Throughout his freshman season at the University of Oklahoma, five-star running back Brandon Williams regularly reminded himself not to dwell on the situation at home. Focus on football and academics, he told himself daily--sometimes hourly--at least until the end of the 2011 season.
Then he would make a decision about his future. Just put it off until December, he told himself over and over again.
That was his plan. But in all sincerity, trying to not think about his personal life was about as difficult as attempting to ignore an eviction notice, an IRS summons or a doctor's directive to immediately schedule an appointment with an oncologist.
It was practically impossible not to fret, not to ponder and not to be consumed. From the moment Williams awoke in the morning until the time he drifted off to sleep at night, his thoughts were often fixated on his daughter, Serenity, who was back near Brookshire, a small town of about 5,000 residents just west of Katy.
Williams had become a big-time football star at Class 3A Brookshire Royal, and he had also become a father.
His original intent was to go to Norman, become a star at Oklahoma and earn a shot at the NFL so that he could provide a bright financial future for himself and his daughter.
What he never factored into his college decision, however, was just how much he would miss seeing his daughter. He would hear her voice on the phone and long to hold her.
He would study her face in pictures and be reminded--even haunted--by the fact that his biological father had not played a significant role in his childhood. He did not want to be an absentee father. He did not want to continue a neglectful cycle.
Six and a half hours away--the drive from Brookshire to Norman--was too far. Being on the northern side of the Red River represented the "Great Divide" to Williams, who felt the pull of paternal responsibility calling him back to the Lone Star State.
"I made the decision after the last game we played (on Dec. 3, 2011) against Oklahoma State," Williams recalled recently. "I remember I would be on the phone with my little girl back when I was at Oklahoma. She was two at the time, and she would be crying and would tell me she missed me. At that point, I realized I didn't care where I played as long as I could be in her life and she could be a part of my life. I knew I needed to transfer to be closer to her.
"It's been quite a blessing for me to be at Texas A&M and to be closer to both of my daughters. Serenity is six and my youngest, Lila, turned two on October 21. At the end of the day, my baby girls drive and motivate me to not only do good for myself, but to make sure their lives are better than what I had when I was growing up. I am not just a football player and a college student; I am a father. I am trying to play multiple roles."
Perhaps that's why the versatile Williams is also such a natural when it comes to playing multiple roles on the field. Following the end of spring practices last April, Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin approached Williams in the R.C. Slocum Nutrition Center and asked him to come see him in his office.
In The Zone
After an entire career spent at running back, Brandon Williams has surprised observers with his speedy transition to cornerback. The senior, who is known for his hard work and preparation, has become a steady contributor on a much-improved Aggie defense.
First-year Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis desperately needed another cornerback with enough athleticism to play man-to-man coverage against some of the best wide receivers in the Southeastern Conference. The coaches had discussed numerous possibilities.
Williams, who was originally projected to share time in 2015 at running back with Tra Carson and James White, was a prime candidate to make the transition to cornerback. He was one of the fastest players on the team; he had great size for a corner (6-foot, 205 pounds); he possessed great football instincts; and his future as an NFL prospect would be much brighter as a cornerback than as a running back.
The only question was: "Would Williams be willing to make the change entering his senior season?"
"Coach Sumlin asked me to come see him in his office, and I was kind of wondering what he wanted to talk about," recalled the engaging and well-spoken Williams. "I knew I wasn't in trouble or anything. He asked me if I would be interested in playing cornerback.
"I was shocked but I was like, 'Whatever you need me to do, I will do it.' I embraced the challenge, and I'd say it has been working out pretty well."
Pretty well, indeed. Williams has been one of the most positive additions to Chavis' improved and far more aggressive defensive approach. Through mid-October, the Aggies ranked 57th nationally in total defense, allowing 374.8 yards per contest in the first five games of the year. That is a huge step in the right direction from last year--before Chavis arrived--when the Aggies ranked 104th nationally in total defense.
In the first five games of this season, Williams recorded 15 tackles and four pass breakups. Against Nevada, Williams made history by playing cornerback and running back. In that game, he became the first Aggie two-way player since Dave Elmendorf and Ross Brupbacher in 1968.
"He works as hard in practice as anybody I've been around," Chavis said. "The fact that he is there has made us a better secondary already."
Added Sumlin: "He's physical, he's one of the fastest guys on the team...the sky is the limit. He loves to play the position. He's helping our football team, but I think he's helping himself to showcase where he can play at the next level, too."
Former Brookshire Royal head coach David Walthall is not the least bit surprised that Williams is making the difficult transition from running back to cornerback seem relatively easy. Before this season, Williams had not played on the defensive side of the ball since he was nine years old.
In 34 years as a coach, however, Walthall says he rarely coached a player who could even compare to Williams in terms of his overall athleticism, character and work ethic.
Walthall is also not surprised that Williams takes his role as a father to two children extremely seriously.
"So many of these kids come out of single parent households or are raised by grandparents," Walthall said recently from his home in Sealy. "Brandon was one of those guys, and he had a lot of questions about things. He wasn't hesitant to seek help if he had concerns. He was that way in the classroom and with general life questions. He and I developed a strong bond, and I really appreciated the fact that he genuinely listened to me and we had some heart-to-heart conversations.
