Jamaal Williams is at peace, in his own anime, 'charging up' for his NFC Championship moment
Not too long ago, his football career appeared to be crumbling. Now, he's on the verge of the Super Bowl. Here's how the Packers running back made it happen.
All game, all emotion appears ready to burst out of Jamaal Williams. With each first down, each clash of bones and helmets and shoulder pads, the Green Bay Packers running back leaps to his feet and twitches in delight. Like he’s ready to breakdance any moment. No, you won’t find this combustible blend of violence and uninhibited joy in any other player.
This is the most fun he’s ever had on a football field, too.
“I feel good. I feel grateful. I feel I’m still growing,” Williams says.
He points, first, to the strong relationships in his life.
He wasn’t always at peace like this.
“Hell, no. Hell, no,” Williams repeats. “I most definitely have a clearer view of things now than I did before. I’m able to keep playing football and, at the same time, I can keep getting better and better and keep looking for more and more. After I accomplish something, have something else. Just keep making myself better and better.
“Like an anime character.”
Yes, that’s it. Like an anime character. When he’s not playing football, Williams is watching all of the Japanese animation that he can which, initially, sounds silly. Anime? C’mon. What are we, seven years old? Granted, another ex-Packers back (Eddie Lacy) used to talk about his love for Dragon Ball Z. And Josh Norman has spoken in anime terms multiple times in our conversations over the years, about elevating from Super Saiyan 3 to Super Saiyan 4. So, clearly, there’s something about the foreign cartoon that appeals to football players.
But it seems odd. To say the least. Ask Williams what that appeal is and his joy turns to disgust.
“That’s an insult. Oh my Gosh.”
Don’t tell him that Family Guy is the animation for adults, either.
“This makes Family Guy look… c’mon bro. Anime is for the grown-ups. I’ll say it like that. You’re watching child cartoons.”
Then, Williams breaks it down. There’s just way more Action! and Excitement! in anime, what with the dizzying presentation and chaotic plot lines and punching and kicking. Most people know of anime because of Dragon Ball Z and that show’s main character, “Goku,” and Goku’s ability to power up. But his go-to on Netflix is Naruto, a show that follows the adventures of a young ninja who dreams of becoming the leader — the “Hokage” — of his village. He loves watching Naruto get closer… and closer… to his “final form.”
“I promise,” he says. “If you watch it, you’ll feel it.”
And this, Williams explains, is the best way to understand where he’s at in his career right now.
The 25-year-old believes he’s the main character in his own anime. He has slayed foe after foe and, up next, is his greatest test yet: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. It’s taken years of personal growth for Williams to get to this point, too, from getting booted off BYU’s football team in 2015 for violating the school’s honor code to recommitting himself down at the “Thrill Hill” with his uncle to setting the rushing record at BYU to falling to the 134th pick in the NFL draft to fighting and clawing for every carry in the pros to, now, being the exact weapon Green Bay needs to advance.
His impact was clear as a Naruto karate chop to the face in last week’s 32-18 divisional playoff win over the Los Angeles Rams.
All backs get the ball in this offense — this is now a Jones & Williams & Dillon production. But when the Packers needed to slam the damn door shut on the Rams, into the fourth quarter, it was Williams running into the teeth of the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense. He finished with 65 yards on 12 bashing carries. This, after amassing 741 total yards with three scores through the regular season. Williams is as reliable of a back as you’ll find, too. He caught 31 of 36 of his targets, good for an 88.6 catch rate that ranked second in the league next to Jonathan Taylor. And on 641 touches through four pro seasons, Williams has not fumbled.
You want the ball in his hands when the stakes are this high.
He’s getting stronger. And stronger. And he isn’t even sure where he is on his whole Saiyan transformation. The sprints up that hill in the Arizona desert with his uncle, Luke Neal, in the 120-degree heat bled right into so many nasty collisions on the field. At the end of a 17-yard reception at Houston, this year, safety Justin Reid drilled him with a head-to-head hit that popped Williams’ helmet clean off — Williams jolted to his feet and banged his head up ‘n down like a heavy-metal rocker, dreads swinging in the air. He doesn’t absorb pain. He inflicts it. He’s stronger mentally, too. When his life hit rock bottom in college, when Williams teamed up with Neal, he learned so much about life.
They needed each other badly then as I wrote here for Bleacher Report three years ago.
Into the pros, they split, reunited and realized they’re best together.
Into the pros, Williams found his purpose in life: Being a Dad.
So, he keeps watching all the Naruto he can to bring his own story to life.
