March 19, 2019

O’Leary: Williams inspired, ready to work at CFL Combine

University of Manitoba

In the 46 years he’s been coaching football, Brian Dobie has seen a lot.

Forty-eight of his players from the University of Manitoba have been drafted into the Canadian Football League. He has three alumni that have made it to the NFL. There are 69 players that have become Canada West conference All-Stars, 45 All-Canadians and 12 national award winners.

Zack Williams might be the 49th player of Dobie’s to go to the CFL, but the coach also says he’s never had another player like him.

“He’s the hardest-working guy, one of the best people I’ve ever coached. A workaholic,” Dobie said of the fourth-year offensive lineman that stands six-foot-five and weighs around 315 pounds.

“If teams want someone that will grind, that will bring his lunch pail to work every day, he’s that guy.”

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Workaholic can be a cliche that a coach throws around when he’s trying to talk up a player. When it comes to Williams, it’s a literal description. All he’s done in his four years with the Bisons is work, both on and off the field.

Some indecision about his future in his freshman year with the Bisons led to bad grades, which led to him losing his scholarship. He wanted to stay in school and wanted to continue playing football, but he needed to pay for his classes. So he went out and found all of the work that he could.

“For two years or so, for the off-seasons up to 2017, I worked this night job,” he said. “Forty hours a week from 10:45 p.m to 7:15 a.m. Then I’d go to this bakery and work the morning shift to 2:30 p.m. Then I’d go to my training and I’d get home and sleep for a couple of hours. Then I’d go work at Visions for a couple of hours, which is an electronics store. I’d sleep for a couple of hours and then I’d go back to my night job.

“Then, you know, I’d try to squeeze in some school so I could pass my classes to be eligible. It was hard because I didn’t have as much time to focus on (the training) because I was trying to pay off all of my classes.”

It quickly became a difficult juggling act. On the weekends when he had “more free time,” he said, adding air quotes in over our phone call, he’d work a security job.

Sleep became an infrequent visitor that Williams couldn’t find enough time for. That probably hurt him in his training, where he was constantly trying to gain weight. He was a far way from the 170-pound running back that shifted to the O-line in the 11th grade, but he had a ways to go if he wanted to meet his goals.

“It’s hard to keep my weight up when I’m not getting as much sleep and it’s hard to eat because I’m going from job to job,” he said. “Some days I’d be staying up two, three days straight just working and then training and I’m trying to keep my numbers up in the gym.”

Zack Williams makes a block against the Calgary Dinos (University of Manitoba)

Somehow, Williams made the juggling act work. When the summers would end, he’d quit his jobs and focus on football and school. His grades, his weight and his stock as an offensive linemen all continued to go up. In 2018, he played in the Valero East-West Bowl and was named a Canada West All-Star at guard for the first time.

In their own way, things were starting to slow down for Williams. He was down to one full-time job, working evening shifts as a material technician at Melet Plastics in Winnipeg and he was taking odd shifts at the electronics store.

In December of 2017, he was starting to catch his breath when his father, Owen came home with news that would change the entire family’s lives.

“He wasn’t feeling good so he went to get checked up. He came back and told me he was diagnosed with cancer in his throat and his tongue,” Williams said.

Owen began treatment immediately. Zack watched as his father dropped 100 pounds in five months. As hard as the treatment was, it worked. By football season, the fall of 2018, he had a clean bill of health. Zack went about his business and had the most productive season of his USPORTS career. When the season was over, he was invited to play in the National Bowl — a post-season all-star game in Florida that showcases non-Div 1/FBS/FCS players for pro scouts — in December.

“I know my dad doesn’t tell me everything because he doesn’t want to get in my head and stuff. He’ll give me the good brief idea (of what’s happening),” Williams said.

“Then after the season, just after my games in the States, my dad was all good, he was happy. He went back to the doctors and they said that the cancer had spread to his lungs.

“Like if you have a dandelion and you blow it,” Williams said. “It’s all over the place.”

“Growing up, my dad was one of the toughest guys I saw. I’ve always looked up to him. Seeing him go through this battle lets you see how really hard it is.”

Zack Williams

Zack Williams is pictured alongside his father, Owen (Photo provided by Zack Williams)

It’s been a hard winter for the family. Owen was trying to build himself up to go back to the chemo, to fight another round, when he had a couple of seizures. The doctors found a tumour on his brain. He was scheduled for Gamma Knife radiosurgery — a procedure that uses radiation rather than incisions in the brain — but he had more seizures just a couple of days before he was to undergo the procedure. The tumour had grown and the doctors had to operate in a different way.

Owen’s been in and out of the hospital for the last few months. The family is doing what it can to stay in the right mindframe.

“Just positive thoughts. A positive mindset,” Williams said.

Owen is doing the same thing. He’s left his job as a millwright and he’s at home when he’s not at the hospital.

“He’ll talk about life lessons. He’ll tell me to keep working hard and training,” Williams said.

Owen was the one that steered him into sports, that coached him as a kid, that would sit down and go through the Xs and Os of football and hockey with him after practices and games. His mom, Tracy, would bring him to those things too, he said, but it’s always different when it’s your dad.

“Growing up, my dad was one of the toughest guys I saw. I’ve always looked up to him. Seeing him go through this battle lets you see how really hard it is,” he said.

Like his dad and like the rest of his family, Zack, the oldest of three, soldiers on through this painful turn in life’s road. He’s working his job-and-a-half, finishing his arts degree and despite everything in this complicated juggling act, hasn’t dipped in his training for this week’s 2019 CFL National Combine presented by New Era.

Williams had a chance to take the spotlight during the annual East-West Bowl in 2018 (U SPORTS)

He sounds a little exhausted when he’s asked about looking forward to the idea of just having one job and getting to finally pour himself fully into football.

“Yes. Very,” he said, “I’m excited to focus on just training, sleeping, eating, actually having funds to go and just focus on myself and to improve myself.

“I’m going to have other challenges outside of football and stuff still, but I feel like it won’t be as tough as some of the times I’ve been through.”

Owen had said that he wanted to accompany Zack to Toronto this week, to be there in the stands to watch his oldest chase his dream, but it won’t be possible at this point. The family will stay in Winnipeg and will follow everything online. He won’t have blood relatives with him, but he can lean on a few people: There’s his coach, Brian Dobie and a fellow Bisons’ O-lineman, in Myles Rose-Standish. He’ll also be at the combine with Bisons’ running back Jamel Lyles, receiver Shai Ross and D-lineman Tariq LaChance.

The combine will go a long way in determining where Williams lands in May’s draft. He hasn’t been listed in the CFL Scouting Bureau’s rankings yet this year, but one draft expert figured he’d have his name called by at least the third or fourth round. His numbers this weekend and probably most important, the one-on-ones, will help inform the decisions of scouts and GMs across the league.

Williams can’t wait to get to Toronto for it.

“Just the testing, the one-on-ones, everything,” he said of what he’s looking forward to. “Just the energy of the atmosphere…everything.”