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Thursday, January 12, 2012
Half of one percent

By David Fleming

Tramon Williams
An underdog in high school, Williams has started every Packers game since mid-2009.

They would take distinct and divergent paths to reach Super Bowl glory. But for Brandon Jacobs and Tramon Williams, the journey started here: on a narrow, rickety footbridge just inches above the murky waters of Louisiana's Bayou Lafourche.

Every Friday in the fall of 2000, the six senior starters on Assumption High School's football team followed the same pregame ritual. They'd meet at Jacobs' house on Jefferson Street for red beans and chicken and a few games of Madden. And when the orange sun began to melt into the endless sugarcane marshes that frame Napoleonville (population 700), they'd head out for the stadium. Down streets named after saints and through a crumbling 200-year-old cemetery full of familiar names, the teammates would stroll to the water's edge, and the town's single wood-plank footbridge would carry them across to the school, the stadium and, perhaps, far away from this place.

Every season more than 250,000 high school seniors play football, but only one out of every 10,000 actually makes it to the NFL. Of those lucky few, about half of 1 percent go on to earn a Super Bowl ring. Put another way, a high school football player is nearly five times more likely to be hit by lightning than to one day hoist the Lombardi trophy.

So the story of Jacobs, the blue chip running back who fulfilled his destiny with the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, and Williams, the walk-on corner who won a ring last year with Green Bay, is nothing less than remarkable. And not just because they were high school teammates who both beat the enormous odds, but also because of the way they did it. "You couldn't find two more different players, or people, who took two more different paths to the top," says Herb Washington, Assumption's quarterback in 2000 and now the school's offensive coordinator. "The way I describe it is, football fell in love with Brandon and bent over backwards for him, while Tramon fell in love with football and had to bend over backwards for it."


Brandon Jacobs
Jacobs struggled with his academic record in school, but today he has a firm grasp on a different kind of record -- the most rushing TDs in Giants history.

On the edge of town, off Highway 1, when the seniors hit the footbridge, Jacobs, the star, always crossed first, the bridge sagging under the strain of his massive 6'4", 240-pound frame. A punishing, angry runner with nimble feet and rare field vision, Jacobs rushed for 3,022 yards, 38 touchdowns and 8.6 yards per carry, leading Assumption to a 13-1 record and the state semis. In the district championship game, Jacobs broke through the line of scrimmage only to find one daring defensive tackle dangling from his elbow, trying to strip the ball. Undeterred, Jacobs carried him for five yards in the crook of his arm, like a plastic grocery bag, until the defender dropped off. His former teammates shake their heads as they recall how Jacobs then outran the rest of the defense 80 yards to the end zone.

One recruiter described the running back as "something Oliver Stone would've created for a football movie." Adds Lee Brecheen, editor of Louisiana Football Magazine and a leading recruiting authority on the Bayou for more than 22 years, "High school kids were flat-out afraid to tackle him. And with good reason: Brandon got tougher, faster and smarter as games went on. He was a freak of nature, a legend, the kind of player we won't ever see again in our lifetime."

Yet despite his immense talent, Jacobs wasn't a can't-miss prospect. Poor behavior and truancy landed him in a special-ed curriculum at Assumption, and he did not have enough credits to graduate. In Napoleonville, the football field is surrounded on three sides by sugarcane, and many locals figured Jacobs was headed "to Lula," referring to the region's largest sugarcane manufacturer. The folklore about Jacobs makes it sound like hundreds of college scouts flocked to Napoleonville, mesmerized by his size and stats. The truth is, besides a halfhearted last-second effort from then-LSU coach Nick Saban (who wanted Jacobs to play defensive end), only Auburn showed any real, consistent interest.

Auburn guided Jacobs to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, where he pursued his GED and an associate degree at the same time. In 2003, Jacobs transferred to Auburn, only to sit behind future first-round picks Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams. So he transferred again, this time to Southern Illinois, where he put together enough of a résumé to become a fourth-round pick of the Giants in 2005. Two years later, New York rode Jacobs' first 1,000-yard season to the playoffs and then a Super Bowl win over the Patriots.

Now a seven-year vet, the 29-year-old Jacobs has 56 rushing touchdowns, the most in Giants history. "I give Brandon a lot of credit for taking full advantage," says Assumption's longtime head coach, Don Torres. "He understood that football was his one ticket out of Napoleonville. Whereas the feeling with Tramon always was, he was going to be successful at whatever he did. It was just up to him to decide what it would be."

The way I describe it is, football fell in love with Brandon and bent over backwards for him, while Tramon fell in love with football and had to bend over backwards for it.

Herb Washington, now Assumption's offensive coordinator

Torres is seated inside Assumption's deserted football office, a tiny, cluttered space full of random pieces of equipment, dusty computers, trophies, plaques, fast-food wrappers and Dr. Seuss-like stacks of videotapes. With little prodding, he can ramble on about Jacobs. But when the topic turns to Williams he falls oddly silent, rubbing his hands through his short gray hair. Torres mentions Williams' intelligence, his work ethic and faith. He describes the Williams family as being straight out of a Leave It to Beaver episode. He says, shoot, no one else could have gotten any attention with Brandon around. When Assumption receivers coach Brian Arceneaux walks by, a desperate Torres waves him in. How would you describe Tramon? he asks. "He was a ghost, really a ghost," Arceneaux says. "And it makes me think, maybe we didn't know what we were doing."

They weren't alone. Williams was a gifted all-around athlete and a good student who, over the summers, worked construction during the day and another full shift stocking grocery shelves at night. But he barely managed to crack Brecheen's top 200 players in Louisiana. Even Nicholls State, a Division II program just 20 miles down the road from Napoleonville, showed no interest.

