Tremendous determination, unwavering commitment and strong self belief.
Those are the traits that enabled Sean Williams to pull off quite an impressive accomplishment: breaking into professional football after being out of the game for more than four years.
Williams isn’t just playing, he is excelling, having established himself as one of the top defensive players for the Michigan Panthers of the reimagined United States Football League. The 2019 Naval Academy graduate ranks third on the team with 34 tackles through six games and has thoroughly impressed the coaching staff.
“Sean has really been one of those guys you dream of having on your football team — not only from a performance standpoint, but also because of the type of person he is,” Michigan coach Jeff Fisher said. “Sean has given us some stability in the secondary and shown outstanding playmaking ability.”
Williams played on special teams and saw action as a backup in the first few games of the season as he was shaking off the rust and regaining his form. He took over at strong safety in the season opener after starter Warren Saba got hurt.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound safety really emerged in Week 4 against the Philadelphia Stars, recording six tackles and two pass breakups. He was named Defensive Player of the Game after notching his first career interception and forcing a fumble.
That solidified a starting spot in the secondary for Williams, who was subsequently taken off some special teams to reduce his workload.
“Sean has quickly developed into one of the best football players in this league,” Michigan secondary coach and special teams coordinator Jeff Imamura said. “Sean has tremendous command of what we’re doing defensively and has been a stabilizing force on the back end. He’s provided a physical presence and has been a very sure tackler.”
Williams last played in a competitive football game Dec. 8, 2018, when he totaled eight tackles (one for loss) and a pass breakup in a 17-10 loss to archrival Army. That closed out a stellar career in which Williams was a three-year starter and two-time All-American Athletic Conference selection, recording 240 total tackles.
Longtime head coach Ken Niumatalolo ranks Williams among the finest safeties in recent Navy history alongside the likes of Chris Lepore, Josh Smith, Wyatt Middleton and Parrish Gaines.
Williams graduated from the academy the following May with a degree in quantitative economics and was commissioned as a supply corps officer. He was initially assigned to the Naval Academy Prep School as officer in charge of support and logistics and also coached football there.
After attending Supply School in Athens, Georgia, Williams was assigned to the USS Gerald R. Ford, an aircraft carrier homeported in Norfolk, Virginia. He has served as disbursing officer and hotel services officer aboard the ship and has logged more than 250 days at sea since boarding in April 2020.
At every step along the way, Williams kept his professional football dream alive — locating professional trainers to work with whenever in port and finding creative ways to stay in top shape while underway.
In fact, Williams developed a regular regimen while aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford that utilized various spaces for different workouts. He did pushups and sit-ups in his cabin, lifted weights in a storage room, ran sprints on the flight deck whenever it was clear and performed explosive work such as jumping hurdles inside the hangar bay when the planes were on deck.
“It’s tough when you’re out to sea for months at a time. You just have to use all the available resources and maximize any free time,” Williams said. “I’d wake up every morning around five to run on the treadmill before going on duty. It came down to doing whatever I could whenever I could.”
Williams said he was motivated by stories of other former Navy football players, such as legendary quarterback Roger Staubach and renowned wide receiver Phil McConkey, who returned to play pro football after lengthy layoffs while serving.
“I still consider myself young and capable athletically,” Williams said. “I love playing football and I wasn’t ready to give it up.”
Williams made a wise decision by attending the American National Combine in June 2021 because his performance there attracted attention. He posted numbers in the 40-yard dash, 225-pound bench press, three-cone shuttle and vertical jump that were better than what he did at Towson’s pro day in 2019.
A scout with the New England Patriots evaluated tape from the combine and invited Williams to attend an open tryout. While he was not signed by the Patriots, Williams did receive some positive feedback that was encouraging.
“That opportunity with the Patriots was unexpected and I only had a week and a half to prepare after returning to port,” Williams said. “I did well enough to solidify my confidence that I was doing the right things to stay in shape. I realized it was realistic that I could do this and that I was not that far away from where I needed to be.”
Organizers of the USFL put together a list of players who had been invited to NFL training camps or minicamps. Fisher and Imamura were researching the secondary options when they came across Williams and decided to review his Navy highlights.
