Ishaq Williams embraces second chance for degree, NFL

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

There is no TV provision to beam what Ishaq Williams’ resuscitated football reality looks like, beyond the limits of those individuals who happen to wander into Pennington Field in Bedford, Texas, on Wednesday and see it in person.

No promise that a green light onto the remotest of back roads to the NFL will lead to anything more than a splash of disappointment.

No amenities. No entitlement. No hyperventilating from those around him about what his potential might turn out to be someday.

And yet somehow it feels like a dream to Williams, the kind you don’t ever want to wake up from and never take for granted.

“I’m a totally different person,” said the former Notre Dame still-unhatched prodigy, whose appearance Wednesday in the College Gridiron Showcase’s glorified scrimmage will constitute Williams’ first meaningful snaps since Dec. 28, 2013 — a one-tackle performance against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

“I’m positive, hard-working, have a passion for stuff,” Williams said in a phone interview Tuesday night. “This situation has changed my life for the better.”

The “situation” is his road back from a protracted academic dishonesty investigation that quarantined Williams and four teammates from the Irish roster in August of 2014 before that season had kicked off and entangled all five of them with the NCAA to some degree.

At that point, even with Williams’ résumé comprising a modest 45 career tackles, one career sack and one career start, there were several early mock drafts and projections that August that pegged Williams as a possible first-rounder, with a floor elevated enough to at least get drafted somewhere in the seven-round affair.

But with each passing week, both his draft stock and his hope atrophied.

“I thought I was done playing football,” he said. “I didn’t think anyone would ever give me a second chance. I even went through the thought process of maybe entering the draft last year. But then I’d give up the chance to get a Notre Dame degree, I felt.

“I couldn’t see myself walking away with a bitter taste, a bitter feeling in my soul. So I came back to get that degree, no matter what stood in my way, and left the football part in the hands of the NCAA.”

None of the five players perhaps felt the NCAA grip more than Williams, who not only had the 2014 season taken away — when the outside linebacker was expected to become a starting defensive end — but had his 2015 safety net torpedoed by an unsuccessful NCAA appeal.

The hope was that even if Williams was ineligible to play on Saturdays, that he could practice with the team, helping them to get better while keeping a path to the NFL less impeded.

Instead, while safety Eilar Hardy and cornerback KeiVarae Russell gained redemptive college experiences and linebacker Kendall Moore and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels tried to reawaken their football futures through NFL auditions, Williams waited and hoped — and ultimately was jilted.

And then discovered just how blessed he was.

Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins, athletic director Jack Swarbrick and head coach Brian Kelly all helped work to divulge a way for Williams to stay on scholarship if he was indeed committed to getting his Notre Dame degree.

His former Irish football teammates embraced whatever he wanted his dreams to look like and were willing to do whatever they could to help make them happen. Members of the Notre Dame family who weren’t ex-teammates got involved, too.

Former Notre Dame wide receiver Bobby Brown, now an attorney in the New York City area, connected Brooklynite Williams with former Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley of Sharpley Training in Elkhart, Ind., to try to help him build some sort of training foundation that could get Williams prepared for any auditions that might materialize.

“We were able to talk a little bit about what happened with the NCAA,” Sharpley said. “I think frustration was the right word, because he really wanted to move past what happened and play. But he also wants to flip the table and move past the stigma surrounding his name and get that degree.

“He has goals, aspirations and dreams of playing in the NFL, but he wasn’t going to sacrifice his academics to make that happen. We worked around his classes and his schoolwork, and there was no compromising on that.

“As difficult as his situation was to go through, I think he learned a lot from it. In talking with him, I think he’s taking the right approach. He could be bitter. He could be upset with himself. He could be upset with the system.

“But I think he’s doing a great job mentally in saying, ‘This is where I am now. This is the hand I have now. Instead of complaining about it, I’m going to go and work as hard as I can to make the best of what I have.’ ”

When Williams’ fall-semester finals had concluded last month, Williams’ agent, Adam Sattler, helped set him up to work out full time with Matt Gates at Fit Speed Athletic Performance in Weston, Fla. Then came the invite for the College Gridiron Showcase.

Practices Monday and Tuesday — the first for Williams since being unceremoniously pulled off the field 17 months ago as the ND investigation went public — and opportunities to meet with officials from NFL, Canadian Football League and Arena Football League teams preceded Wednesday’s event finale — a scrimmage in a high school stadium in the Dallas/Fort Worth area with a seating capacity of 12,500.

Most of which are expected to go unused Wednesday.

And likely unnoticed by Williams.

He measured in at 6-foot-5 and 261 pounds, down from the more than 270 he was carrying when Sharpley first got a hold of him last fall.

Williams has no idea if his 40-yard dash time is anywhere near the 4.5 seconds he ran as a senior at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, which helped touch off a recruiting frenzy that landed him in a transformative 2011 ND recruiting class that included fellow defensive stars Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, both now in the NFL.

Brian Kelly did open the door for Williams to participate on ND’s Pro Day, an on-campus combine of sorts, in late March, an opportunity he’s already committed to snatching up.

He too is working with ND dean Joe Stanfiel to navigate how to complete the final nine credit hours this spring needed to walk with his ND diploma in May while giving the NFL second chance the effort and passion he feels it needs.

“I watched every Notre Dame football game this year, but never at the stadium, always from home,” he said. “Those guys welcomed me into the locker room, welcomed me to work out at the Gug (ND’s football facility). They never gave up on me. So how could I give up on myself?

Williams, a philosophy major, is familiar with the famous quote “It’s never too late to become who you might have been.”

But it’s no longer about justifying that old five-star recruiting tag. It’s about new beginnings, wherever they take him.

“I can’t put into words what it’s like to have this chance to overcome,” Williams said. “It means everything to me. There are so many people to thank, however and wherever it ends.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Reinstated defensive end Ishaq Williams (11) is back at Notre Dame and enrolled in summer school, but the NCAA holds the key as to whether he'll be able to return to the football field for the Irish this fall. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)