Commentary

Floyd has grown into steady force

Wolverines cornerback has come long way from emulating star cousin in South Carolina

Updated: November 15, 2011, 12:43 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- He arrived at the stadium before anyone else, making sure he found his seat, the same one every game at Greer High School.

Eight-year-old J.T. Floyd had to be there early. How else, he figured, would his idol find him. As Floyd settled into his seat those hot South Carolina Friday nights, Erie Williams warmed up.

Cousins in relation but more like brothers separated by seven years, Williams, one of the top offensive players in Greer High history, was everything to Floyd. Floyd mimicked his every move, cheered his every accomplishment. He started juggling, doing double-dutch and unicycling because of Williams.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Floyd
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIJ.T. Floyd has emerged as Michigan's best cornerback thanks to an older cousin who happened to a be a pretty fair wide receiver.
The Michigan cornerback -- the Wolverines' top cornerback this season -- even started growing his trademark dreadlocks four years ago to emulate Williams.

"I knew he looked up to me," Williams said. "It drove me as well. I knew he was going to be at every game. I didn't want to let him down, didn't want to let my family down. The little things that counted, I knew he was watching, and I wanted him to see that."

The tutelage started early. Williams would line up against Floyd in the backyard of the home of their grandmother, Colia Sullivan, after Williams finished practicing at Greer High. Even then, Floyd wanted to try and beat his cousin.

If he could outmaneuver Erie Williams, he could take care of anyone. Yet Williams wouldn't let him

For Floyd, punt returns on Friday nights were the reward. Williams jogged back in his black, gold and white Greer jersey and looked into the stands.

Then he would point. Right at Floyd. In those moments, Floyd felt like he was on the field himself, trying to break free and score a touchdown. When it happened, Floyd started screaming in excitement.

"When he did that, when he'd take it to the house and score, I'd be the only guy in the stands feeling like I scored a 70-yard touchdown," Floyd said. "I'd go to school the next day, chest puffed out so far. It was great, man.

"Yeah, that's my cousin. Erie Williams? That's my cousin."

Those words, those plays, drove Floyd. Every time he'd make a play growing up, every time he'd try to shut down a wide receiver, Floyd kept the same thought: Will this make me better than my cousin?

'Play with your heart'

As Floyd grew, he peppered Williams with questions. When Williams left for Division II Wingate -- his size as a 5-foot-7, 155-pound wide receiver before the proliferation of spread offenses hampered his Division I chances -- they kept in contact a few times a week.

In those conversations, Floyd asked about routes and coverages, trying to understand every nuance. At the time, Williams couldn't really believe an 11-year old was on the other end of the phone.

But Floyd understood. He wanted to be good.

"J.T. had somebody ahead of him that was accomplishing things at another level, and it was always his dream to be as good if not better than Erie," Floyd's father, James Floyd Jr., said. "They'll go back and forth and Erie would say, 'This is what I saw.' And J.T. would be like, 'What do you think of this?' They go back and forth, because the difference in age is to the point where they can still relate."

Those messages stuck. And they still come every Saturday -- now in the form of pregame text messages consisting of motivational rap lyrics.

"He always told me, first of all, play with your heart," Floyd said. "Don't do anything if your heart's not into it. If your heart's into it, you're going to give everything in your body to accomplish your goal.

"The second thing was he always told me to be confident, be confident in what you do. If you put in the preparation, the time, the effort, the work to be successful and you know that, you're good."

The advice pushed him. As Floyd grew, he started to become a prospect. He started for four years as a a safety at J.L. Mann in Greenville, S.C. He had scholarship offers from Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia Tech before picking Michigan.

Even then, Floyd never believed he was better than his cousin.

From idol to teacher

Floyd returned to South Carolina for summer vacation in 2009 and went to the old Greer High School field for a workout. Williams, former Tennessee safety Sinclair Cannon and a few others joined them.

Floyd wanted his chance. He was a Division I football player. Williams was a few years removed from his short professional career and was an assistant coach at Greer.

Like they did in the backyard a decade earlier, Williams lined up in front of Floyd.

"I got him," Floyd said. "That's when he told me, and that's when I really felt I was better. He was like, 'Yeah, you got me today man. You took the throne over for the family.'

"Me being able to stop Erie Williams from catching the football? Are you serious? Nobody does that. Not even Deion (Sanders), in my head, not even Deion Sanders can stop this guy, and when I was able to do it, it just made my day."

It meant more. How often do idol worshippers actually pass their idols?

"That was his moment," Williams said.

Williams' role changed that day from idol to motivator and teacher. He knew it eventually would. Williams forecast this day when Floyd was 4 years old.

Wearing his blue No. 9 jersey and playing flag football, the rest of Floyd's team cared more about snacks or just running around the field.

Not Floyd.

"His team never came close to losing a single game, because he always pulled the flags," Williams said. "Two kids would be running down the field side by side for no reason. He'd go and pull the flag, and he was going to score all the touchdowns.

"He did. I was like 'Dang. He's so focused on what he was doing.' "

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Floyd
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJ.T. Floyd had the best game of his career against Illinois, posting an interception and a pass breakup.
Roles reversed

In Champaign, Ill., last weekend, fans waited to enter into Memorial Stadium. One fan in particular couldn't wait. He had driven 11 hours from South Carolina for this.

Once idolized, Williams is now in awe. He sat in the visitors section of the south end zone with Floyd's father, overcome with excitement when Floyd ran out of the tunnel for warmups.

He had sent his typical motivational text message to Floyd that morning -- lyrics from Rick Ross' "John Doe" -- but his cousin was about to lose his anonymity for good.

Lined up against Illinois star receiver and Biletnikoff Award semifinalist A.J. Jenkins, Floyd had the best game of his career.

It was the second time Williams saw Floyd play in person this season. The first game, against Notre Dame, Floyd saved a touchdown with an interception.

The hours he spent with Williams growing up, the time he spent with defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and defensive backs coach Curt Mallory refining his form, showed.

He broke up a pass in the first quarter. Then he intercepted Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in the fourth quarter, helping to seal a 31-14 win for Michigan, reading a hitch route he prepared all week for.

In the stands, Williams couldn't help himself. He could barely see the play.

"We called it," Williams said. "He had a hitch earlier in the game he should have picked. As soon as he did it, we were just cheering. It was just awesome. We couldn't even see him after a while.

"We just started yelling. Everybody stood up so we couldn't see anything."

They didn't need to. They knew what happened. Roles reversed. Mentor watched protege pass him again.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.

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