Still searching for words, Torres pulls out a thick scrapbook and turns to a wrap-up of Assumption's 2000 season by the local Thibodaux Daily Comet. The story is almost entirely about Jacobs' monster senior season, except for two paragraphs near the end dedicated to the defense. There are four players mentioned in the passage; Williams isn't one of them. "I still find myself sitting back even now wondering what it is that people didn't see," says Williams, who's now 28, has started every Packers game since mid-2009 and was named to the 2010 Pro Bowl. "It wasn't Brandon's fault. He was a specimen, and people were totally focused on him. He's a good friend, and I was happy for him. But even though I had the respect of my peers, for whatever reason I couldn't get that across to the people who really mattered."

Williams had all the intangibles college coaches talk about at alumni banquets: brains, guts and a nuclear family. He was all-state in track and a starter, alongside Jacobs, on the Assumption basketball team. But in the recruiting and scouting game, evaluators funnel down thousands of potential prospects into more manageable short lists by using height-weight-speed formulas. And at 5'11", 180 pounds with 4.5 speed, Williams was just slightly smaller and slower than the accepted prototype for big-time corners -- and that was all it took to make him invisible. If schools or scouts are going to take a flyer on an unknown player, it's almost always someone who fits the prototype. "Why do they line guys up half-naked at the combine?" says Packers All-Pro corner Charles Woodson. "Because scouts love more than anything to fall head over heels for that look, that body type, that prototype, guys who look the right way no matter if they can play a lick or not."

Tramon Williams
Ignored in the 2006 draft, the Packers scouts eventually saw Williams as the intelligent, quick corner that he is today.

A frustrated Williams gave up on football after high school and enrolled in Louisiana Tech's engineering school. Late in his first semester on campus, however, he watched from the stands as the Bulldogs beat Boise State 48-42 in a shootout and thought, Shoot, I can cover better than that. He walked on that spring and showed a passion for football that Brecheen says wasn't visible during his high school days. At his tryout, Williams hit an astronomical 42.5 inches on his vertical leap. "What exactly is your name, son?" then-Tech coach Jack Bicknell Jr. asked. "And please, God, tell me you're academically eligible."

He was, and three years later Williams led the nation in passes defensed. Ignored in the 2006 draft, he spent training camp with the Texans but was released during the final roster cut. Williams drove the six hours home to Assumption Parish buoyed by the words from a teammate: "You can only hide talent like yours for so long." The next day, the Packers asked him to come to Green Bay for a workout. Williams sensed he had finally found a home. Instead of going by height-weight-speed formulas, Green Bay's talent evaluators watch film of players until they can reach a conclusion based on their eyes and instincts, not stats. What they saw with Williams was a confident, intelligent player with the fluid hips and effortless change of direction of a future Pro Bowl corner. The first time Woodson saw Williams make a play in practice, he shouted, "Holy crap, who is that guy?"

"Some people in this profession get caught up with numbers," says Eliot Wolf, the Packers' assistant director of pro personnel. "Yeah, Tramon was a little small and his speed was never going to blow you away, but no one ever ran by him on the field, and he's constantly making plays out there. That's what it's about."

Still, the Packers had to wait a nerve-racking three months for a spot to open up on their practice roster for Williams. Wolf shrugs his shoulders. "We get all this credit for discovering Tramon, but it's an inexact science and we were lucky," he says. Near Wolf's office inside Lambeau Field is a giant board the Packers use to track the status of every available player in the draft. After someone gets selected or signed as a free agent, his metallic name tag is removed from the wall. Occasionally, Wolf finds himself alone in the room, standing in silence, staring up at unpicked names and all the unrealized football dreams stuck there, forever, on the wall. "I'm thinking to myself, Which one of these guys could have been great?" he says. "Who did we miss?"

Not Williams. Wanted and respected for the first time in his football career, he's flourished in Green Bay's complex, aggressive, attack-style defense, becoming the NFL's only undrafted player to snag four picks in each of the past four seasons. In 2010, he signed a four-year, $33 million extension. Then in the playoffs that season, Williams picked off Michael Vick to secure a Green Bay win over Philadelphia in the wild-card round. The next week, he intercepted two more passes in Atlanta, including a backbreaker at the end of the first half.

Every year during the playoffs, driven by the underdog spirit and work ethic of a former walk-on, Williams watches four extra hours of film at home each night. In the Falcons game, all the extra study paid off on the play that arguably launched the Packers' remarkable two-year run. With the Falcons driving just before the half, Williams took his position in the shallow flat and surveyed Atlanta's personnel and formation. He recognized that on the Falcons' final play of the quarter, they were lined up in a short-yardage pass formation they usually called only at the goal line. Using narrow splits on either side of the line, the Falcons wideouts typically ran shallow curling routes that mirrored QB Matt Ryan's rollout. After the snap, Ryan began to arc away from center, just as Williams expected. At that point, the corner was so far ahead of the play that he had to hold himself back in order to bait Ryan into throwing the ball to receiver Roddy White.

When Ryan released the ball, Williams easily jumped underneath and snatched the pass out of midair. From there, after one commanding cut inside, Williams floated the final 55 yards to the end zone. After 10 long years on the outside looking in, he finally felt perfectly in sync with the game. "I always believed that if football was meant for you, it would find you no matter where you are," says Williams. "I'm not mad or upset about the path I had to take; I'm humbled and blessed. All those guys out there with just as much talent as me who didn't get a chance? I think about them during plays like that one in Atlanta, and I carry them along with me."

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.