“You just get that mindset,” Williams says. “You start getting that killer mindset. It’s all a mentality. I’m telling you, watch some animes and they’ll tell you something. It’s all mental. Anime gives you so much mental strength. When you’re watching Goku or Naruto, they go through trials and get their butts whupped and work, work, train, train and then they finally get to that other level. Now, they’re the strongest one. There’s always an episode where somebody is coming back, stronger than them and they have to work, work, work — to be the strongest ever — and come back to get him at the end.
He repeats that he is getting “stronger and stronger” right now.
Adds Williams: “I’m still charging up. I don’t even know what my final form is yet.”
Jamaal Williams knows this much: These Green Bay Packers are special.
“We’re playing great on the field,” Williams says, “and I feel like things off the field are great, too, so that’s what’s making it a double-header of, shit, greatness.”
And no way did Williams envision himself playing such a vital role in that greatness back in college when his world was caving in. When he tore his ACL in 2014 and was essentially kicked out in 2015 for doing what college kids do. He had sex. He confessed to breaking BYU’s honor code and his football career was, effectively, on life support. Yet rather than bitch and moan and get upset over a code the rest of the country may deem archaic, Williams faced the reality that he had signed that same honor code. He agreed to this lifestyle even though he wasn’t part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints himself.
So, since BYU showed loyalty to him originally, he reciprocated that loyalty by doing everything in his power to earn his way back.
He didn’t transfer when he easily could have. He headed to Arizona to train with Uncle Luke.
The workouts were unparalleled. They trained relentlessly on Neal’s “Thrill Hill” in the desert, a hill inspired by Hall-of-Famer Walter Payton. Neal met the Chicago Bears legend as a 16-year-old through a program for at-risk youths and even raced up Payton’s famous hill himself. The encounter stuck. As an adult, he started training athletes on his own treacherous hill full of rocks and rattlesnakes and coyotes in Arizona.
A snippet here…
The perspective was unparalleled, too. Forget anime. Neal has lived a life made for an HBO series that needs all the disclaimers in the world. When Neal was 12 years old, in South Central LA, he witnessed his friend, “Frog,” accidentally shoot himself with a .22. Frog’s brain matter splattered on the pavement and Luke ran home. He never knew his father. His mother was a prostitute. His own uncle would beat him mercilessly. Neal still remembers seeing the word, “Dexter,” on the boot right before it crushed his skull. Repeatedly. He thought he’d die more times than he can count. When Neal was 21 years old, his cousin had a friend (who was 6-foot-4) knock Neal unconscious to steal $1,500 and jewelry and Neal was left in a pool of his own blood. So, Neal had enough. He wanted his cousin dead. He had a hit all set up before calling it off after speaking to his grandfather.
Neal tried to kill himself once with a combo of liquor and muscle relaxers. It didn’t work.
He could go on, and on.
So, yes, Neal had been lost himself most of his life before getting to work with his nephew. He doesn’t even recognize the person in all those stories anymore. At one point, when we were hanging out in ‘17, Neal even called up that cousin he once wanted dead and the two shared a laugh about it all. They reconciled long ago.
Neal needed Williams and Williams needed Neal. The reason Williams ran so damn angry through high school and college, he admitted, was that his Dad had abandoned him in ninth grade. Neal filled that gap.
Yet, by the summer of 2019, these two had drifted apart. That summer, the two did not train together and while Williams had a good 2019 season he knew it could’ve been great. And, of course, that season also happened to be Aaron Jones’ coming-out party. What happened? Where was Neal? Belize. That’s where the cousin he once wanted dead lived, and that cousin was killed. So Neal went to see family.
Maybe there’s more to it. Williams chooses not to delve too deep into the subject but seems to blame himself.
However you slice it, both realized they were better together.
“It was a life experience I had to go through,” Williams says, “to realize I should have never left in the first place. We should have never separated in the first place. It’s all in the past. Now, it’s all good.”
Adds Neal: “Sometimes, you have to take steps back to refocus. That put us a season and a half behind. And the door opened up for somebody else. And when that door opens up, you have to take advantage of your opportunity and that’s what Aaron Jones has done. He hasn’t looked back. He’s a great back. But Jamaal’s mind just wasn’t there. … He was able to sit back and see everything clearer, to find his path of success. I think he needed that.”
Last summer, they were back at. This relationship saved Williams before and saved him again.
The duo trained even harder this time ‘round and they had company, too. The running back who’ll be on the other sideline Sunday was right there with them. Ronald Jones Jr. — who shares the same agency as Williams — spent this past offseason at the Thrill Hill, too, and his 2020 season with the Buccaneers was predictably phenomenal. “RoJo” turned his career around. “Rojo” proved to be the perfect complement to Tom Brady and the Bucs’ Dream Team aerial assault with 978 rushing yards on 192 attempts (5.1 avg.) and seven touchdowns in 14 games.
The two backs pushed each other to both reach this NFC title game, this moment.
