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Five steaks a week and cowboy boots: How Javonte Williams became a hometown hero
In Wallace, North Carolina, the Broncos are must-watch TV for one reason: Javonte Williams.
By Ben Swanson Mar 22, 2022

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Anticipatory eyes were glued to a 9-month-old Javonte Williams.

Here he was, ready to try to take his first uncertain steps. He could pull himself up onto his feet with the help of furniture or his parents, but the next part — staying upright — proved much harder.

When Javonte didn't appear to be making any progress, his parents, Jermaine and Shekemia, turned from expectant to worried. They tried standing their son on his feet for him, and he would just immediately fall.

Increasingly concerned about their little "bobblehead," as Jermaine called him, they took him to the doctor. Javonte had been having some trouble with ear infections, and his inner ear, they learned, was not draining fluid properly, which threw off his equilibrium.

The next day, they returned to have a doctor insert tubes that would resolve the problem and eventually fall out on their own.

"By the end of the week, he was walking," Shekemia says. "… Once he got those tubes, he got up and got moving. Had his balance ever since."

The story sticks in their minds nearly 20 years, because Javonte's ability to keep his feet in even the most challenging situations has become the trademark characteristic for one of the NFL's most promising young players. Last fall, Von Miller admitted he once tried to trip Javonte in the hallway just to see if it was possible. It wasn't.

And so Jermaine and Shekemia can't help but wonder: Maybe those tubes worked too well.

All they can do is just laugh and shake their heads, like everyone does.

At some point, everyone who watches Javonte play can't help but do that, and that's especially true for the residents of Wallace, North Carolina, where he grew up. They shook their heads watching him play rec-league football and watching him score six touchdowns in a game at 8 or 9 years old. They shook their heads when he went from a state-champion inside linebacker to running back and ran for more than 2,000 yards. And they shook their heads when they watched him go essentially unrecruited by Division-I schools in spite of everything their eyes told them.

These days, they're still shaking their heads, though it's now mostly just at the thought that the boy they knew as "Pookie" — the quiet child who grew to become the high school's valedictorian — made it to the NFL from their humble town.

I. 'I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do'

Growing up in a small town in rural North Carolina, Javonte Williams formed the foundation for his NFL future on a love for football — and with talent that was unlike anyone else's.

The town of Wallace sits in North Carolina's marshy coastal plain, a short drive away from the Atlantic Ocean in the southeastern reaches of the state.

It's not exactly a sleepy place. The poultry and pig industries serve as the community's economic backbone, with the county's sales ranking No. 1 and No. 2 in the state, respectively, as of the most recent national agricultural census. A four-lane highway splits the town pretty much down the middle on an almost north-south path. Turning west on the two-lane Main Street will send drivers through the kind of quaint storefronts that are ubiquitous with small-town America of a not-too-distant past.

Still, it is a humble place, the kind of community where children think nothing of leaving the house without shoes.

"There ain't nothin' here but chicken, pigs and pigskin," Wallace-Rose Hill High School football coach Kevin Motsinger says. "A lot of people take offense to that, but it's the truth. We're a God-fearing place and just hard-working country folks."

Javonte's childhood home, located on the west side of the highway and a little ways past all the shops, was in the middle of a tract of homes all owned by family — his grandmother in one house, his great-aunt in another, a cousin in yet another.

"Everybody on this block, pretty much, is cousins and all that," Javonte says. "… I could just walk into any of these houses and everybody'd know me."

In this family focused space, a young Javonte began to take shape.

With his grandfather, he'd watch Western movies or shows, which helped spark a lifelong love for horses. One day, when a book fair opened at his school years later, he came home with a book about horses and all the breeds. Someday, he would own several of his own.

And with his father, who was a linebacker in high school, Javonte would watch football on TV. The two interests would sometimes overlap; one memorable image for his family is that of a 5-or-6-year-old Javonte hanging around the house in a unique ensemble that included a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and the shoulder pads that he'd gotten for Christmas.

At around that age, Javonte started flag football, and the sport went from something he loved to watch to something he loved to play. There was a bit of an adjustment period, though, because apparently it was hard for him at first to square the physicality of the game with the pared-down version he was taking part in.

"Every Saturday, we would get in an argument with other parents because instead of him snatching flags, he was just diving at other kids," Jermaine says. "And it was a lot of moms and my wife getting into it."

A few years later, Javonte became able to fully enjoy the physical part of the game when he started contact football. For a boy who loved wrestling with his friends in the house — "What didn't they break?" Jermaine mutters — this was a game-changing development.

