Former Notre Dame nose guard Ian Williams tackles racism, reflects on the ND experience

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

On a bad left ankle that six surgeries couldn’t fix and that ended his burgeoning NFL career four years ago, Ian Williams marched.

In four different protests recently in San Jose, Calif., near where the former Notre Dame nose guard and 2011 graduate now lives, the pain in his joint was palpable. But he pressed on anyway, because the message was too important to him.

The opportunity that is in front of us as a society, in response to the tragic and senseless death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, drives the 30-year-old Florida native and many others in what has evolved quickly into a global movement to end police brutality and systematic racism in America.

And he knows his children — ages 3, 5 and 7 — are watching.

“I saw an interesting meme on Instagram the other day,” Williams said this week on the latest NDInsider Pod of Gold podcast. “So we all studied the Civil Rights movement. We all studied slavery. We’ve all sat there and thought about what we would do if we lived in that time.

“Well, we’re doing that right now. Whatever you’d be doing then, we’re doing now. So I want to be able to tell my kids, ‘I wasn’t sitting at home watching TV, scared to go out, scared for my life. Didn’t want to risk anything for other people.

“‘Screw them. I don’t know them. So I don’t want to get my eye shot out or my skinned burned or get my eyes burned from pepper spray. I didn’t care. I care about you guys. I care about everybody. I care about what’s right.

“‘So I’m out there fighting. If something happens to me, something happens to me. I know that. But I’m going to do everything I can to protect myself and other people around me. But I know there’s different variables that I can’t control.

“‘I want them to know that your dad — just like George Floyd’s daughter said, “my dad’s changing the world” — I want my kids to know their dad did what he could in his realistic power to try and change the world to make it a better place for them.’”

Williams, a sports analyst for NBC Sports Bay Area and radio station 95.7 The Game, covered a wide range of experiences and related topics with Carter Karels and me during his appearance on Pod of Gold. To listen to the entire podcast, go to:

Notre Dame experience

Williams was recruited by Charlie Weis from Lyman High School in Longwood, Fla., north of Orlando, signing with the Irish in February of 2007. He finished his career in 2010, playing for current ND head coach Brian Kelly in Kelly’s first season on the job.

Williams said he experienced racism with regularity during his playing days at Notre Dame, and wishes now he wasn’t so passive about it.

“Certain instances happened on campus when you were called the N-word,” he said. “‘What is this N-word doing at my party? Get this N-word out of here. No drinks for the N-words. It’s been multiple instances, and you just let stuff slide.

“I can’t fight you and get thrown out. I can’t mess you up, because your parent probably donates and probably paid for one of these buildings over here. So I can’t split your lip and I’m just going to let you be.

“I’m not passive no more. This is why I’m speaking out. This is my platform now.

“I’m not going to go out and fight you. That would have been an 18-year-old, 19-year old that would have fought you, because I didn’t know how to express myself. I didn’t know how to get my point across to you. So I would just split your wig.

“Now I know how to fight with my words. I know how to fight with my votes. I know how to fight with my intelligence, and that’s where I am right now. That’s why I’m using my voice. I’m using everything I can.”

Williams applauds the current Notre Dame players for speaking out, but he knows the coming demands that are about to be put on them are going to make it difficult to be as constant with their messages.

Notre Dame announced Thursday that Irish players, including nine first-time enrolling freshmen, will begin arriving back on campus on Monday, with COVID-19 testing set to begin June 15 and voluntary workouts scheduled to start June 22.

“They want to stand up and they want to fight,” Williams said, “but at the same time, they’ve got to be ready for workouts at 6 a.m. They’ve got to be ready for class at 8 a.m.

“They’re got to be ready for practices. They’ve got to be ready for games. They’ve got to study. They have study hall from 7:30 to 9:30 at night. They’ve got to get their sleep, because they’ve got to be back up again at 5 a.m. to be ready for workouts.

“It’s hard, but it challenges you. And that’s what Notre Dame does. It challenges you to be the best you can be. That’s what college does.

“So if I can say anything to those kids now, I commend them for being student-athletes and for being the best you can be. And if you see some kind of racism or somebody says something, call them out. Say something. Say. ‘Hey that’s not cool, bro. That’s not cool.’

“Because my mistake was letting it slide. …

“Notre Dame’s a great university. It is predominantly white. It’s Catholic, and there are people who love me on game day, on Saturday, but they hate me Monday through Friday and on Sunday.

