ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —On Dec. 24, 2016, defensive lineman DeShawn Williams dressed for the Cincinnati Bengals in their Christmas Eve matchup with the Houston Texans.
Williams, who went undrafted out of Clemson in 2015, had appeared in the Bengals' previous three games, as well. It was the culmination of two years of hard work, as Williams had spent much of the 2015 season on the Bengals' practice squad. With four games to go in the 2016 season, it appeared Williams had turned the proverbial corner in his career.
He wasn't getting much playing time, but he'd been efficient. Leading into the Christmas Eve game, he had tallied three quarterback hits and half of a sack in just 49 defensive snaps.
Against the Texans, he added another quarterback hit in just eight snaps.
But Williams wouldn't play in Week 17 — or any time soon.
After his limited success, Williams didn't appear in another regular-season game for 1,373 more days.
That streak finally ended Sunday, as Williams played the most snaps of his career in the Broncos' Week 3 loss to the Buccaneers. Only three players this season — Aldon Smith, Bruce Miller and Woodrow Hamilton — went a longer time between appearing in a regular-season game.
"It's one of those things that, you just smile and all you do is just laugh," Williams told DenverBroncos.com on Tuesday. "All the hard times that you went through, all the early morning workouts that [you do because] you want to show people that you're more than worthy of playing in this league — and it's a great league to play in — but it's just one of those things where you can't lose your confidence. And [Sunday] was just one of those 'Wow, it's finally here' moments."
Williams tallied two tackles and a pass defense against Tom Brady — and he also capped an unlikely path back to regular-season football.
At times, Williams wasn't sure he would return to football's biggest stage. In the years since his final appearance with the Bengals, he's spent time on the practice squads for the Broncos, Colts and Dolphins. Most recently, he signed with the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders in December of 2019, but COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 season.
His biggest moment of doubt likely came in 2018, when he spent the offseason program with the Broncos and felt like he turned in the best training camp of his young career.
"I feel like I had probably one of my best camps that I ever had, and just to come up short again, it was like one of those [moments], like, 'Dang. Why me? Why am I always coming up short?'" Williams said.
After he was waived, Williams had an offer to join Carolina, and he boarded a plane, ready to leave Denver International Airport for Charlotte. That's when Denver called him and asked him to stick around on their practice squad.
"They called right when they were about to shut the door," Williams said. "They was pulling out onto the runway, and they called. I had to tell the pilot, 'Hey, is there any way you [can] stop this plane? I need to get off.' And he was like, 'Why?' And I was like, 'The Broncos want to sign me.' I had to apologize to everybody that was on that flight. I was like, 'I'm sorry if you miss your next flight, but I have to get off this flight.'"
Williams, whose wife coaches at Rock Canyon High School in Highlands Ranch, said the decision to get off the plane was a "no-brainer" — and he was able to convince the pilot to led him de-board.
That wasn't Williams' final stop. He would still add in stints with the Dolphins' and Colts' practice squads, but he eventually found his place in Denver. The Broncos were led by Vance Joseph at the time, but Williams proved himself to Defensive Line Coach Bill Kollar, and President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway and Head Coach Vic Fangio brought Williams back to Denver in mid-August of 2020.
After injuries to Dre'Mont Jones and DeMarcus Walker ahead of Week 3, Williams was promoted to the active roster. He plans on sticking around for a while.
"Yeah, for sure," Williams said. "For damn sure. I jell with the D-line coach in Bill Kollar. I've never had any coach like him throughout my NFL experience. He's a coach that — he doesn't care about your height or your weight. It's if you can play ball, play ball. And I showed him that I can. He's a blue-collar guy, too, himself. I think when he played in the NFL he was like that and it transitioned to his coaching. … I knew Vance in Cincinnati and that worked out for me getting my foot in the door, but I think it was just up to me to kick the door down. Then when Vic came in last year, I didn't know him from anything. And then I heard stories of him — you know, he's a tough coach, a blue-collar guy, and I showed him that I'm willing to work and do all the right things and just bust my tail when it's time to get on that field. I guess he just liked that [mentality], and now I'm still here to this day."
Williams believes at 27, his best football is still ahead of him. After he played early in his career in high school and at Clemson, his NFL path has required more patience. He believes, though, that he can carve out a role for this Broncos team.
"When you're going through something, you're just going," Williams said. "You don't realize how long it is. It's a tiring, grueling journey, like, for me — and not just me, but for my family, because they want to see me success just as much as I want to, because they know the type of talent that I do have. When that opportunity came, I was just like, I guess my story — everybody has a story — but I guess my story is I had to wait my turn. … I know I can do some great things for any team that I'm on. I feel like the Broncos, I can make my hay here. It's a great city, great organization, and I just love it here."
With yet another injury to the Broncos' defensive line — Jurrell Casey was placed on injured reserve this week — Williams may even get a chance to start on Thursday against the Jets. If he does get that nod, it will be just the latest stop on a winding path.
"Sheesh," Williams said of the prospect of starting. "I think more so it would be motivation to anybody that's going through what I'm going through. Because me, I don't feel like it's about me. I'm just here. Like my mom always told me, I live for a higher purpose. So I'm just here just to write my story and just show people that are going to go through what I went through that you're going to face some adversity, but you've always got to bank on your work ethic. If I am the starter on Thursday night, sheesh, man. It's like a testament to who I am of not giving up."
After being cut more than 10 combined times by four different teams, it would've been hard to blame Williams for walking away. He's still here, though, and he's ready for whatever comes next.
"Obviously I've been cut three times here, but all I can say is third time's the charm," WIlliams said. "My third time here, third time being cut, but now I'm finally playing. That don't even matter no more, the times of being cut. It's just right now making the most of my opportunity for the team."