With the added physical element, it became clear that Javonte was different from the other children.

"It ain't every day that you see a rec game [with] somebody stiff-arming the whole defense and scoring six touchdowns in a rec game, in one game," Javonte's cousin Desmond Newkirk says. "It's not an everyday thing."

The gap grew between Javonte and other young defenders, and it would be a long time before it narrowed.

"He had 16 touchdowns his first year, and every time we would congratulate him, he would start crying and ask us why were we doing it," Jermaine says. "I said, You did a good job. He said, I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do."

Javonte's goals began to become clearer, and one day when he was 11 years old, he sat on the couch with his father and told him his plan was to play high-school ball at Wallace-Rose Hill and college ball at North Carolina before going on to the NFL.

"I mean, a kid saying all that?," Jermaine now says with a laugh. "OK, buddy!"

That confidence Javonte held, though, was perhaps less sure than he projected it to be.

"Only one or two people from here made it," Javonte says. "I ain't think it really was gonna happen."

II. 'How could you watch those highlights ... and not want that kid?'

Despite his outstanding play in high school, Javonte struggled to attract attention from top-notch college programs until the waning moments of his playing days.

About six or seven years later, Jason Tudryn was driving through the eastern side of North Carolina, where if not for the occasional high school, the farmland would seemingly stretch on forever.

For this trip, Tudryn, who was the North Carolina Tar Heels' director of high school relations, was joined by his boss, head coach Larry Fedora. UNC's football program was coming up emptyhanded in their recruiting efforts for some of the state's premier running backs, like Zamir White, who committed to Georgia, and Ricky Person Jr., who wound up at NC State.

As the pair evaluated their options between recruiting stops, the conversation turned to a small-town kid who had been a dominant-but-undersized linebacker for three years before turning his focus to running back for his final season.

"We were kind of striking out with all those other guys," Tudryn says. "I had watched, really, all of Javonte's games, because he played offense and defense. … I said, Coach, he's the best player in the state, and it's not even close. To his credit, he trusted me enough to not say, Yeah, whatever, shut up. He said, All right, let's get on him. Let's watch him again."

That Javonte had not committed to a college this late in his senior season was a minor miracle in itself for Carolina. Here was a kid who would be valedictorian of a class of 130 or 140; who had won a state championship in North Carolina's 1AA classification in each of his first three seasons; who had been defensive MVP of the title game as a sophomore; and who had been the title game's overall MVP and the county's Mr. Football selection as a junior.

In spite of all those accolades, he received little attention from Division-I programs. His coaches, though, knew better than anyone that Javonte was special enough to deserve more than what he was getting.

In the three years that Joey Price spent as Javonte's coach at Wallace-Rose Hill, he was overwhelmed by the maturity that matched or exceeded Javonte's talent. Javonte's mother had ingrained in him and his sister that education came first, and he came home with report cards that rarely, if ever, disappointed. He graduated with a 4.6 GPA, and Price once recalled that Javonte's worst grade was a 97. As a leader in the locker room, Javonte also was able to command the respect of teammates who were several years older.

On the field, from his middle linebacker position, Javonte was a nightmare — physical, fluid and a quick thinker. Over his sophomore and junior seasons, he logged 377 tackles. One series that Price remembers clearly is of back-to-back goal-line plays; Javonte met the fullback — whom Price estimates was about 60 pounds heavier — in the hole both times and dropped him to prevent touchdowns.

"He's such a quiet-mannered kid that doesn't have a lot to say with his mouth, but when he hits you, it hurts you," Price says. "… I don't mean this in a wrong way — I bet right now if they put him on defense in Denver, he'd still make plays because his motor is such [that] he's not gonna let you not let him make 'em.

"That's why he breaks tackles. That's why he keeps running. He has something inside of him that's different than everybody else."

Price began to give Javonte a significant role in an already talented running back rotation as a junior, ramping up his carries as the Bulldogs marched through the playoffs to a third consecutive title. Over the five-game playoff run, he averaged 137 all-purpose yards and about 10 tackles per game, and he scored 11 total touchdowns — seven rushing, two receiving and two defensive.

Yet, Javonte still didn't have much interest in him from any major programs. At 5-foot-10 and a little shy of 200 pounds, Javonte apparently was held back by his size at linebacker — even if he was benching and cleaning 350 pounds and squatting about 435 — "unheard numbers," as Price says.

"How could you watch those highlights, though, and not want that kid?" Price says. "What are college coaches looking at nowadays? I can't figure it."

