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When I reached Section 104, what I saw looked like a delicious mix of Mardi Gras revelry and parental concern. I was greeted by a pacing Cindy Gostkowski, mother of All-American Memphis kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
"It's G-O-S-T " she began, launching into the spelling of his name. As her son was lining up to kick his second field goal of the game, near the end of the second quarter, which would put Memphis ahead 13-3, she said, "I'm very superstitious. I never wear school colors, and I have to be up moving around while he kicks." Gostkowski drilled the kick, and another 50-yarder in the second half. Gostkowski, who also sent every kickoff out of the Akron end zone, has been invited to the Senior Bowl and will probably be this year's Kicker Who Rockets Up the Draft Board (a la Mike Nugent and Seabass).
|Some team is going to be very happy to get DeAngelo Williams in the NFL draft.|
I immediately found comfort in the Memphis Tigers' parents section. First of all, I had left the press box, in the upper reaches (drop your pen and it could go into orbit) of Detroit's Ford Field. It's a beautiful, modern press box, don't get me wrong. Free food. A TV every 6 inches. Young PR assistants hair-gelled within an inch of their lives with glossy team publications of every imaginable kind. The Akron Media Guide, the Akron Bowl Guide. The Memphis Media and Bowl Guide. The DeAngelo Williams Guide. The MAC and Conference-USA Guides, in which you can look up important information like the name of the Akron team manager in 1989 (Jim Winkleman).
Sandra and her husband, Odell, made the trip to Detroit from Wynne, Ark., to take in DeAngelo's last college game together. After a slow first quarter, he made up for lost time, ripping off several long runs and eventually breaking the NCAA record for 100-yard games with 34. It's eerie, watching him here, in Detroit, in a blue jersey bearing the number 20. The similarities to Barry Sanders are many, right down to Memphis' trendy/cutesy shotgun offense where Williams takes handoffs deep in the backfield, often starting with the football from a dead standstill. Like all great backs, he can go from a standstill to warp speed in the blink of an eye, and he changes direction through the Akron defense like they are standing still. And a 67-yard run in the fourth quarter dispelled any concerns about his top-end speed. "I knew he would be an NFL player in the seventh grade," Hill said. "That's what he decided he wanted to do and when he sets his mind to something, he does it."
But what about the other 85 kids on the Memphis sideline, who also set their minds to it and wouldn't get there? "DeAngelo knows that what he can do, no man can teach you," Hill said. "He knows it's a gift he's been given by God." "It" is the ability to change direction. The ability to run fast -- forward, backward and sideways. There are other kids that want it, that work hard. But it is Williams that has "it."
Things got so bad in Little Rock, in 1993 the city had the highest per-capita murder rate in the U.S. Gang leaders and drug dealers had fled to Arkansas to escape the efforts of narcotics offers in places like New York, L.A. and Chicago. DeAngelo had a fleeting interest in that world, but his single-mindedness paid off in the form of an NCAA all-purpose yardage record (7,337) and the hope of a top-10 NFL draft position. "He had some tough times," stepfather Odell Hill said, "but he worked hard and persevered through them. I'm the most proud of the fact that he stayed in school and came back for his senior year." "The thing I'm most proud of is that he doesn't take it for granted," Sandra Hill added. "I lost three sisters to breast cancer and had my own battle too. I think DeAngelo sees that life is short and you have to appreciate every day. We're taking this process one day at a time. After the game he's going to fly back home and start interviewing agents." "He's looking for somebody without a lot of clients," Odell said. "Somebody that will be on the other end of the line if he calls at midnight and needs them." Odell Hill was clutching a cell phone, which he opened and clapped shut periodically. The process -- the interviews, the senior year, the agents, etc. -- seemed to be wearing on him. Sandra, however, seemed to be enjoying every moment. I asked her what she leaned on, when she was going through her losses and her own battle with breast cancer. And what she leans on now, with NFL dollars on the horizon. "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me," she says. "It's in 1 Corinthians -- look it up."
I will, I think, because she is a mom, and moms know best.
By the end of the night, Williams had racked up 233 yards on 30 carries, to go with three scores in a 38-31 victory. The Memphis faithful cheered its boys heartily, and I got my story. I glanced back at Sandra and Odell in their college jerseys, and as I walked back up the stairs to the upper deck to find my dad I fought back the urge to tell them that it will never be more fun than it is right now. Ted Kluck is a frequent contributor to Page 2, and his first book, "Facing Tyson," will be released by the Lyons Press in 2006.