, players, people messing up. He told me, ‘You’ll keep on this path and you won’t be here no longer.’ He was right. Everything he said, he was right.

“To this day I wished I believed him. Everything he said, happened. I ignored the signs and he told me more than once. We’d be talking and he’d just remind me to do my part and I’d be good. I didn’t do my part.”

Auburn University

. . .

For the first time in his life, Williams was without football. His talent was unquestioned, but after Auburn, despite the strength of that first year with the program in 2014, scouts and NFL teams thought first of his off-the-field activities when they heard his name. It was the wakeup call he needed.

“When I lost it I just knew that I had to get it back. When I get it back, what am I going to do different? I did it a lot different,” he says. “I approached the game different and I approached people different. I approach how I care about other people different. At first I was just…I was just selfish. I thought everything was about me. But it isn’t and that humbled me as well.”

After Auburn and as he prepped for the NFL combine, Williams took the advice of his agent and saw a counsellor. He went twice a week for a couple of months.

“I had to find myself over again. Counselling definitely helped me out, put a lot of things in perspective for me,” he says. “Just talking to myself during certain situations, if it’s worth it or not. What’s the consequence going to be for your actions? That’s what it’s about, just growing as a man, being honest with the counsellor and yourself.”

You hear that perspective in his voice today as he talks about his past and the mistakes he made.

“No more time for mistakes. I have no room for error,” he says.

He was signed as an undrafted player by the L.A. Rams but was cut in training camp. He spent the year working out, wanting to be ready for the next call. That it was the Edmonton Eskimos on the other end of the phone was a surprise to him, but he embraced the opportunity. The CFL has long been known as a second-chance league to many American players. Williams went to the Esks’ mini-camp in Las Vegas, signed his contract and zeroed in.

He had a good rookie season in 2017, playing in 13 games and showing flashes of his playmaking ability, with 715 yards and four touchdowns. He went back to Louisiana in the off-season, took what he learned in Year 1 and returned a leaner, more versatile player for 2018. He’s dominated this year, sitting comfortably in front as the league’s top receiver. Even as the Esks’ offence struggled through an anemic three-game stretch — which has put the league’s most creative touchdown celebrator has been on hiatus — he’s stayed atop the league. Heading into Week 20, he has 85 catches for 1,534 yards with 10 touchdowns.

“There’s nothing that I haven’t seen within the ages of 10 to 18; I’ve seen a lot. That’s not normal for that type of person to see. One day I’m going to tell this story that’s going to shock the world.”

D’haquille Williams on his tumultuous upbringing

Patrick Doyle/CFL.ca

He’s a free-agent this winter and while he doesn’t address his future — he says he’s focused on the now and desperately wants to bring a Grey Cup to Edmonton — he speaks with a confidence about the NFL that says he knows he could play there. He knows from his first time around that he has the ability, but learned that the things he has far less control over, timing and opportunity, play just as much of a factor in having that dream work out.

He’s still thinking about what would come after he’s caught his last pass, or created his last viral touchdown celebration. He studied business in school and is a few classes away from graduating. One of his sisters is in real estate and that intrigues him.

Beyond doing something that will bring in dollars, he thinks about his life and how he grew up. He thinks about the kids that grew up around him in L.A. and LaPlace. He thinks about Kyrian and the others that should have made it out. He thinks about how those deaths affect people. How he was briefly one of those broken, soulless bodies on a street corner and how at-risk he was.

“I really want to be a motivational speaker or a coach. I just want to help kids and be successful, prevent them from anything that I went through,” Williams says. “Being that major person in their life, that mentor that they can call at any moment, any time of the night that’s going to pick up and set them straight.

“There’s nothing that I haven’t seen within the ages of 10 to 18; I’ve seen a lot. That’s not normal for that type of person to see. One day I’m going to tell this story that’s going to shock the world.

“Man, coming from this type of environment and being one of the top players in high school, one of the top players in junior college to being one of the top receivers in the SEC to losing it all over foolishness. How he came back and really succeeded and didn’t let that hold him down. It’s going to be a story to tell.”