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MU’s Lorenzo Williams learned leadership through tragedy

Friday, November 9, 2007 | 4:10 a.m. CST; updated 11:04 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Lorenzo Williams and his teammates all touch the “AO 25” sign at the entrance to the locker room before they run onto Faurot Field.

COLUMBIA — Lorenzo Williams knew Pig Brown was hurting.

It was the summer of 2006. The two had returned to their apartment. Brown plopped down on the couch. He had just finished his first grueling voluntary workout with his new team after transferring to Missouri from Reedley (Calif.) Community College.

“How are you?” Williams asked him. Brown was chubby by Division I football standards, and running laps at the end of the workout had wiped him out.

“You know, I’m hurting.” Brown replied, looking at the defensive tackle sideways. Then he threw up on the beige carpet.

Brown was distraught and called his mom. He told her he couldn’t do it, that he didn’t want to be there.

Williams sat down with Brown, assuring him it was going to get better. It was only his first day, Williams said. He would get used to it.

One year before, it was Williams who was hurting.

It was July 12, 2005. He was urging linebacker Aaron O’Neal, his friend and teammate, to work harder during a voluntary practice. He told him things like “Let’s keep going” and “You got to do this for the team.” But more than three hours after the practice had begun, O’Neal was pronounced dead at University Hospital.

Lymphocytic meningitis was initially cited as the cause of death by the Boone County Medical Examiner, but a hospital neuropathologist later examined O’Neal’s brain and said sickle cell trait could have contributed to his death. A wrongful death suit filed by the O’Neal family in 2005 against 14 individuals, including Athletics Director Mike Alden and coach Gary Pinkel, is still pending.

Williams was devastated. Doubt dogged him.

How do you clean up a mess like that? Do those stains ever wash away?

Williams didn’t know what to do. None of his immediate friends had ever died. The last person he lost was his grandmother — his best friend whom he called “Gaw-Gaw” — when he was 10.

He had been doing his job. Coaches had asked him to lead, to be more vocal. But now he wanted to stay silent.

“Maybe I was pushing too hard,” Williams thought at the time. “Maybe I said something I shouldn’t have said. Maybe I should have asked him what was wrong with him before.”

“It was hard to come back and be a leader after that situation. Your immediate thought is, ‘Man, I might have messed something up here. I’m not saying nothing else,’” he said.

Grief consumed him.

“I cried for a week straight,” Williams said. “I didn’t have any emotional stability left at all.”

Pat Ivey, the strength and conditioning coach who ran the practice, consoled Williams after the players were told O’Neal had died. The two were sitting on a bench outside the practice facility. Both were in tears when Williams expressed his doubts to Ivey.

“You never know what’s going on a with a person,” Ivey told him. “But one thing you can’t stop doing is you can’t stop leading.”

“Yeah, but it did happen. So what happens now?” Williams asked.

“You just got to keep being a leader. You’re going to be a big leader for us one day, and you got to continue to grow and learn from this and keep going,” Ivey replied.

Later that summer, Williams was still down, but he realized Brad Ekwerekwu, his roommate and former MU wide receiver, was not. The shroud of grief had lifted for him. Williams asked what had happened.

“Do you believe in God?” Ekwerekwu asked.

“Yeah,” Williams replied.

“This is one of those situations you just have to give to God. Ask him to take it,” Ekwerekwu said.

Williams took his advice.

“I prayed forever, asking God to help me and heal me from this,” Williams said.

How do you get up after such a hit? How do you come back to the line and keep fighting?

Williams knew how to overcome physical challenges. Now a 295-pound nose tackle wearing No. 99, he looked much different when he came to Columbia in 2003. He was a 222-pound linebacker wearing No. 30.

Pinkel chuckled during his news conference Monday when he was asked if he remembered Williams wearing No. 30. “He gets razzed about that all the time,” he said.

Players called him “Biscuit,” defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said, meaning he was “a biscuit away from defensive end.”

By 2004, Williams had gotten big enough to play that position, and coaches asked to him to make the switch. He was reluctant but accepted.

Since he started to play football when he was 5, Williams had never lined up as an offensive or defensive lineman. But he listened to Kuligowski and learned the position. He knew how to pick up new athletic skills. In ninth grade, he threw a discus for the first time. Soon he was one of the best in the country, placing second at the USATF Nationals and third at the Junior Olympics.

Still wearing No. 30, he played in all 11 games at defensive end as a redshirt freshman and changed his number during the spring. His mother now has the No. 30 jersey. “It’s in a frame. It will probably never come out of there again,” Williams said, laughing.

But Williams was not finished changing positions. After his first season, there were holes in the middle when defensive tackles C.J. Mosley and Atiyyah Ellison were drafted that spring. Williams has started every game at defensive tackle since.

Williams credits Kuligowski with his successful transition. “I definitely wouldn’t be who I am now without him,” Williams said.

Ivey, the assistant athletic director for athletic performance, has also worked closely with Williams, who is now one of the strongest players on the team. He bench presses 435 pounds, one of the best on the team. He tries new workouts with Ivey and critiques them, never wasting a day to get stronger.

Williams doesn’t like to fail. During a workout this summer, he was doing the hang clean, taking a barbell from just below his waist, bending at the knees and lifting it to his shoulders. He was going for a personal record but didn’t reach it. Disgusted with himself, he stormed out of the weight room.

Williams entered the locker room and sat down at his locker with his head in his hands. Ivey was right behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Are you OK?” Ivey said.

“I cannot have a failure,” Williams said, “because if I have a failure now, I have a failure during the season.”

The defense struggled early this season. With six new starters, it let large second-half leads dwindle against Illinois and Ole Miss, giving up 967 yards in those games. “Of course I take it personally,” Williams said after the Ole Miss game. “I’m a leader on this team, and when things aren’t going right, it’s part of my responsibility to get (the defense) to play better.”

Williams and the defense didn’t panic. They remained confident and fixed their struggles from their non-conference games. Now, in Big 12 Conference play, the defense is ranked No. 1, giving up only 330.8 yards a game.

Williams doesn’t shy away from emotion, getting the team ready before every game. Since he knows each player’s personality, he knows how to approach everyone. He tells safety William Moore to rap softly. He knows he can crack jokes with defensive end Tommy Chavis, but he doesn’t say a word to defensive end Stryker Sulak and defensive tackle Ziggy Hood. He quickly pounds fists with them and then lets them stare down the locker-room walls.

Williams also reminds players of the past. He talks about the selfishness that tainted his first season with the Tigers, when players were more concerned about their potential careers in the NFL than the current season.

He and his teammates also talk about the friend they lost, the young linebacker who wore No. 25, the player whose memory they make sure lives on.

They tell stories about O’Neal and show a DVD of his high-school highlights during the summer. Players get together to celebrate his birthday and share their memories. They chant “AO” as they huddle after every practice. Each player touches the “AO 25” sign at the entrance to the locker room before they run onto Faurot Field.

“He’s definitely still here with us,” Williams said. “We feel his presence all the time.”

Williams has his own rituals to remember O’Neal and get ready before each game. He writes “AO” on his arm with black marker. While he’s warming up on the field, he retreats to the 25-yard line, stands still for a second and talks to him.

And he seeks out his teammates and shares an important message with each of them.

“I make sure to hug everybody and tell them I love them before we go out on the field,” he said.


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