Later, he ran from the law.
On Sunday, he walked to get his degree. Williams, who played for the Crimson Tide in the 1990s – and who spent 15 years in federal prison – graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in community leadership.
The 44-year-old native of Mobile, who was convicted in 2000 of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and passing counterfeit currency, returned to school in January 2017 to complete his degree work taking mostly online classes, with a few weekend courses on campus.
Williams, who was released in 2014, spends his time now working at a car dealership and doing motivational speaking to youth as part of the Palmer Williams Group with former UA teammate David Palmer.
“My message to the kids is always work hard, hard work pays off, and anything you set your mind to do, you can do it,” he said. “Have passion at it, work hard at it, have the discipline and determination and it will come through for you.”
It was another part of his message that helped him decide to go back to college.
“I preach the importance of education to the kids as well,” he said.
Williams won a state championship in high school, a national championship with Alabama as part of the 1992 team – scoring the first touchdown in the title game against Miami – and a Super Bowl ring with the Dallas Cowboys. Football had always been his priority.
“I was going to college because I was trying to get to the next step,” he said. “My whole mind-frame was focused on trying to get to the NFL.
“Education wasn’t my priority back then, but it wasn’t a situation where I didn’t care about it. I figured that one day when I got older I would probably come back and try to finish, so I did take the proper classes.”
Williams had accumulated 94 hours of class credit during his playing years at UA, leaving him 26 hours short of his degree. Before he could start back, however, he had to be approved for readmission because of his criminal record.
“There were certain obstacles in place even though tuition was covered by the university,” he said. “I had to be reinstated to be accepted to be a student again.”
Palmer, who also went on to play in the NFL, roomed with Williams in college. He stuck by his friend through the trial and incarceration. He understands what this achievement means for WIlliams.
“Him graduating means a lot with all he’s been through the last 20 years, because it’s something his mom wanted him to do and he felt like he disappointed her one time,” Palmer said. “He feels like this will make up for the wrong that he’s done.
“It is a real big deal. Being out of school about 20 years and then going back to get your degree, that’s very special. It means a whole lot to him and it means a whole lot to me and his family.”
New world, new campus
Williams emerged from prison to find a different world.
“Everything has gone digital,” he said. “You’ve got to be technologically savvy to keep up. That was one of the things I had to adjust to. When I went in you had a flip phone and maybe had a pager, those types of things.”
“Oh man, it’s like half the campus has been wiped away and rebuilt,” he said. “The basic foundations of the campus, Rose Administration and all those type of things, are still there. The Strip has changed. The Houndstooth ain’t the same old Houndstooth and the Ivory Tusk has disappeared. Now there’s a big Publix on campus.
“The facilities, the whole football complex has changed.”
So has Williams. He talks about getting a degree as an exhilarating experience, but also one that helps him belong: Many of his peers have degrees, and having his own will make him feel less awkward around them.
More importantly, he says he is a different man from the one who chose a path that landed him behind bars.
“I was a gifted athlete but I was a fool with a capital F-O-O-L, doing foolish things,” he said. “Myself today is 20 years older, that’s one thing. With 20 years of maturity you get a little wiser. I’m smarter.
“And now I’m educated.”
About Palmer Williams Group
Palmer Williams Group is a nonprofit organization based in Mobile that does outreach to youth through free athletic camps, financial literacy clinics and motivational speaking. The organization also sponsors scholarships.
Go to palmerwilliamsgroup.org for information.
This story originally appeared in The Tuscaloosa News.