And you cannot quantify Williams’ maturation in numbers alone. Williams has grown just as much off the field. He begins by saying he wants to be known as just “Jamaal” — never “Jamaal, the football player.” This sport alone will never define him. He’d much rather be a son, a brother, a friend, a Dad, “a regular schmegular person” to all. There is an endearing innocence to the man. When we first met, Williams thought I was Mormon because, well, he thought all white people were Mormon after his time at BYU.
He’s the absolute least high ‘n mighty pro you’ll find.
“Regular Schmegular Jamaal,” he says. “People go, ‘Oh, my gosh! It’s Jamaal Williams!’ Nope! I’m just Jamaal, man.
“Football’s just something I do. I put my heart and my soul in that thing. It’s just part of me. It ain’t all of me. That’s because I have a daughter. If I had to choose football or my daughter, I’m going to help my daughter first. But I’m grateful that football is something that can help me support my daughter. That’s what gives me more motivation.”
And that is what propels him from Saiyan two to three to four more than anything: Being a Dad. The day his daughter was born, one thought ran through Williams’ mind: What type of man do I want to be for her?
He’s finding that answer every day. He wants to be the example, for her, of what a man should be. He wants to show her how she should always be treated.
Above all, he wants Kalea to always know one thing: “You can be anything you ever want to be, as long as you believe.”
His daughter turned three years old on Jan. 11 which means, yes, they’re getting closer to watching some anime together.
Williams isn’t sure when exactly that’ll be but he knows Daddy-Daughter time will absolutely include watching all of One Piece together. And for us non-fans, One Piece is a Japanese anime series that began in 1999 and is still going. There are more than 950 episodes. It’s the mother of all anime shows that just keeps going… and going… and Williams cannot wait to watch every second with Kalea.
“I’m going to make her watch that with me,” Williams declares. “She has no choice. Or she’s grounded. See! These are the things she’s going to get upset about because she’s going to have to do it with me.”
They’ll get to that soon enough. Maybe during an offseason with Uncle Luke. His daughter was with him for a period in Green Bay and is now back with her Mom in Utah.
Without her, Williams isn’t exactly a social butterfly. He prefers to be alone. He lives in a home near Lambeau Field, by himself, and admits he doesn’t do much besides play video games and watch anime. He couldn’t handle being around a roommate 24/7. Heck, he couldn’t handle a dog. He got one in Green Bay but gave it back when the responsibility was too much. Now, when he comes home from 1265 Lombardi Ave., Williams goes straight to his bedroom and closes the door.
And something just changes in him whenever he’s around his little girl. He can’t get enough. He built a trampoline for Kalea. He plays Barbies with Kalea. Whenever she’s not around — like this day, chatting over the phone — Williams thinks out loud, “Wow, I have a daughter,” and smiles.
That “goo-goo-gah-gah” life, as he calls it, changes things.
Says Williams: “That’s my daughter. I just have to be her Dad and do what I need to do to be that man for her.”
He has a feeling she’s not going to need that much help, too. She’s independent. Like his Mom was, like his sister. If she’s getting into the car, she doesn’t want any help lugging her toys in. (“She will do it,” laughs Williams.) Seeing her lift up teddy bears over her head, Williams saw the shot put in her future. Seeing her jump on the trampoline before she could even walk, Williams saw volleyball in her future. Whatever sport she chooses one day, Williams knows she’ll attack it 100 MPH.
As for his own father who deserted him long ago? Jamaal doesn’t bring him up.
Neal says that he is in and out of Jamaal’s life.
Certainly, Williams learned from his past.
“He understands,” Neal says, “the things you didn’t have, the love you didn’t get from your Dad, that’s when you put that love into your daughter. So that it doesn’t become a gap. You fill that gap with her. That’s what he’s doing now. He’s a great father and that’s part of his growth that I’ve seen. He’s become a great father. He’s always been a great human being. But he’s become a great father. When he’s out here training, his daughter comes out here. So, he’s learning how to become a professional and a parent at the same time.”
The city of Green Bay, Wisc., is perfect for a guy like him. He doesn’t need to be around tons of people. He doesn’t need nightlife to be happy. The college kid once suspended one game at BYU for underage drinking doesn’t even drink anymore.
This is a contract year for Williams and he can see himself playing here for a long, long time.
Because Williams isn’t the type of player who was pissed that 12 backs were drafted ahead of him in 2017, no, he was more so grateful that the Packers were the team that did take a chance on him. And that strong sense of loyalty will no doubt course through his veins when he’s a free agent this spring.
