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|A lover of horses and cowboys since he was young, Aaron Williams rides every off-day Tuesday during the season.|
It's not something Aaron Williams advertises. But when the Buffalo Bills second-year cornerback shows up at the team practice facility looking like Garth Brooks, it's kind of hard to miss.
"We have meetings on Tuesday nights and I come from the barn with my country outfit on," Williams said. "And guys will always ask, 'Why do you have those clothes on?' I try to keep it on the down low."
Williams' big secret is also his biggest passion next to football. Calling it "not just a hobby," Williams, who recently bought his second horse, rides every off-day Tuesday during the NFL season. He plans to buy a ranch and would like to compete in rodeo after his football career is over.
"You really don't hear of too many African-American athletes who have horses and go riding and enjoy being around it like I do," Williams said with a laugh. "When I tell guys I'm into it, they're really shocked. But it's just my getaway from life. Whenever I'm stressed, I saddle up and go ride."
I love the reaction when people see me dressed up as a cowboy. I don't want to be that person who's like everyone else.” -- Bills cornerback Aaron Williams
After moving to the Buffalo area, Williams connected through Twitter with Dana Carroccia, who trains horses and gives riding lessons out of her farm in Buffalo. He has been a regular ever since.
"He's definitely in love with it," Carroccia said. "I don't like to stereotype, but he did throw us for a loop as good as he was. When other clients walk into the barn, they're taken aback at first: 'Why is this football player here?' But to us now, he's just Aaron."
Williams said he has loved the life as long as he can remember, though he and his family laugh about his origins as a self-styled "country boy." The oldest of four children, he had limited exposure to horses and country living, said his parents, Val and Anthony Williams.
"When we lived in Northern California," Val said, "the rodeo came to town once a year and his aunt, who was always searching for things to do, took him to that rodeo and to a stable in the city every once in a while to ride."
It did not become an obsession, however, until Aaron was 10. That's when his family moved to Texas for Anthony's job in marketing for a high-tech software company.
"When we moved to Texas, I took the kids to get horseback-riding lessons and they went to a weeklong camp," Val said. "His brothers didn't have the same interest, but Aaron was very quick to catch on. The lady there caught on to this and decided to teach him to lasso. When I came to pick him up, she said he was a natural.
"I just let it go. I mean, my father was a country man so we visited every few years, but that was pretty much it."
Williams said he remembers going to the rodeo with his Aunt Anita and riding his first horse at age 7.
"And I always dressed up as a cowboy for Halloween," he said. "Then when I found out my dad had to move to Texas for his job, at 10 years old all you're thinking about is horses and ranches. Then in middle school and high school, I met people who rode and got in good with their parents and grandparents who owned ranches, which allowed me to experience not only how to ride but how to take care of horses."
Both Val, a track athlete in college, and Anthony, who played football at San Francisco State and went to camp with the 49ers, watched in awe of a son who, Val said, "never fit the mold."
"He knew [his interests] were different but he didn't care," she said. "It was just really exciting for him to have cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. If there was a certain stereotype of an African-American man, Aaron never has been that."
Anthony echoed that sentiment: "Aaron was kind of a chameleon as a kid. He'd adapt to whatever group he hung out with. But the last three years have forced him to grow up and realize you don't need to make everyone happy. You don't have to fit into their profile of what you should be because of the color of your skin. Although some people joked with him about it, he realized that at the end of the day people will respect you by being yourself."
That was always part of the attraction, he admitted.
"I love the reaction when people see me dressed up as a cowboy," Williams said. "I don't want to be that person who's like everyone else."
At the University of Texas, his interests outside of football only deepened, he said, as he fell in love with hunting, fishing, country music and line dancing.
"And that was it," Val said. "From that point on, Aaron was 100 percent cowboy."
Now, in addition to his desire to one day coach high school football in Texas, Williams said he wants to own a ranch and compete in roping events on the rodeo circuit.
"I definitely looked it up and there are actually a lot of African-American cowboys who ride in the rodeo," he said. "If you look back in history, that's where it started, with black rodeos because they couldn't be with whites. I did my little research."
In the meantime, Williams, who returned to the Bills' lineup in Week 14 after missing five games with a knee sprain, relishes his time around the barn and said Buffalo winters won't deter him. There's an indoor ring where he rides and "a little weather is not going to stop me," he said.
The country life is just fine with his parents.
"Getting away and getting that mental and physical break, even for a day to reset, is so important when you grind it out during an NFL season," his father said. "It breaks down your body and can also break you down mentally. When you play professional football, you need to have that outlet. I'm very thankful that's part of his life."