COLUMBIA — As Travis Ruth watched film of the North Carolina defensive line, he paid close attention to the nose guard, No. 92.
Ruth, the Missouri football team's starting center, will be lining up against the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Tar Heel during the Independence Bowl on Monday in Shreveport, La. He’s huge, Ruth noted. He looks like a good player.
Missouri (7-5, 5-4 in Big 12)
vs. North Carolina (7-5, 3-5 ACC)
WHEN: 4 p.m. Dec. 26
WHERE: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM; KCMQ/98.7 FM
If not for No. 92’s name, Sylvester Williams, Ruth might not have recognized him. Ruth and Williams played together their senior year at Jefferson City High, when Ruth was already Missouri-bound. Williams, though, was playing organized football for the first time in his life. When they faced each other in practice, it was not an even matchup.
“I was able to battle him, but I’m pretty sure he won most of the battles we had,” Williams said. “I wasn’t very good.”
Ruth and Missouri defensive tackle Terrell Resonno, who graduated from Jefferson City a year earlier in 2006 and is friends with Williams, took fairly standard routes to Division I football. According to Rivals.com, both were top 10 overall in-state prospects.
Williams’ route has been more circuitous. He graduated high school after previously dropping out and took a job at a factory. When he decided he wanted to make more of himself, he enrolled at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College and was able to walk onto the football team only because coaches there liked his work ethic and imagined his almost completely untapped potential.
Less than three years later, he is starting for North Carolina. From what Ruth has seen on film, the matchup will be fairer this time.
“He picked it up,” Ruth said. “At Jeff City we beat on each other all the time. Four years later, we get to do it again.”
Williams grew up in St. Louis, where basketball was the sport of choice and football meant playing toss in the street. Once he moved to Jefferson City, he played on the freshman basketball team and met Andrea Salmon, one of the basketball coaches and a physical education teacher. Salmon liked Williams and sensed he needed a mentor. They formed a strong relationship.
Williams was skipping school regularly, and his attendance became so poor his sophomore year that he had to drop out. Salmon kept in contact with him, though, and encouraged him to re-enroll.
“I didn’t give up on him,” Salmon said. “He ended up coming back, and he’s just been working ever since.”
By his senior year Williams was eligible to participate in athletics at Jefferson City. On Williams’ way to class, a football coach asked why, as one of the bigger guys in the school, he wasn’t playing football.
Williams gave it a try. He didn’t know any of the fundamentals of playing on the line, so at first he was nervous. But with school going well and none of his future plans based around football, Williams didn’t take it too seriously. He was a backup all season but said he played in one game.
“It was a great experience for me,” Williams said. “I didn’t have much success, but I was out there having fun.”
That could have been it. Williams played on the Jefferson City varsity basketball team that winter and graduated in the spring of 2008. He said he “wanted to work in the real world,” and his job at Cracker Barrel was not paying enough, so he filled out a slew of applications.
He took the first one that called him back: Modine Manufacturing Company. He began making radiator lids for large trucks along an assembly line, and he got paid $12 an hour.
When he started, Williams said he thought it was a great job. Eight months later, he could not imagine doing it for the rest of his life.
“He had a great position, he was making really good money, but that wasn’t for him,” Salmon said. “He wanted to make something of his life.”
Williams gave Salmon a call, and they met the next day to talk. Salmon invited him to a Kansas football game, where yet another former Jefferson City lineman, Richard Johnson, plays. They went, and during the car ride home Williams turned to Salmon and said, “Coach, I want to go to college, and I want to play football.”
Williams and Salmon discussed what he would need to do make that happen, including weightlifting and conditioning. He enrolled at Coffeyville and said he worked his butt off not only in the weight room but also in studying the game and learning techniques. When Resonno was home in Jefferson City, they worked out together.
"He's a hard worker," Resonno said. "You could tell he wanted to make it, he had that mentality."
When Williams finally got to Coffeyville and onto the field, some of the things he had studied started to make sense.
Coffeyville does not keep many out-of-state walk-ons, Salmon said, but when coach Darian Dulin called Williams into his office, he said the coaches liked his attitude and his work habits and wanted to see how he did between fall camp and the first game. Williams was on the team, at least temporarily.
This time, the fun included success. Williams continued to improve, and made the team permanently. By the next season he was starting. In 2010 he made 12.5 tackles for loss and blocked five kicks. He was named to the all-conference team, was honorable mention for the All-America team, and was rated the No. 14 overall junior college prospect by SuperPrep.
Williams said North Carolina was the first school to recruit him, and going there fulfilled his wish of getting farther away from home. He enrolled in January 2011.
During his first season in Chapel Hill, where he is considered a junior, Williams has played in all 12 games and made 48 tackles, fifth-most on the team. He also is among the team leaders in sacks and has one interception and one fumble recovery.
Salmon said he thinks the turning point for Williams was returning to school and getting his high school diploma. From there, he could envision the opportunities.
"He ended up coming back, and he’s just been working ever since," Salmon said. "I think he looked at the big picture of having the chance to make something of himself."
To Resonno, it does not matter that Williams hardly played at Jefferson City. He's part of the club.
"We have some good lineman come out of Jeff City," Resonno said. "Seeing four guys playing line playing D-1 football and having success, that shows what kind of talent Jeff City puts out."
Salmon, who no longer coaches at Jefferson City but continues to teach there, said it's more than talent that enables players to make it beyond high school.
"They come from background of tradition, and with that tradition the kids represent themselves with a lot of pride and hard work," he said. "They come back home and see each other and they challenge each other. Young men have taken what they gained in this school and (applied) it."
Since the bowl game announcement, Williams and Resonno have chatted online, and Williams and Ruth talked on the phone. They reminisced on their one season together and laughed about the unusual circumstances that have set up another battle in the trenches.
"Back then, who would have thought I’d end up playing against Missouri and (Ruth)?" Williams asked. "This is an unbelievable opportunity."