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As cornerback Cary Williams was warming up for the Ravens’ final preseason game in Atlanta, Head Coach John Harbaugh approached and extended his hand in congratulations.
“We’re going with you on Sept. 11th,” Harbaugh said.
Williams literally teared up on the field.
A former seventh-round draft pick who has long been near the end of the defensive bench, Williams was cut three times in his first two years in the NFL and kicked off his college team.
Now he’s going to be starting against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Week 1, the grand opening stage.
“I got pretty emotional,” Williams said Thursday.
“This is something that I always dreamed of doing, becoming a starting football player in the NFL. It’s a lifelong journey, a lifelong dream. Now that it’s coming to fruition, it’s emotions I just can’t explain.”
Few likely would have predicted Williams would be starting versus the Ravens’ AFC North rival.
He played in 13 games last year, but was mainly used as a special teams ace and saw limited action on defense, where he made just six tackles. In his first three NFL seasons, Williams had one spot start (in 2009) and 26 tackles.
The Ravens have always liked his potential, however. Near the end of last season, Williams began to earn a bit more time on defense and Harbaugh said he was “developing as a player.” He seemed perhaps on track for bigger things.
But when the Ravens drafted cornerback Jimmy Smith – who is built similarly to the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Williams – Williams wondered whether it meant he would again struggle to see defensive playing time.
It was something that could have derailed him.
Long ago during his college days, griping about a lack of playing time at Fordham cost Williams a place on the team. After a year off in which he worked as a telemarketer for DirecTV, Williams landed on his feet at Washburn College, a tiny Division II school in Topeka.
Once in the NFL, Williams was released three times, including by the Tennessee Titans who drafted him, before being signed by the Ravens in November of 2009.
“I just came to the realization during this offseason that I’m just going to continue to work hard and eventually the hard work will pay off – whether the Ravens see it or another team sees it,” Williams said.
“I just wanted the opportunity to play football, whether it was a purple and black uniform in another uniform in the NFL.”
A more bulked-up Williams again impressed during training camp and in preseason games. About midway through camp, he stepped onto the first team defense and some wondered if the move would last. Practice after practice, Williams stayed there. He never left.
Now Williams is listed at the top of the Ravens’ depth chart at right cornerback.
“He had a great offseason and got better as a football player,” Harbaugh said. “[He] got more physically strong and all that, but just became a better corner, a better player, through his own efforts; and then applied that. He’s gotten better every day. I can’t wait to see him play in the game.”
Now perhaps the biggest hurdle for Williams heading into Sunday’s game is keeping his emotions at bay.
He expects he won’t get much sleep tonight before the game, and said he must focus on remaining calm and not trying to do too much to make a play once he’s on the field.
Williams will have his hands full against the Steelers’ talented wide receiver corps, featuring speedsters Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders and veteran Hines Ward.
But the ever confident Williams said he’s “not afraid of anyone or anything” the Steelers throw at him, and fully expects them to test him.
“I’m going to continue to play my game,” Williams said. “I’m not going to let anybody come in here and intimidate me and who I am and what I believe about myself. I’m going to show who I am on Sunday.”