Following that season, Price retired. His successor, Kevin Motsinger, met with his staff to evaluate their team ahead of the 2017 season, and they came to the agreement that it would be in their best interest — and Javonte's, if it worked — to move him into a primarily offensive role.

"When I told him he was mainly going to play offense, he was a little disappointed," Motsinger says. "I wouldn't say he was upset or angry, but I mean he'd been a linebacker his whole life. I asked him how many offers he had, and he didn't have any. So, for me, his way to go somewhere was at running back. … Look at his talent, his body control, his physicality … his ball skills. He was the complete package."

As he transitioned to running back, Javonte's training regimen changed. Motsinger helped him improve his hip flexibility to maintain his speed, and he put an emphasis on adding to his frame. From the time Motsinger first weighed him in 2017 to the last in late November of that year, Javonte grew from 187 pounds to 214.

That nearly 30-pound metamorphosis also required a change in meal-planning in the Williams household, and the household grill got nearly daily orders.

"It was steak," Shekemia says. "… I'll say he was probably eating four or five steaks a week. … He had to have two after each game."

The proof was undeniable. Even as Wallace-Rose Hill rose in classification from 1A to 2A and faced more challenging competition, Javonte ran for more than 200 yards in three of his first four games as a senior and averaged more than 14 yards per carry to total 2,287 rushing yards.

Javonte's reputation in the area as running back soon outpaced him. Former Bulldogs teammate Dennis Nichols says opponents would sometimes tell him they were afraid — perhaps of being trucked, perhaps of grasping only air after one of his jukes, perhaps of simply being embarrassed.

"Most of them would say they was scared, but they would still try to get him down," Nichols says. "They wouldn't do too good of a job doing it, Javonte being Javonte. … Watching him was just unbelievable, honestly. You never know what to expect from him. You'll just see him do something out of the ordinary and do his thing."

Top-notch universities like Harvard and Yale started to express interest in him, as did some other smaller regional schools, like Furman.

Coastal Carolina, a South Carolina college that played in the Sun Belt conference, was the closest Javonte got to a major football program. For a while, before that season, Motsinger recalls, they had tepid interest in him because of his size. Then, at some point, they hired an NFL scout that had about three decades of experience to evaluate every player on their roster and every player they were recruiting.

"That guy comes in and says, The number one guy out of everybody you have on your roster now and everybody you're recruiting that has the best chance to play in the NFL is a boy from Teachey, North Carolina — because that's where the school's located," Motsinger says. "No lie. Head coach gets on the phone, they call me and there's the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and the head coach is on the phone. And they're st-st-st-stutterin'. Can't talk."

The scout then got on the phone.

"Out of everybody [they] got, [he's] better than anybody that they had at their program at that time," Motsinger says he was told. "And he said, We want to officially offer Javonte Williams. He could play running back, he could play linebacker, he could play anything he wants to play."

The only problem for Coastal Carolina, or for Harvard or Yale for that matter, is that for Javonte Williams, college football was not very attractive unless it was at one of the highest levels of the sport, so that he could measure for himself just how his talent stacks up against the best in the country.

And none of those schools had offers for him.

"He was a nervous wreck," Motsinger says. "It was really bothering him. He was really stressing."

Javonte toyed with the idea of going to UNC just as a student. His father urged him to consider committing to Yale and attending for at least a semester; if he wasn't happy there, he could transfer. But Javonte told him he already knew he wouldn't be happy, and if he wasn't happy, he wasn't going to play as he knew he could.

"I thought this was gonna be the end of it," Javonte says. "Everybody always talks about only one percent make it to the NFL, you need a fallback plan, all that kind of stuff. When it started getting, like, to crunch time, like the last couple games, I was like, Dang, bruh, I might have to just [do the] go-to-school route. … At first, UNC was trying to get me to be a walk-on, but I wasn't trying to do that. I felt like I was — not trying to be cocky now — but I felt like I was too good to be a walk-on. I was just gonna go to school."

In February, Javonte Williams returned to his hometown of Wallace, North Carolina to visit with family and friends where he grew up and to see his Wallace-Rose Hill High School coaches and teachers.

Ben Swanson

Digital Media Contributor/Manager of Photography

The Coastal Carolina offer was still on the table, too, and it began to appear more attractive as his senior season wound down.

"He was like, Well, I'm just gonna settle for Coastal," Shekemia says. "And I told him, No, don't settle. Don't ever settle. You keep playing like you're playing. I said, If it's meant for you, it's gonna come."

But with just the state championship against Reidsville left in the season, time appeared to be running out on Javonte's college football dreams.

