Published Sunday, December 30, 2012
BY TOMMY DEAS
THE TUSCALOOSA NEWS
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – Sherman Williams wore No. 20 at the University of Alabama, and with the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League.
Now he wears No. 07520-003, his federal inmate number. The man who scored the first touchdown in the Crimson Tide's victory over Miami in the Sugar Bowl game that decided the 1992 national championship resides at Forrest City Federal Correctional Complex in Arkansas, his latest home in the federal penal system.
Williams, now 39, was convicted in 2000 on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and passing counterfeit currency. He was sentenced to a term of 15 years, eight months, and with some time shaved off for good behavior. He has a release date of March 1, 2014, and is hopeful that the date may yet be moved up.
Long hours of reflection behind bars have given him time to ponder his fate.
"At one point, my whole life was centered on football, and becoming a successful athlete," Williams said this fall in a letter to The Tuscaloosa News. "As I pursued this home and dream, I had to make many decisions along the way. Unfortunately, I didn't always get it right. In fact, the wrong decisions I made are why I am where I am right now; at the mercy of God while praying for forgiveness of my transgressions.
"Today, I can honestly say that I am in a much better place in life than I was when I was that Alabama and NFL star. Thanks to the teaching of Christ, I do feel that my future is much brighter than my past."
That past was covered in glory. Williams won a state championship in high school, a national title ring at UA and a Super Bowl ring with the Cowboys. He rushed for nearly 2,500 yards at Alabama and became the Cowboys' second-round pick in the 1995 NFL draft. In five years in Dallas, he served as a backup to Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, running for 1,162 yards and four touchdowns in those five seasons
Then it all began to fall apart. Williams was cut from the Cowboys and caught on with a semi-pro team in his hometown, the Mobile Admirals. The guy who scored 29 touchdowns in four seasons at Alabama turned to drugs to make a big score. His arrest followed the seizure of some 1,000 pounds of marijuana in Alabama and Texas.
"He was on top of the world," said Williams' former Alabama teammate, David Palmer. "Then he had just got cut by the Cowboys and he played in that league in Mobile and he felt he should still be playing in the NFL.
"He chose something else, and he paid a price for it."
No one knows Williams better than Palmer. They played together in the Alabama-Mississippi all-star game after their senior seasons in high school and decided to room together at Alabama.
"We became brothers," Palmer said.
When Palmer was suspended after two drunken driving arrests and thought about leaving during his sophomore season at Alabama - the Crimson Tide's national championship year - Williams was the one who talked him out of it.
"I was going to quit playing football," Palmer said. "I felt like people in Tuscaloosa were out to get me. I was just a young man who made some mistakes and I didn't realize at the time that on the big stage you're going to get that kind of scrutiny.
"He helped me get through that. He was there picking me up when I needed it, keeping my head straight."
When Williams was arrested, Palmer was there. He attended his former roommates' trial almost every day.
"I was trying to be supportive, just like he was supportive of me," Palmer said.
When Williams was sentenced, Palmer stayed in touch. They talked on the phone and communicated by letter and, when Williams had access, by email. The former teammates, both of them former NFL players, decided along the way to start a nonprofit organization, the Palmer-Williams Group, with a mission of assisting disadvantaged youth.
"I was working in a community center," Palmer said, "and a lot of those kids need a lot of help and guidance. We just decided that there might be something we could do. We felt we could be an inspiration to kids with what we have gone through.
"It helps (Williams) with it being a part of his mind set. With him coming out of prison sometime soon, it is something he can put his energy into. It hasn't taken off yet. It's something that we'll really get into when he gets out."
Williams credits Palmer as being the former UA player who has been there for him the most.
"I love him," Williams said, "like a blood brother."
Even in prison, Williams is never far away from football. He plays sometimes in the exercise yard and watches on television as often as he can. He viewed Alabama's national championship victories over Texas and LSU.
"I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to play a game that I love so much for one of the highest-quality programs in all of college sports," Williams said. "I am sure one of the best decisions I have ever made was when I accepted my scholarship offer to attend the University of Alabama. That was no mistake.
"I have been fortunate to be located in areas where SEC sports are heavily covered. This has allowed me to stay connected, and you won't be surprised to know that I am a die-hard Bama fan! In fact, everyone within shouting distance knows this."
He does more than just pass time. He reads scripture daily, writes friends and family, attends Bible study and prepares for his release. He has a maintenance job on weekdays.
He looks to the future, but looks back with regret.
"I regret not playing closer attention to the messages that were preached to me over time; especially ignoring the values that my mother tried so hard to instill in me," he said. "I let a lot of people down, including the fans who were counting on me.
"I also regret missing a great deal of my childrens' life, not spending time with family, and being with my `real' friends."
Those who knew him during his playing days at Alabama view Williams' plight with sadness.
"I've kept up with him through Prince Wimbley, Sam Shade, Lemanski Hall, some of those who have been in touch with him," said Dabo Swinney, a former teammate who is now head coach at Clemson. "It's really sad. I just hope when he gets out he can become a productive person. He's still got a lot of life left and he's paid a tremendous price. I just hope he can make the most of it."
Said George Teague, a teammate at UA and with the Cowboys, "You never want to see it happen to somebody that you're close to. I remember going to his house and visiting with his family when we were teammates. It seems so long ago, and for that to happen. It just makes you sad."
Williams seems more upbeat than hardened by his years in prison.
"Although I have many fond memories in my past, I must now take control of my future; as this is my most important challenge," Williams said.
Palmer has faith in his longtime friend.
"I think it has taken a toll on him," Palmer said, "but he's been doing a lot of studying and reading to get himself on the right path. He has put a lot of time into getting his mind right.
"When he gets out, I think everybody will still be behind him and we'll probably get together and it will be a big party. I'm here to help him in any way I can. He's my brother."
Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com
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