“I want to be a Packer for my whole career if I could,” Williams says. “This is really where I started. I chose to come back and finish what I needed to do at BYU. So, I think it’s the loyalty — they drafted me. This is where I want to be. I want to be great here at Lambeau if I could. I know there’s greatness in the future for me. Wherever I go — whether it’s here or somewhere else — I’m going to have fun and just enjoy celebrating all them touchdowns.”
Aaron Jones, the No. 1 back, will also be a free agent and Jones has made it abundantly clear he’s seeking a big payday. He fired his agent and hired Drew Rosenhaus. Chances are, if the Packers were going to pay Dalvin Cook-like, Alvin Kamara-like, Derrick Henry-like money for Jones, they would’ve done it by now. This situation is similar to the Los Angeles Chargers’ dilemma a couple years back — Melvin Gordon wanted a big payday, didn’t get it, headed to free agency and the back-up asking for less money behind him (Austin Ekeler) ended up benefiting.
Obviously, Williams and Ekeler are different backs but Williams is no longer that straight-line bruiser running angry all the time. He’s a complete back. All of that offseason training on that massive heap of hell and all of the nuanced route-running drills with Neal morphed him into a dynamic threat in space, too. Split Williams out wide vs. a linebacker? “It’s a wrap,” says Neal. Both uncle and nephew believe the sky’s the limit and they have kept in touch all season long.
The two don’t just break down plays from games — they’re dissecting specific plays from practice.
Now, Williams knows his future is in his hands.
“I want to make sure I’m loyal to the people who have been loyal to me. If you show me kindness — I just want to treat people how they treat me. Be up front with it. Boom. Let’s get it done. BYU was it for me. Because they came up to me and were straightforward with how it is. Everything. The rules and what happens. But at the same time, they said, ‘You’ve got an equal chance to play.’ I’m like, ‘Cool. I’m going.’ Equal chance? All I have to do is ball out.
“I know I’ve come a long way — looking at myself, coming from BYU and high school — I’ve grown a lot and I’m still growing. If my high school self could look at what I do now, myself would say ‘I can do that!? That is cray-zee.’”
Five years after his football career was on the precipice of collapse, Williams is now on the precipice of the Super Bowl. Playoff games at Lambeau Field are just different, too.
Always have been.
Play the hero here, in Green Bay, and your legend can reach mythical proportions for decades to come. Shine in an NFC title game and you can forever return to Wisconsin as a conquering hero. You’ll be introduced to roaring cheers at Lambeau one day as an honorary alum. You’ll have your jersey, your cleat, your scarred helmet, something enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame. You’ll never have to pay for a Spotted Cow or plate of cheese curds again.
The stakes are all very clear to Williams.
Every snap, now, means something more.
“It’s great to be part of a franchise that has history like this,” Williams says. “It’s crazy. The championships. The town breathes Green Bay football. It’s its own little college environment. You can’t get this anywhere else. It’s a different vibe.”
“I can’t wait. I can’t wait to be great.”
And, with one juke, he’s back to being fun-loving Jamaal. Asked what people should know about him and he doesn’t tee up a tidy anecdote for us all to replay in our minds while watching his No. 30 dash through the snow at Lambeau, no, he brings up his, uh, “resting bitch face.” It’s been bothering him lately so he figures he’ll get it off his chest and make sure everybody out there knows that he’s not miserable, not mad. Frankly, this is just what he looks like when he’s zoned out. Unfortunately, he’s learning that wearing a mask doesn’t help matters, either.
Williams’ specific “resting bitch face” is all in the eyes.
Which is another reason he’s always dancing out there — to show people he’s a happy dude.
“Football time, I’m happy as shit!” he says with a yell. “I’m ready to go! Let’s goooo!’”
Of course, this doesn’t stop teammates from messing with him. This look is most profound in the morning when, OK, he is a little moody. Williams is not a morning person. Williams is in zero mood to converse. The rookie AJ Dillon, who is up and at ‘em every AM on their way to special teams meetings together, now makes a point to mess with Williams by being super chatty or giving him a big bear hug. It’s not that Williams needs coffee in his system to function as much as he just needs time. A good hour and a half, actually.
By practice, he’s good. By kickoff, he’s great.
He’s not running angry anymore, either, because he’s not worried about a thing in life. Williams has found himself laughing out loud more during games this year.
“Because I’m having fun out there,” he says. “That’s what you’re supposed to do — especially on my team. Right now, we have good chemistry. I feel like everybody is relaxed and playing their game and they can be themselves and we can ball out together.”
His joy has been contagious. These 2020 Packers seem to have just about as much fun as any in recent memory. Winning tends to do that, too.
Sunday marks only the third time ever that Green Bay has hosted the NFC Championship Game.
As this epic battle inches closer, and closer, Williams can feel his inner Naruto gaining momentum. It’s time.
“Our goal is the Super Bowl,” Williams says, “and to win the Super Bowl.”