St. Joseph, Mo. – It began no differently than any other pre-draft visit.
Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams had a laundry list of NFL cities to visit. The Chiefs were just the first stop on a tour of teams looking to inspect the Hokies star prior to the 2011 NFL Draft.
Things weren’t much different for Chiefs GM Scott Pioli either. Williams was one of several hundred names in the team’s scouting database. The need to draft a running back wasn’t particularly high, but Pioli wanted to learn more and slotted Williams as one of the team’s 30 allotted pre-draft prospect visits.
Their initial conversation began like all the others. Where are you from? How was the flight? How about playing for coach (insert name here)?
But there was something different about Williams. There was that distinct accent that sounded so familiar.
“When I came across Scott, we started talking a little bit and he recognized my accent,” Williams remembered. “He was like, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘Upstate New York.’ So he was like, ‘Oh, okay, must be Albany.’
“I said, ‘No, I’m from Newburgh,’ and he goes, ‘Are you serious?’”
Of course, Pioli already knew about Williams’ hometown from reports filed by Chiefs scouts.
Williams went to high school in Virginia, but his hometown was close to where Pioli grew up in Washingtonville, N.Y. Newburgh was also a bitter high school football rival of Pioli’s Washingtonville Wizards.
“In my office I have a big map of my hometown back in the 1800s,” Pioli explained. “So I point to it and he says, ‘What do you have that for?’ I said, ‘I’m from Washingtonville.’
“It was interesting because sometimes in these interviews with players, they have their game on. They’ve been prepped by the agent, have great eye contact and they say, ‘yes sir and no sir.’ But as soon as that happened everything went away for both of us. The interview went out the door and it just became a conversation between two guys.”
This is where the story takes a turn. Pioli would soon learn things about Williams’ life that weren’t part of any scouting report. They’d unearth a connection that has bonded the two men together since.
This is where Williams’ incarcerated father enters the conversation.
“At that time I didn’t know who his dad was,” Pioli said. “He told me that his dad had gotten into trouble, but in the background checks his dad was never talked about. Only rumors.
“He says, ‘Yeah, my dad is doing a life sentence.’”
Williams was just nine years old when his father was put behind bars on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges. His mother moved him to Northern Virginia shortly afterward, but the rest of Williams’ family continued to live in a rough area of Newburgh.
Football gets pushed aside at this point and the topic of conversation between NFL general manager and prospect running back centers on a man locked away for life at a United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. The man’s name is Randy Williams.
Pioli says, “Your dad is Randy Williams…the running back from Newburgh Free Academy? The running back of the Goldbacks?”
“Come to find out Scott and my father are about the same age and they played for rival high schools at the same time,” explained Williams. “Washingtonville and N.F.A. had the same colors, so it was kind of like a big rivalry of who was the ‘real’ Blue and Gold.”
Pioli was a linebacker. Williams’ father was also a running back. They never played against each other because of a high school rotating schedule, but each remembered who the other was.
And just like that, a high school rivalry from almost 30 years prior connected three men in a very unique way.
“It got into a really deep conversation and he told me the story of what had happened,” Pioli said. “It’s one of those stories where you know this guy that was 17 or 18 years old just like you, who may have had opportunities and life circumstances that cause good people to do bad things. Some people are fortunate and others are less fortunate and Randy is paying a really hefty price.”
“I’m a spitting image of my father,” Williams said. “So people that recognize me back home tell me I’m a good player, but that I wasn’t as good as my dad. My father was kind of committed to the streets right after high school. I don’t judge him. When you’re able to make that kind of money at that age in the circumstances we lived in, it can be hard not to bite into it.”
Williams talked about the relationship he and his father currently share. How he visits the federal prison anytime he goes home and talks with his father multiple times each week. He talks about how he’s seen his father mature behind bars and become a better man.
It became tradition for Ryan to call Randy each Sunday of the college football season and discuss Virginia Tech’s performance from a day prior.
“Out of the goodness of his heart Scott just kind of felt for my story,” Williams said. “We talked about a lot of personal things and some of the stuff that I’ve been through during my life. He was just like, ‘Would you mind if I write your father?’ I said, ‘Not at all.’”
“I have a very sentimental place in my heart for where I grew up,” Pioli added. “When you hear someone’s hard luck story like that and you know that all of us have had different times where circumstances could have made life different for us.
“I don’t know, I just felt compelled to reach out and write to Randy.”
Pioli didn’t wait long before addressing his first letter to 2400 Robert F Miller Drive in Lewisburg, Pa. It was an introduction of sorts, but also included a little Blue and Gold smack talk.
Soon enough, Pioli received a heartfelt response with some high school smack-back as well. The two have become pen pals since, trading letters back and forth for more than a year.
“My father is my father and he has been my father since April 9, 1990,” said Williams. “Me and another person aren’t going to make us closer, but it makes my father feel good to hear from somebody (from the area) and that is in this business also. My father feels really good about that.
“For me to talk about him and bring him to light and have someone on the outside, somebody in the high level with the Chiefs write him, it meant the world to him.”
Pioli has become close with the Cardinals running back as well. When Williams missed his entire rookie year with a torn patellar tendon, Pioli immediately wrote Randy a letter.
“I was crushed for the kid,” Pioli said. “We texted back and forth a bunch and then I wrote a letter to his dad right after that. I was upset for Ryan, but I was upset for his dad as well.
“He left when Ryan was nine. In one of the initial letters, the things he was saying about how bad he had felt for what happened, the extra hurdles his absence had caused for Ryan, Ryan’s mom and Ryan’s siblings. You read it and you can feel it.”
Williams sat during Arizona’s preseason opener last Sunday, but his on-field return isn’t very far away. It might even happen Friday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
If that’s the case, there will be plenty for Scott Pioli and Randy Williams to write about.
In the meantime, the Chiefs GM and the Cardinals running back used Tuesday’s joint practice between the two teams as an opportunity to bring an incarcerated man closer to the NFL life his son is living.
“We thought it would be cool to get a photo together,” Williams said. “I just put on it, ‘I love you dad. Love, Chuck.’ That’s what my father’s side of the family calls me. I don’t know what Scott wrote on it.”
Pioli wrote a personal message as well. And then he added just a little Washingtonville High School smack talk for good measure.
So the high school rivalry continues via U.S. Mail, but Williams has one up on Pioli heading into the 2012 football season.
Randy Williams’ N.F.A. Goldbacks defeated Scott Pioli’s Washingtonville Wizards 26-13 last season en route to an appearance in the 2011 NYSPHSAA Class AA Final.