Oh what a 21st birthday party it would've been: The whole world watching him snatch passes from Matt Leinart, rag-dolling helpless Oklahoma DBs and leading USC to another national title. Instead, Mike Williams watched his buddies Dominique Byrd, Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett do all the work as the Trojans dominated in the Orange Bowl.
Williams, meanwhile, observed it all on a TV dangling from the ceiling while he ran on a treadmill at an Atlanta-area health club.
Think that night was filled with some bittersweet moments for the former USC star? No doubt, but Williams -- put in mothballs by the kinder, gentler folks at the NCAA, the NFL and the federal courts -- says he's now past all that.
"It definitely wasn't easy," he says. "I think the whole process has really matured me and I tried to take it all as a blessing. I mean this had never happened to anybody else before. All you do is burn for that opportunity to play again, so I'm hungrier than I've ever been.
"But I'm as hungry to be great as I am hungry to be drafted. To me, being a top-five pick won't be the end-all."
Williams' predicament has been well chronicled. In August, three months after the courts kept him out of the 2004 NFL draft, the All-America receiver had his request to rejoin top-ranked Southern California denied by the NCAA. (He had decided to hire an agent and go pro after a spectacular sophomore season where he caught 95 passes for 1,314 yards and a school-record 16 touchdowns. It was a move prompted by a court ruling last winter that another second-year sophomore, Ohio State's Maurice Clarett, was eligible to play in the NFL.)
Williams has mostly stayed out of the spotlight since learning that he would have to spend the '04 season on the sidelines. In October, he relocated to Georgia to get ready for the April NFL draft with trainer Chip Smith.
The low point, Williams says, came in December, when he watched the college football awards show and saw Michigan's Braylon Edwards win the Biletnikoff, honoring the nation's top wide receiver.
"I really think that award is a big deal, and I had come so close the year before," he says. "But I'm happy for Braylon. He deserved it."
Williams has tried to maintain a positive face throughout his NCAA-imposed football hiatus. Even in the hours after he learned he wasn't being reinstated, he didn't vent or publicly trash anyone or anything. He simply said he was happy it was over so he could move on.
"I always thought if I'm the topic of people's dinner table conversations, I want it to be in a positive light," he says.
The key has been maintaining focus on the big picture and addressing whatever doubts there may have been about him, the biggest being that he can't stretch a defense. Williams has spent hours sprinting with his body hooked up to pulleys and bungee cords. He has also talked to Cris Carter and Michael Irvin, a pair of oversized former Pro Bowl wideouts to whom Williams is often compared, about route-running tips as well as the psychology of the game of football.
"I feel more explosive and I'm so much smarter about football now," he says. "The way I look at it is all of the supposed negatives about me are in my control. I've never had a history of character flaws with questions about me partying or being into drugs. People just wonder how fast I am."
Williams' weight also is a big topic for debate among scouts who can't seem to fathom a wideout carrying over 235 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame. (He played his sophomore year around 238, but got down to 228 last spring.) He says he is at 229 these days and has run as fast as a 4.43 in the 40, although he concedes that was on a fast track. Anything 4.55 or faster probably would vault him into the top 10, especially considering Williams will vertical-jump somewhere around 37 inches.
Last year's prep for his pro-day was much different. Everything was a crash course. Now, he's had four months rather than four weeks to get ready.
"Man, I'm so excited right now; the time is already here," he says. "We're talking about the draft and I'm back."
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment is out in bookstores. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.