When his cousin and brother were murdered 18 months apart, Raequan Williams nearly quit football at Michigan State to return home and save his family from further violence. But it was his family who ended up saving him.
By Jeffri Chadiha | Published Feb. 20, 2020
Raequan Williams firmly pressed the cell phone to his right ear and listened to his mother's soothing voice on the other end. They'd already talked in person after the death of Raequan's younger brother, Corey Hill, Jr., but LaTasha Williams sensed her oldest son still hadn't fully heard her message. Now was not the time for Raequan to be a hero, to abandon a football career at Michigan State to return home to Chicago to protect his family. There was simply nothing he could do about the gruesome shooting that claimed Corey's life in June 2017.
When Raequan first heard the news of Corey's death about a week earlier, he'd just finished speaking to a class of middle school students near Michigan State's campus. He clutched the phone to his ear that day as well -- while receiving a ride home with some fellow teammates from the event -- and then got out and walked by himself for about 15 minutes. He didn't cry or scream or even tell anybody in the car what happened. As had been the case when Raequan heard about the murder of his cousin, Antonio Pollards, only 18 months earlier, the shock and disbelief numbed him in ways that simply defied explanation.
LaTasha knew her son. She'd given birth to him when she was 14 years old and loved him so deeply that she called him her best friend. So, she did exactly what a best friend and dedicated mother would do as she spoke to Raequan shortly after Corey's death: She delivered a hard, honest message.
"I told him there was nothing back here but violence," LaTasha said, referring to the family's westside Chicago neighborhood. "He felt like he could save the world, but he knows I'd never steer him wrong. I told him he was going to be OK. It's been three years and I'd say he's done OK."
Raequan can appreciate that moment now. It speaks to the unyielding determination of his mother and the gentle spirit that has carried him this far. The 23-year-old Williams currently spends his days training for the combine with other NFL draft prospects in Pensacola, Florida. As much as he's thinking about his future in pro football, he's also excited about the difference he can make with more money in his bank account and a grander platform on which to stand.
This is why -- after chatting with a handful of NFL coaches in January at the East-West Shrine Bowl -- the normally quiet Williams didn't hide his confidence.
"When I talked to those coaches, I told them I wanted to prove myself," Williams said. "I felt underrated. I felt like I wanted to ball that week. I wanted to show everybody there that I am definitely somebody that people should be talking about."
It's hard to imagine a 6-foot-4, 290-pound man who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors flying under the radar, but that's how Williams saw himself when his college career ended. There were other players receiving greater acclaim, and that rankled him when the pre-draft process began. So, his first step toward gaining more respect came at the Shrine Bowl practices, where he dominated.
"Outstanding week," said an NFL scout who attended the East-West practices. "He played with great energy and hunger. Plus, he was an excellent teammate; the guys loved him."
The next step involves Williams thriving at the NFL Scouting Combine (Feb. 27-March 1), where his combination of size and athleticism should create even more buzz.
The fact is, there was already plenty to like about Williams. He could've left Michigan State after his redshirt junior season, but he returned in order to improve as a pass rusher. He wound up being named a captain, finishing his senior year with a career-high five sacks. Just as importantly, he is the kind of high-character individual who can instantly have a positive impact on any pro team's locker room.
When Williams finished his junior season in 2018 -- and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio was bracing for the possibility of his star defensive lineman leaving school -- Williams walked into Dantonio's office and didn't waste time explaining his thought process. As soon as Dantonio said he'd been hearing rumors about Williams going pro, Williams told the coach he was the last player Dantonio had to worry about bolting the program.
Dantonio also spent the last couple of years boasting to reporters how Williams was such a natural leader that the player might one day become mayor of Chicago. What the coach didn't say was that he stole the line from Chicago-based attorney MacKenzie Hyde, a woman who taught Williams in the third grade and has been a devoted family friend since.
Williams was a high school senior at DePaul College Prep when Dantonio -- who retired from coaching on Feb. 4 -- came to watch him practice one day. Standing nearby, Hyde let Dantonio know he was recruiting a special person as well as a special talent. She said it's the same message she'd tell any NFL team looking to draft Williams.
"There's not much that is going to shock him (in the NFL)," Hyde said. "Those calls that might come in the middle of night saying Raequan did something (wrong)? Not going to happen."