“And those are the people I want to reach out to, and the kids are trying to reach out to, to let them know that I am more than just a Golden Domer. I’m a black person.

“I’m successful. I’m intelligent. I love. I hate. I like. I dislike. I taste. I eat. I party — just like everybody parties in college. I do my work. I work out hard.

“I’m just like every other kid. I just have a different pigmentation in my skin, because of where my people are from.”

Williams lauded coach Brian Kelly for getting out in front of the issue and allowing his players to have a strong voice.

“I’ve loved Brian since he first got to Notre Dame, when he first brought us to the main room and had his first speech with us.

“I respected him then. I respected him, because he had been through multiple programs and he’s won at multiple programs. And he was bringing in a 3-4 defense, which I loved.

“But I think there’s a lot of compassion and understanding and love between the players and the coaches, because most football players are black and most coaches are white, and that is what it is

“But I feel like everybody loves everybody up at that university and program. And we see it, I see it.

“I remember at the playoff when we played Clemson a couple of years ago in Dallas. And I hadn’t seen coach Kelly or probably spoken to him in years, probably since I graduated. And me and (former Irish cornerback) R.J. Blanton are on the sidelines for the game. And coach Kelly runs out and he see us.

“And it’s, ‘Ian, RJ, how are you guys doing?’ Out of nowhere. I mean, coach hadn’t seen me. Do you know how many players he’s had? And he sees us and he knows us immediately, That just told me right there he really likes me. He really does. He’s down to earth. And he’s a rider. “People see that and people know that. And if you can ride for me. I’ll ride for you.

“And with the coaches coming out and getting in front of this and saying something and letting people know where they stand, those players see that and they’re going to fight even harder, once they get a chance to go out and condition and work out and finally get into games and training camp.

“They’re going to remember all this, that their coaches rode with them, because now they’re going to ride with their coaches.”

Taking a knee

Ian Williams now rides with Colin Kaepernick.

The two were teammates on the San Francisco 49ers during the entirety of their respective NFL careers (2011-16).

Williams didn’t play in 2016 because of the ankle and was released via injury settlement in October of that year. Kaepernick, meanwhile, decided to take a knee during the national anthem during that season to protest peacefully what people are protesting now — police brutality and systematic racism.

He became a free agent in March of 2017, hoping to sign with another team after a coaching/scheme change in San Francisco. He hasn’t played in the league since.

Williams’ first impression of Kaepernick taking a knee didn’t turn out to be his lasting one.

“It was an evolution,” Williams said. “So where a lot of people are right now — ‘He shouldn’t have kneeled. He shouldn’t have protested. It’s all about the flag. I wouldn’t be disrespecting the flag’ — that’s where I was when I initially saw it. Now that was years ago.

“So when I first saw him doing it, I didn’t know what he was doing. I’m like, ‘Kap, what are you doing? Stand up. You’re disrespecting the flag. This is what we do. We put our hand over our chest and we pledge allegiance to the flag that protects us and allows us to go out and play football and make money.’

“And then after he started doing the interviews and talking about what he was protesting and why. I was like, ‘OK, all right. I’m behind you. I understand now. OK.’

“And then you start to pay attention to certain words in the national anthem and how certain words in the national anthem don’t really sit well and don’t apply to all people.

“After that, I started to research and educate myself. Then I quickly understood what he was doing, and I was behind him 100 percent.

“So fast forward to 2020, four years later, those same people who decided not to educate themselves because it didn’t affect them — racism doesn’t affect them — they are where I was when I first saw him.

“And you’re behind schedule. You’re late. You’re late to the party. The party’s already happened. It was a great party. Now you’ve got to catch up. And people need to educate themselves and catch up, because racism is real and it’s out there.”

Former Notre Dame nose guard Ian Williams kneels in disbelief after Notre Dame came up short against Pittsburgh, 36-33 in four OTs, in 2008. He kneels for a cause these days.
Ian Williams’ promising career with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers was cut short in 2016 by an ankle injury.
Nose Guard Ian Williams speaks with the press during media day at Notre Dame Stadium in 2010. Williams, who played several seasons with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, reflected last week on the death of George Floyd and the push for social justice reforms.

To listen to the entire Pod of Gold interview with former Notre Dame nose tackle Ian Williams, visit the