This was one last chance to prove himself, and with the game at UNC's Kenan Memorial Stadium, there was no better place for it. He'd been a UNC fan all his life — his bedroom walls were painted Carolina blue, and he had a Tar Heels-decorated bed.

That morning, UNC's coaching staff met to take another look at some of their recruits.

"We had this big meeting," Tudryn recalls. "You watch all the running backs that we're recruiting. Javonte's tape comes on and … everyone's on the fence. Coach Fedora said, Let's watch him tonight."

That night, Tudryn was in the stands with Price, Javonte's former coach, and a cadre of high-school coaches. Fedora, meanwhile, was in the stadium's north end zone complex hosting a recruiting weekend for other prospects with the rest of his staff.

As the game kicked off, all eyes were on the kid from Wallace-Rose Hill, and when Javonte took the handoff off right tackle for a 73-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, those eyes only grew wider.

Almost five years later, Price, Tudryn and Fedora all remember that moment. Their recollections of what was said vary, but no one disputes the spirit of what happened.

"When he broke the first run for a touchdown," Price recalls, "[Tudryn] called Larry Fedora and said, You don't need to see no more."

The exchange was brief. Fedora fully trusted Tudryn's evaluation, and what he saw essentially confirmed it.

"There's no doubt," Fedora says. "I was probably saying, You were right. That was kind of when we decided to offer the kid, after that."

After the game, Tudryn went to the locker room and asked Javonte if he'd like to stay in Chapel Hill over the weekend for an official visit.

In the aftermath of an overtime victory in which he'd run for 208 yards and two touchdowns, Javonte could hardly contain himself.

"He was fired up," says DeAndre Smith, who was UNC's running backs coach at the time. "It was a dream come true. That's what he had wanted his whole life. He was great. And it was kind of one of those deals like, All right, I really don't need to see anything. I just want to be here. He was really excited."

So excited, in fact, that when UNC presented Javonte with the paperwork to officially document his official visit, he signed it immediately under the assumption that it was the official scholarship offer. That would come a little later, but at long last, Javonte Williams was finally a Tar Heel.

"We were very fortunate that we ended having a spot left, or we'd have missed on a great player right there in the state," Fedora says. "He was kind of unknown. Nobody knew about him except his coach and all his fans and his family. I mean, the guy was valedictorian. He had over a four-point GPA, if I remember right. … Heck, I think that's what every university in the country wants, is a guy like that, to be honest with you. … He was exactly what we were looking for and we needed. We just didn't know it was right there in front of us."

III. 'Welp, he's gone'

As a Tar Heel, Javonte continued his meteoric rise — culminating in a game that loudly declared his NFL intentions.

Javonte wasted no time to get to Chapel Hill.

Thanks to online courses he took through James Sprunt Community College during high school, he was able to graduate early so he could enroll at UNC in time to attend spring practices.

He was probably the youngest player on the team, but it was hard for anyone to tell.

"He graduates early and he comes in there, and it was like a 21-year-old," Fedora says. "He was very mature. He didn't act like a 17-, 18-year-old kid. … From the day he got on campus, he was a surprise to me — just how mature he was, how he handled himself and that nothing was too big for him. He's coming from Wallace-Rose Hill, a little 2A program, and nothing overwhelmed him. Classes were no problem for him at UNC."

When spring practices began, Fedora was able to observe that what made Javonte impressive wasn't just what he was able to do in the classroom.

"He steps out on the football field, and the first day we have blitz pickup," Fedora says. "A linebacker comes, and, I mean, he just knocks the living [expletive] out of him and doesn't blink. And that's usually the area where young running backs have trouble, because they don't do that much in high school. Believe me, he had no trouble whatsoever. I remember at that moment, the light in my head just kind of went off, like, This kid is gonna be special."

That first year, Williams had few opportunities until the final two games of the year, when he totaled 176 rushing yards and four touchdowns as UNC fell well out of contention.

After the season, the Tar Heels made a coaching change, parting ways with Fedora and hiring College Football Hall of Fame coach Mack Brown. He, too, was able to see something unique in Javonte before even getting to the season.

That spring, Brown invited a close friend, Urban Meyer, to visit Chapel Hill to speak to his team and observe practice. In April, the three-time national-champion coach came to town and stood on the sideline.

"We hand it to Javonte in a scrimmage, and he ran over about three and jumped around two more," Brown says. "And Urban looked at me and said, Hm. I wasn't sure why you took this job, but you're going to be OK. That guy's really good."

That season, Javonte made an impressive jump. As Carolina returned to a bowl game, he ran for more than 900 yards and formed half of a talented tandem with Michael Carter, who was one year his elder.