"He has a persona and he can ground people because he's been through difficulty," Dantonio told the Detroit News last summer. "Difficulty is not losing a football game. Difficulty is losing a brother or another family member. That's true difficulty. What we deal with is sports and that is minor. He's been down that road and understands what he can give other players."
That maturity in Williams is not hard to miss. It comes from years of seeing plenty of pain in Chicago's westside neighborhood where he grew up, as well as the kind of optimism that can come when one sees life through a different prism. Williams would be the first to tell you he knew plenty of kids with mesmerizing athletic skills and unquestioned potential. The difference is he quickly realized that getting ahead requires far more than just the ability to ball out.
Hyde, whom Williams calls his "second mom," was the first to notice the possibilities in the young man. She was his third-grade teacher and immediately connected with a kid who was bright, enthusiastic and a good listener. One day, Hyde sat down with LaTasha at a parent-teacher conference and made a prophetic promise to a family with hardly any money. Even though the teacher was planning on pursuing a career as a lawyer, she was so confident in Williams' future that she committed to attending his graduation from junior high school, high school and eventually college.
Williams already had the look of somebody with a bright future in sports. He was a kindergartner when his friends would beg for toys and all he'd want was a football. He was in the seventh grade when he'd complain about contact -- he was a receiver in those days -- and LaTasha would remind him that he was the biggest kid on the field. By the time Williams finished the eighth grade as one of the top youth players in the area, he decided to attend Gordon Tech High School (which later changed its name to DePaul College Prep) over several other private schools.
It was in the ninth grade that Williams learned how seriously Hyde wanted to help him prosper. Since attending Gordon Tech required Williams to travel on a couple different city buses to reach campus -- and Hyde had more flexibility in her schedule to assist in the transportation -- LaTasha decided to let Raequan live with Hyde. As Hyde said, "We were spending three nights a week where we were doing schoolwork after practice and then I'd drive him back home. And he still wasn't doing well."
"He was being late to school a lot," LaTasha said in a recent phone interview from her home in Chicago. "It wasn't easy to let him go but I'm for my kids. That's what I wanted."
Williams already was making an impact at the school. One day he came home and told Hyde that other ninth-graders had encouraged him to run for class president. Williams had no idea what that entailed but he made posters and ran in order to fulfill their desires. He was just as impressive with his athletic ability, as he matured into a three-time all-conference football player and an all-league basketball player as a senior.
It would've been easy for Williams to relish his role as big man on campus because, as DePaul football coach Bill Jeske said, "He was the biggest kid on the team, and he was always getting better." Instead, he impressed people with his attitude.
"He made sure the 14th and 15th man on the basketball team was treated as well as he was," said DePaul basketball coach Tom Kleinschmidt. "If he was sitting at the cool table in the lunchroom, he made sure they had a spot right there with him. Even at that age, his maturity stood out."
Williams also didn't forget where he came from. He often brought his younger siblings (he had three brothers and two sisters) over to Hyde's home to hang out and see what life was like there.
"At first I wasn't used to the environment," Williams said. "I had a bed and a TV. The neighborhood was different. I didn't know that kind of world existed outside of mine. It showed me that I didn't have to stay in that eight-mile radius that I'd always known. I actually could grow."
Michigan State won the recruiting battle for Williams, largely because of some inside help. Hyde had some relatives who had attended the university and Williams often heard about their fond memories. However, he couldn't have imagined the pain that struck his life as soon as he settled into college. The danger that lurked in the streets of Chicago hit him before he ever had a chance to show what he could do in the Big Ten.
On Jan. 13, 2016, the day before his 18th birthday, Pollards was walking to school around 9 a.m. in the Chicago neighborhood of Austin when somebody in an unidentified vehicle opened fire on him. According to a police report, he was pronounced dead an hour later at a local hospital from multiple gunshot wounds. It was one of 30 deaths in Chicago caused by gunfire in the first 17 days of 2016 and one of the city's 762 murders on the year.
Williams said it was the first time he felt what it was like to have his heart broken. Pollards' mother had taken LaTasha and her family in when Raequan was in junior high school. They all lived in a cramped, two-bedroom house, with Raequan and Pollards often sharing the same bed and referring to each other as brothers.
"I felt like I'd lost my twin," Williams said. "He was born a month before me. His mom accepted my mom and gave us a place to live when we didn't have one. This was my first time losing somebody so close to me. We didn't have dads around so we were the men of the house. We were the ones who protected everybody."
