WR Karl Williams was virtually unknown to Buc fans when he arrived in camp in 1996; now he's an established veteran
Training camp brings a new round of optimism and excitement to virtually all of the NFL's 31 cities. In Tampa in 1996, the arrival of new Head Coach Tony Dungy and the area's first look at Mike Alstott's unflinching running style added extra intrigue to the proceedings when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened shop in late July.
By just a few days into camp, however, there was a new buzz in the air over a player that had previously not appeared on most radar screens. His name was Karl Williams, an undrafted rookie out of tiny Texas A&M-Kingsville, and he immediately earned the nickname 'The Truth', lifted from the former heavyweight boxer of nearly the same name. He also quickly earned a place in that part of Coach Dungy's brain reserved for 'Players to Keep an Eye On.'
Between the end of one season and the beginning of the next year's training camp, each roster in the NFL balloons from the 50s into the 80s. Obviously, not all of the new additions can be veteran free agents or draft choices. Remaining roster spots are filled in by undrafted rookies or 'street' free agents, players not under contract who have been out of school for at least a year. By the week before the first regular-season games, those same rosters must go from the 80s back into the 50s. Many of the same names that inflated the roster over the spring are used to deflate it back to its original size.
But not all of them. All around the league there are players who come into camp as virtual unknowns and come out of it with a roster spot. This has been particularly true in Tampa, and particularly so since the NFL draft was shortened to seven rounds. In '96, Williams was one of those diamonds in the rough who turn what may seem like slim opportunities into productive NFL careers. He impressed early and often in training camp and was able to overcome a nearly-devastating setback late in the pre-season.
Williams, then, is familiar with the position that this year's crop of undrafted rookies find themselves in, and he refuses to see it as a disadvantage.
"When you think about it, it's not so bad to be in that position, because you come in here with nothing to lose," said Williams, who has caught 97 passes in four seasons as a Buccaneer. "Those guys are just going to come in and do what they did in college. You can't worry about where you are or what level you're in. You just have to go out there and react and play football. Hopefully, it will all work out with hard work and commitment to studying your playbook.
"I think that (learning the system) is the big challenge in not being drafted…maybe some of these guys come from a smaller school, like I did, and it's just more mental than physical."
Williams was actually one of three undrafted rookies from Texas A&M-Kingsville that made the Bucs' roster in 1996 and 1997, joining G Jorge Diaz and CB Floyd Young. With Dungy and his staff just beginning their restructuring of the team in '96, it was a good year for newcomers like Williams; he was joined in September by fellow undrafted rookies Diaz, Jeff Gooch, Joel Crisman and Scott Milanovich.
Other undrafted rookies to make the team under Dungy include Young, Greg Bellisari and Rabih Abdullah. If the scope is widened a bit to include players who may be in their second or third NFL training camp but were not originally drafted into the league, you can add success stories such as Shelton Quarles, Kevin Dogins and Eric Vance. Williams believes these players found their way into the NFL in part because of their free agent status, which allowed them a little leeway in controlling their destination.
"I had teams like Atlanta, Indianapolis, Dallas…Dallas really wanted me to come to their camp," he said. "Being a free agent, you really can pick which offense or defense you might fit in best or where you have the best chance of playing. That's a good thing, being able to pick and choose. For me, Coach Dungy had a big part in it. I believe in his coaching style and I believe that he is a great coach and a great guy to play for. There was no question in my mind that I'd rather be here playing under him than anywhere else.
There are plenty of other examples from around the league for today's rookies to turn to – Kurt Warner, Priest Holmes and, for goodness sake, John Randle come immediately to mind – but Williams thinks it's best not to dwell on the issue.
"Not being drafted, I knew it was extremely hard, but you can't really think about it," said Williams. "If you think about it too much, you're not going to make it. I just tried to keep it out of my head and go out there and make plays. And do everything the coaches ask you to do regardless of whether or not you think that's the best way. You definitely have to be coachable. That's what really helped me out. I tried to be very disciplined, run routes and catch exactly the way they wanted me to.
"I knew I had a couple more teams that were really interested in me. You just pray to God that things work out for you. If not, you just have to work harder and hopefully you can get into someone's camp the next year or get picked up late in the season. But those are things that you really don't have to think about. If you're in camp, you have to work hard then. You can't think about, 'If I get cut, what will I do?' or 'If I get injured, what will I do?' You just have to go out every play as if it's your last play, as if your career depends on it."
That might be good advice for this year's crew of undrafted Buccaneer rookies, a lengthy list that includes T John Blick, DT Carl Bradley, S Ashley Cooper, WR Chris Daniels, S David Gibson, WR Tavarus Hogans, CB Tarig Holman, DE Aaron Humphrey, DT Damonte McKenzie, CB Earthwind Moreland, CB Terrance Parrish, S Jeff Popovich, RB Ketric Sanford, DE Mawuko Tugbenyoh, WR Michael Williams and TE Todd Yoder.
In a rare development, none of the rookie free agents that were invited to last year's camp ended up on the active roster. However, many of those players showed enough promise to be back in 2000, where another year of seasoning may allow them to realize their dreams. That group includes mini-camp standout WR Drew O'Connor as well as TE Jason Freeman, LB Bobbie Howard, C Eric De Groh and others. A second chance can be invaluable of circumstances conspired against you as a rookie, which almost happened to Williams despite his great showing in 1996.
"From what the coaches were telling me," said Williams, "I knew that my chances were getting better as camp went on. Late in camp, I dislocated the pinky finger on my right hand. That kind of scared me, because a lot of guys were really stepping their games up. But I think I made such a first impression on them that they knew I was able to play at this level."
Williams' experience that first season has stuck with him, which helps to explain why this original long shot is now a coaches favorite, a clutch third-down receiver and one of the most proficient punt returners in NFL history. Though he was able to successfully keep the nagging doubts down during his rookie tryout, he has never completely left them behind, and never intends to.
"It's always in the back of your mind," said Williams of the possibility of getting released. "I'm going into my fifth year, but each camp I go in just as I did my rookie year because anything can happen. Just because I've been there and done that, doesn't mean I've forgotten about it. Each year I come in as if I'm rookie trying to make the squad again, because that's really what it is."
That means extra work – Williams was at One Buccaneer Place on Friday getting in a workout even though this is the players' last chance for a vacation – and extra attention to the playbook.
"It's an advantage to you if you pick up the system quickly," said Williams, dispensing some more advice to this year's rookies. "If you get released, you never know…it's a long season. If you picked up the system, I think they would lean towards bringing you back before they look for someone new."
That was what brought Milanovich back last December after injuries sidelined quarterbacks Eric Zeier and Trent Dilfer. However, it was an impressive performance during camp in 1996 that earned the former Maryland star his original shot. And that's all this year's group of undrafted rookies is hoping for.