Deonte Williams was forced to be a leader off the field before he could be one on it.
Growing up in south Sacramento, he became the man of the house at 8 years old, trying to fill in for the absentee father he’s never met. While his mother was working as a full-time nursing assistant, he made sure his little sister had food, a clean house to live in and, most importantly, did her homework.
It was family first, football second.
“It was a tough environment,” Williams said. “My life could totally be in another direction. Some of my friends didn’t make the best choices and it taught me to just be my own person. I knew what I wanted.”
Williams grew up in a neighborhood called “G Parkway,” where drug dealers were the idols, gunshots were normal and an illustrious gang lifestyle roped in many teens. Williams wanted out of that culture, and he wanted the opportunity to take his mother and sisters with him.
“I had this belief in me that if I worked hard enough at football, I’d be able to do that for my family,” Williams said. “Just get them out of that environment.”
Years later, he’s making that a reality.
Williams has established himself as one of the best running backs in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) this season. The transfer has made a name for himself in the Mustangs backfield, ranking seventh in the nation in rushing with a 132-yards-per-game average and helping the team to one of its best starts in program history.
And with all that said, he credits those nights of looking after his sister to his current success.
“It just comes from my upbringing,” Williams said. “I had that characteristic of putting the weight on my shoulders at a young age. I carried that onto the football field.”
He has, indeed.
Williams is the kind of running back who doesn’t run out of bounds.
The senior embraces football for its physical nature and tries to hit defenders harder than they plan on hitting him. He did so against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponent Wyoming, rushing for 187 yards and a score in the second week of the season. He then did it again the following week, finishing with 188 yards and three touchdowns to help Cal Poly to its first win over UC Davis since 2008.
“He brings energy with his physical style of running,” head coach Tim Walsh said at last Monday’s press conference. “There’s a lot of good running backs out there, but there aren’t a lot of tough running backs out there that like to finish runs. He finishes runs as good, if not better, than anyone I’ve ever coached.”
But Williams’ collegiate career has been far from just success. It’s been a road of transfers, practice squads and hurdles that led him to Northern Arizona — where he was named Big Sky Newcomer of the Year as a freshman — Sierra College, San Diego State and, finally, Cal Poly.
“At Northern Arizona, I gave up my scholarship to transfer down because I was hungry and I wanted to transfer up,” Williams said. “So at Sierra, it was one of the toughest times for me. Not tough as in hard, but I was definitely working my butt off because I knew I had to prove I made the right decision.”
He got his chance after rushing for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns in one season at Sierra College. He landed a FBS scholarship to attend San Diego State in 2010.
“Then paperwork issues happened there and I had to sit out the season,” Williams said. “We found out right before camp and it crushed me.”
‘I guess you could call me a mama’s boy’
With his football career in limbo, Latanya Williams reached out to her son the same way she had his entire life.
“I told him, ‘You can accomplish anything you want to, but you have to put your mind first,’” she said. “‘You have to understand that you can do it. You have to push yourself.’ And that’s what he did.”
That’s part of the reason Williams transferred to Cal Poly from San Diego State. If he wasn’t going to be able to set his family up with a professional football contract, he wanted to have the education to set him up for a career that would help him provide for his mother.
“I feel I really owe that woman everything,” Williams said. “She paid all those years of me playing Pop Warner football, she supports me with everything I do and I really just work my butt off for her because she works to make sure I have everything I want. I definitely just want to pay her back for that.”
But by doing so, he had to take a backseat during his first football season at Cal Poly. As the new running back in the system, Williams got the second-hand carries to the Mustangs’ main option, Mark Rodgers.
“I didn’t know how to deal with it because I had never really had to deal with it before,” Williams said. “Having to take that role, it was frustrating, but I also understood that I was a new player to the team and they were loyal to Mark. It was his senior year, which I respected.”
Williams broke out with his first 100-yard game at Cal Poly in the Mustangs’ 24-17 loss to UC Davis, but didn’t see much else as Cal Poly finished the year 6-5 in its final season in the Great West Conference.
This year, however, is a bit different.
‘We have a chance to be legendary’
Williams earned the nickname “Barry Sanders” playing football at a young age. Like the Detroit Lions hall of famer, he proved to be just as elusive on the fields of Pop Warner football. So when his collegiate career hit a rut, Williams turned back to the tape and studied Sanders’ old highlight films, documenting how he strung together 1,000 yards rushing for 10 consecutive NFL seasons.
And as he started putting in more work, coaches started noticing.
“A lot of the new things we’ve done from a shotgun standpoint had to do with Deonte’s ability,” Walsh said. “As a coach, what you want to do is you always want to play to your players’ strengths, we’re playing to Deonte’s strengths.”
They’ve done just that. Williams is leading the Big Sky with 926 yards this season, and he’s helped the Mustangs become just one of two undefeated teams in the FCS.
“He’s big for our offense,” quarterback Andre Broadous said following the Mustangs’ 37-25 win over Portland State, where Williams led the team with 169 yards rushing. “It doesn’t have to be a big hole for him to try and make something happen. Even if he doesn’t get the big 20-yard gain, he’s going to fall forward and, in our offense, it keeps us on track.”
That’s led the Mustangs to be in the position they are in right now. With a few more wins, specifically a win over No. 1 Eastern Washington in two weeks, the Mustangs have the chance to win the conference championship and host their second playoff game in program history.
“We have a chance to be legendary, which not everyone can say,” Williams said. “The group of guys that we have on this team really loves the game of football, and we all know of the goal we’re trying to accomplish.”
All that being said, Williams is working for one cause — his mother and sisters. He’s hoping to land a professional contract following the season, but would also welcome helping juvenile teens as a guidance counselor when he starts his career. Regardless of the outcome, he just wants to be able to provide.
It’s family first, football second.
“I just know my mom’s tired,” Williams said. “She works hard and she deserves to enjoy herself. I want make sure that I can be the one to make that happen for her.”