Williams was equally devastated when his brother, Corey Hill, died in a similar fashion on June 7, 2017 at the age of 16. This time, Hill was on his way to school in the same Austin neighborhood Pollards was gunned down in when a car pulled up and a masked man jumped out with a rifle and began firing. According to a police report, Corey and his 15-year-old friend, Jacques Mack, were shot multiple times, and both were pronounced dead upon arrival to the hospital.
The deaths brought the city's body count that week alone to 19 and were two of 650 homicides in Chicago that year.
"When I lost my (younger) brother, that's when I got nervous," Williams said. "I felt like I needed to get home to take care of my family before we lost everybody."
LaTasha saved her son from making a life-changing mistake but she also understood his pain.
"It was tearing us all up," LaTasha said. "But when he said he was coming home, I just told him no. He had to do what he had to do. He couldn't just up and leave when bad things happened."
Those conversations helped steady Raequan. So did the talks with Hyde, who constantly praises Williams' ability to see the bigger picture in life. As devastated as Williams was about those deaths, he understood that staying at Michigan State would afford him the chance to truly protect his family -- with a future NFL paycheck and the resources to move them to a safer neighborhood. That meant sharpening his focus and dedicating himself even more on the field.
Williams moved into Michigan State's starting lineup during his sophomore season and played like a young man determined to honor the loved ones he'd lost. He started all 13 games, finished with solid numbers (31 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks) and won the team's Iron Man award, which is presented to the Spartan who excels in strength and conditioning. After that year, veteran strength coach Ken Mannie challenged Williams even more. He implored him to become the dominant, run-stuffing interior lineman Mannie expected him to be in future seasons.
"When he said that, I thought to myself that I really can do this," Williams said. "You're talking about a guy who's been coaching almost 50 years and been around Michigan State for nearly 30 years. For him to see that in me, it gave me even more confidence."
Williams didn't disappoint in his final two seasons. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after a junior season that saw him finish with 53 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He wound up starting 42 consecutive games at nose tackle (the most by a position player during Dantonio's tenure as head coach) and won two more Iron Man awards (becoming the second player in school history to do that). Williams also made his family beam in December 2019, when he graduated with his bachelor's degree in advertising management.
"When he walked on that stage and got his diploma, he looked at me and told me he was the man," LaTasha said. "And I just said, 'Yes, you are.' "
When asked about what impressed her the most at that ceremony, Hyde added, "Just the fact that he stuck with it. He didn't like being redshirted because he wanted to play early but he kept at it. He could've gone into the draft because he was broke, but he wanted to get his degree. He's just always been able to see the long game."
That maturity has taken Williams to a place where he's about to realize a lifelong dream. His faith and optimistic spirit have helped him maintain the positive mindset that has been his trademark since Hyde met him back in the third grade. Williams already has absorbed the kind of pain that would harden the souls of most people. It says something that he still focuses on how he can make the world a better place for everyone.
Williams is still compassionate enough that he'll stop and talk to drug dealers in the neighborhood where he grew up because "I don't want anybody to feel like they're not human." He has so much humility that he'll return home for events held by the same Breakthrough Urban Ministries organization that helped him as a child and jump in line to serve food without hesitation. He will be raising money to benefit the outreach program with his vertical jump at the combine, with the hope that people will donate for every inch he elevates. Minnesota Vikings quarterback and Michigan State alum Kirk Cousins already has said he will match whatever pledge total Williams amasses.
"A lot of people have put in the time to help me be the guy I am today," Williams said, when asked why it's so important for him to give back. "All of those people helped me so I feel like I should help others."
Williams basically is the same kid who once saw the importance of exposing his siblings to Hyde's part of town while he was in high school, primarily because it might broaden their horizons. He's simply not built to put himself before others.
Some might see that as a weakness at some point, especially for a young man who'll likely soon have millions of dollars in his bank account and plenty of people who will want to help him spend it. That's also an issue Williams will have to contend with down the road. For now, he's found a way to push through his own pain to create an opportunity most people never get to have. What he understands more than anything is that all the support he's received in his own life means one thing: He needs to keep creating his own positive impact on the world.
"When you go through the things I've gone through, you feel unbeatable," Williams said. "Nothing can defeat me. There are people that I thought I'd never lose that are gone now. But when you get through something like that, you feel like you can't lose in life. All I can do is go out there and continue to motivate others."