“We did our research and it was obvious Sean was an outstanding college football player. We evaluated the tape and you could see all the traits of a quality safety,” Imamura said. “Naval Academy graduates are a cut above, so we knew this was an incredible individual who does everything at a high level.”
Michigan placed Williams high on its prospect board and wound up selecting him in the fourth round (29th overall) of the USFL draft. Fisher, who felt all the traits Williams brought to the table were “too good to be true,” had heard from many coaches the impact a service academy product could have in terms of character and leadership.
“Those players from Army, Air Force and Navy are the type you want on their team and Sean has certainly lived up to all our expectations,” Fisher said. “Sean has been the consummate professional from day one – just a tremendous teammate and outstanding presence in the locker room.”
Williams was working late at night in his Norfolk office when he received the phone call informing he had been drafted by the Panthers. It was a whirlwind process as Williams had only been informed a few weeks earlier that his name was in the pool for the USFL draft.
“I was totally ecstatic about being drafted and am so grateful to Coach Fisher and Coach Carroll for taking a chance on me,” he said.
Williams has submitted a waiver request seeking to convert his remaining active-duty service time into the Naval Reserve. The lieutenant junior grade is very appreciative that commanding officers have allowed him to pursue the USFL opportunity pending approval or denial of the waiver.
Every USFL franchise is operating out of Birmingham, Alabama, and all games are played at Protective Stadium. Williams arrived in March for an abbreviated training camp and admits it was challenging reacclimating to wearing the helmet and pads. He was relieved it only took a few days of full contact to get back into the swing of things.
“I feel like my growth has to be exponential since I’ve been away from the game so long. Coach Imamura gave me kudos during training camp for correcting mistakes in coverage very quickly,” Williams said. “It felt good to know my skills, abilities and football instincts are all still there. Once I got a feel for the game again, I always found myself around the ball.”
Williams has bulked up from his Navy days when he played at around 193 pounds. He credits fellow safety Kieron Williams, who has NFL experience, for “taking me under his wing and showing me the ropes.”
Imamura has been impressed by Williams from the outset and is not surprised he has emerged as an impact performer.
“Sean is such a committed individual and that was evident when he came into camp in such great shape and looking like a legit pro safety. You could tell he had been training really hard,” Imamura said. “You’re dealing with an individual who has tremendous character who operates on a day-to-day basis like a 10-year veteran as far as going about his business.
“Sean has such a high football IQ in terms of understanding the Xs and Os and learning techniques. He’s been able to adapt and learn very quickly.”
Fisher said Williams is “shining” in the Michigan secondary and believes a big reason why is an ability to immediately implement whatever plays or techniques the coaching staff puts in.
“Sean listens really well and implements what he’s told. As you would expect, he follows orders,” Fisher said. “If he’s supposed to line up a yard and a half outside the hash mark presnap and push to 10 yards, it’s done with precision.”
Fisher was head coach of the Tennessee Titans from 1995 to 2010 and the Los Angeles Rams from 2012 to 2016. He spent more than three decades coaching in the NFL and believes Williams has the ability to make the transition to that level.
“I would say Sean is one of a handful of our players that has a chance to play in the NFL,” Fisher said. “Getting into a training camp is the first step. Sean certainly has all the ability; he just needs to get a foot in the door.”
Imamura, who worked for Fisher with the Rams and spent a decade coaching in the NFL, seconded that assessment. “I really think Sean deserves a shot at the next level; I think he will earn that opportunity based off his body of work in the USFL. He has all the traits of an NFL safety,” Imamura said.
While Williams admits the NFL is the ultimate goal, he does not want to “overlook” every day spent with the Panthers (1-5).
“I feel very, very grateful to be doing what I am now. I’m trying to make the most of this situation and soak it all in, he said. “I have a sense of humbleness and appreciation to be with this team; It’s been a wonderful opportunity.”
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Whatever the future holds for Williams, there is no doubt he will leave a huge impression on everyone involved with the Michigan Panthers.
“Sean has brought the same mindset and approach to pro football as he did to being an officer in the United States Navy,” Imamura said. “We’re all better for knowing Sean and being around him. He is really a special individual.”
USFL Week 7
NEW ORLEANS BREAKERS VS. MICHIGAN PANTHERS
At Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama
Saturday, 9 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1
Source: Capital Gazette