It was just a prelude for what was to come.

In 2020, behind those two, the Tar Heels commanded the ACC's top rushing attack. There's the stats (Carter and Javonte each ran for more than 1,000 yards) and the accolades (Carter was a first-team All-ACC selection, Javonte a second-team selection), but the best way to understand how good they were together is to see what they were able to do in their last game.

It was a mid-afternoon road game against Miami, who was ranked No. 9 in the country.

With two hours to kill in the hotel, Javonte and Carter — who were also roommates on road trips — daydreamed as they talked about their potential futures.

"We was just out like looking out the window, just looking at cars go by," Javonte says. "We were like, Dang, bro, that's a Ferrari. That's a Lamborghini. Because we were in Miami, like everything was just passing by. We were like, Dang, bro, we really might have one of them one day.

"And it's crazy, because we went out and pretty much made our statement about going to the NFL that same night."

That statement was loud. They combined for 544 rushing yards — an NCAA record for two teammates in a single game.

Of the many impressive runs, arguably none was more memorable than Javonte’s 43-yard rush in the third quarter. Upon taking the handoff from the shotgun formation, he faced two Hurricanes defenders in the backfield. He ducked to the left, followed a lead blocker toward the sideline and hurdled a diving tackler to get the first down. Future first-round pick edge rusher Jaelan Phillips closed on him and appeared to throw his shoulder into Javonte. Instead of forcing him to the ground, the contact just gave him a boost. Javonte kept his feet as he leaned forward, and as he collided with the safety, Javonte thrust him off his feet. Another tackler closed on him, and Javonte spun to elude his grasp and picked up another 15 yards.

Brown, standing way back near the line of scrimmage with senior advisor to the head coach Sparky Woods, had a pretty good view of the play.

"Javonte ran over about four of 'em, and I looked at [Woods] and said, Welp, he's gone. That's the NFL run, right there."

As a junior, Javonte then had the decision to make — whether to cut his college career short and declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft or return for his senior season. He discussed it with his family, but he already knew what he had to do.

"I started getting excited and then I started getting nervous," Shekemia says. "I was like, Don't you want to stay at Carolina just one more year? He was like, No, mom.

"He said, It's time for me to go. … I was excited, but then I was nervous, because I'm like, Oh my goodness, this is my baby!"

IV. 'When Pookie’s playing, everybody knows'

Following his rookie season, Javonte Williams visits his hometown and finds himself to be a bigger figure there than he had realized.

Javonte's mother could very well have been yelling those same words nearly 10 months later when she and her husband traveled to Dallas to watch Javonte play for the Broncos.

In the state where everything is bigger, so was Javonte, as he captivated the NFL landscape with a career-best 111-yard outing, punctuated with a 30-yard run where Javonte pushed through a mass of Cowboys defenders.

How could this possibly be the same toddler that had no sense of balance?

Back home in Wallace, the screams were surely as loud as those in Jerry World. In Javonte's hometown, his games have become appointment viewing — especially so for the children at Wallace-Rose Hill, who return to school every Monday wondering the same thing, regardless of the previous game's outcome or final statistics: Why didn't Pookie get to carry the ball more?

When Javonte visits the school following his 1,219-yard rookie season, he is a superstar. He's asked to autograph homework, lesson plans, T-shirts — anything within reach. The school resource officer tells Javonte he's the reason his son calls him every week — "You watchin? Pookie's on."

"Everybody's tuning in," Newkirk says. "When Pookie's playing, everybody knows. Everybody in the town really is watching. Everybody's pulling for him, everybody wants to see him do good."

For those with big dreams that would take them outside Wallace or outside North Carolina, Javonte represents what they can do, in football or otherwise.

"He's a big figure, actually," Nichols says. "He gave a lot of people a lot of motivation, to see him make it to the league. He's just an inspiration, honestly, to the kids now that's in high school."

Wallace also inspires Javonte, and to him, there's no place like it. He has the town's name tattooed across his abdomen, "so it's with me everywhere I go."

When he was drafted, he could have had his party at his parents' new home just outside of Wilmington. He could have had it in Chapel Hill. Instead, he had it at his grandmother's house — where he had grown up, where his family had held cookouts, birthday parties and other gatherings and where he is not "NFL player Javonte Williams," but just "Vonte" or "Pookie."

They and their neighbors still see the kid who dominated on Wallace's Legion Field. They see the kid who was the straight-A student. The kid who wanted to be a cowboy. And they think about all the stories that once seemed so small.

It sometimes makes them shake their heads, but it always makes them smile.

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