CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The Broncos' first-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, said he "freaked out" when he got the call. He was relieved. While his college teammates and coaches at the University of North Carolina were proud of him, they weren't quite as happy.
"I'm sad for us here in Chapel Hill," UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora said, "but I'm extremely excited for the people of Denver because you're getting a tremendous person on top of a tremendous football player."
Williams enrolled at North Carolina in the spring of 2011 after two seasons at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. Before playing in junior college, he had played just one season in high school. Though the Coffeyville coach told him that they didn't need him when Williams first walked into the office, before his two years there were done he was an honorable mention for All-America.
In his first season as a Tar Heel, he was one of just four defensive players to start all 13 games en route to starting all 25 games in his two-year career. In his junior year he recorded 54 tackles, and while his tackle numbers dropped in his senior year, his tackles for loss nearly doubled and his sack tally more than doubled. In 2012, he was second on the team in sacks with 6.0.
"His best strength, he's a big guy but he can really pass rush," said Kareem Martin, Williams' roommate and teammate on the defensive line at UNC. "I think that surprised a lot of offensive lineman because he looks a lot more like a run stopper. He's capable of stopping the run, but I think where he surprises a lot of people is with his pass-rush ability. He has great feet and great hands and he's really quick and agile to be as big as he is."
Martin said that he appreciated playing with Williams especially when he would draw the double-team, making Martin's path to the backfield a little less crowded.
Fedora added that Williams has what he calls a great motor, which is high praise from the Red Bull-guzzling, high-energy, no-huddle offense orchestrator.
"He's got a great explosiveness, an initial burst off the line of scrimmage – he gets a great jump," Fedora said. "He's got great power and he's got a lot of power in his hips. And then he's got a great motor, which is extremely important for a defensive lineman."
Born in 1988, Williams was the oldest member of the Tar Heels' defensive line and a natural leader, but not just because of his age. Fedora complimented Williams' work ethic and said that when the two first met, Williams was 25 pounds above what Fedora wanted to be the defensive tackle's playing weight. By the time the season started, Williams had shed the weight.
Martin said that Williams is also a very caring person and very family-oriented. At times, that mentality carried over to the football field as Martin described Williams as a big brother to the defensive linemen.
"I think this past season he really stepped up vocally," Martin said, "and a lot of guys jumped on him – followed him – because he was being more vocal than he was in the past and he was playing well, so it was easy for guys to follow. I think him really stepping up vocally and on the field helped his leadership."
Williams was very aware of that leadership and mentioned that it was likely one of the reasons why the Broncos were interested in him in the first place. And even though he'll just be a rookie, he's got his sights set on a leadership role somewhere down the road.
"I'm the kind of guy that's going to do everything right," Williams told Broncos TV. "I'm not going to come to this program and bring any harm to it all. I mean from off the field to loafing in practice, anything, I'm going to do everything I can to help this team win. I'm going to be a great guy on the team a great guy in the locker room and I'm going to follow the veterans lead with the intent to become a leader myself."
Both Fedora and Martin seconded that opinion of Williams and had only good things to say about his personality and the qualities that made him a leader for the Tar Heels. He's genuine, kind, calm, caring, focused and has shown great perseverance, they said, as they both retold the story of how he worked in a factory making radiators before giving football another shot.
The only thing he's not good at, according to his roommate, is the video game Call of Duty.
"He's usually the reason we all die at the end," Martin said chuckling.
His dexterity, or lack thereof, with a video game controller aside, Williams certainly left his mark in Chapel Hill. His lack of football experience before playing in junior college and his stint in the factory working on radiators make his rise to becoming the anchor of North Carolina's defensive line and a first-round pick even more impressive.
And in addition to all of that, he has an unforgettable personality.
"The guy is a very, very special person," Fedora said. "He's going to be special to me the rest of my life, he just really is. He's a very unique man, he's very grateful for everything that happens in his life. He works extremely hard for everything that he achieves. He sets goals and he achieves them. He will be a first-rate citizen in Denver and I think he'll be a person the community puts their arms around and ends up loving in the long run."