"One of those came when we were driving back from a recruiting trip. He had fathered a child, and I explained to him my feelings on taking care of the people that you put on this earth. I feel very strongly that if you put someone on this earth, you are accountable for those people until they are old enough to take care of themselves, and the consequences are terrible if you don't do that. The good thing about Brandon is that he listens and he understands. Obviously, he is in a tough situation with being in college still and having limited financial resources, but I know his daughters are a major priority for him. It's not just lip service. That's the whole reason he left Oklahoma."
Williams, who turned 23 in September, originally chose Oklahoma over a bevy of other collegiate suitors. The Under Armour All-American was rated as the No. 3 running back nationally by Rivals.com and Scout.com after rushing for 2,438 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2010, while also compiling 144 receiving yards with two TDs.
He fell in love with the Oklahoma traditions, but once he arrived at OU, he loathed the 425 miles that separated him from his daughter.
Nevertheless, Williams played as a true freshman in 2011, rushing for 219 yards on 46 carries while seeing action in eight games for the Sooners. In his best game in 2011, he rushed for 80 yards on 11 carries against Iowa State.
After that first season concluded, however, Williams approached OU head coach Bob Stoops about his desire to transfer to a school much closer to his daughter. Stoops granted Williams permission to seek a transfer to a school in the Lone Star State with one stipulation: He would not grant a transfer to a fellow Big 12 Conference member.
Fortunately for Williams and Texas A&M, the Aggies moved out of the Big 12 and into the SEC beginning in the 2012 season. Williams had not been seriously interested in A&M coming out of high school because he did not believe he would be a particularly good fit in Mike Sherman's offensive system.
But when Sherman was fired following a disappointing 2011 season and Sumlin was hired as his replacement, Williams placed a call to Aggieland.
"I talked to Coach Sumlin in person when I first got here, and he was probably more excited than me when I first saw him," Williams said. "He had recruited me when he was at Houston, and I just thought it would be a good fit for me."
Williams sat out the 2012 season because of the NCAA's transfer rules and then he contributed two touchdowns and 302 all-purpose yards (269 rushing) as a sophomore in 2013. Last year, he started six games, rushing for 379 yards and three touchdowns.
Football and Family
A five-star recruit in high school, observers are excited about the former running back's potential as a cornerback in the NFL. Williams combines the natural speed of a running back with a 6-foot frame and solid football instincts. Now much closer to his two daughters, Williams has his sights set on finishing 2015 and pursuing a career in the pros to provide for his family.
Williams had been solid, but rarely spectacular as a running back at A&M. He certainly did not project as a big-time NFL running back prospect entering this season. But virtually everyone associated with the program has been thrilled with how he has made the transition and, in turn, helped A&M improve as a defense, as well as his willingness to still play running back.
He has such an unselfish, team-oriented player that he was elected one of the team's defensive captains before ever playing a snap on that side of the ball. And everyone--coaches, receivers and other defensive backs--have done everything they can to help him make the transition.
"In practice, if one of the receivers beats me, he will take the time to tell me why," Williams said. "They are the best group of receivers I'll face all year. Plus, the other defensive backs, especially De'Vante Harris, have been great.
"And (secondary coach) Terry Joseph has been great. He is a wonderful coach. He helps me get prepared. He is a film junkie. He has me up going through films, and I'm getting better every week. I understand it is a long process. I'm embracing it. I'm the type of person who is hard on myself."
Williams is hard on himself, but he is also building a much brighter future for himself...and his family.
"He's an average-sized running back," Sumlin said. "At corner, he is a big corner and an NFL prospect. If he can improve technique, I think he's gone from a free agent, late-round guy to a solid [NFL] draft pick."
No matter what happens in the future, though, Williams is delighted with his decision to transfer to Texas A&M.
"It has been a very eventful (journey)," he said. "My whole thought process was I'm going to go into the NFL and be a running back. Now everything has switched up on me. I really haven't taken time to just reminisce on everything, but now that I am thinking about it, it has been a long journey coming from the little town of Brookshire to Oklahoma to Texas A&M and being a cornerback my senior year.
"(The transfer) to A&M has been more than I could have ever imagined. I love A&M. I didn't really know anything about the traditions or anything like that before I got here. But I love how the people are here. Being part of Coach Sumlin's team and this Aggie family has been a huge blessing. I really do feel like part of a special family here."
And family obviously means everything to Brandon Williams.
Rusty Burson, former associate editor of 12th Man Magazine, is the director of membership and communications at Miramont Country Club in Bryan.
Once on the brink of giving up the game, Haley Pounds overcomes heavy burden to lead the Aggies.
The transition to being a "regular" student can come with unexpected emotions.
Coaching trees rooted in College Station are sprouting up across the country.
When it comes down to it, education is the most important thing someone can have, and student-athletes give so much of their time and talents to our school. If we can help support them to earn that diploma and Aggie ring, then that is what we want to do."