Devastated by his mother's death at age 12, Alabama's Quinnen Williams channeled his grief into greatness en route to becoming the most destructive defensive lineman in college football

By Chase Goodbread | Published Dec. 24, 2018

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Yvarta Henderson isn't sure if there's anything left to wait on. Eight years have passed. Her four grandchildren -- among them, Quinnen Williams, the former shooting star on the Alabama Crimson Tide defense -- are all exactly where their mother would have wanted them at this point. The older three are either in college or exiting it, and youngest is college-bound. By all outward signs, the kids are doing well.

It's the inward signs that are more difficult to read.

In the summer of 2010, Quinnen and his three siblings endured the anguish of watching their mother succumb to a cancer battle they thought she'd valiantly won for good five years earlier. Over the course of five weeks at Princeton Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham, the family went from having every confidence that Marquischa Henderson Williams would eventually walk out a survivor, to slowly absorbing the realization that, this time, she would not. The breast cancer she'd beaten before had returned and spread to her liver. She died at 38 years old.

It remains an emotional blind spot for the four children she left behind, particularly Quinnen, who lost more than just a mother at the tender age of 12.

"My mom was my best friend. Everything was gone," he said. "I had always been a smiling, outgoing kid, but when she passed, I shut down. I went into a dark mode."

On special days -- Marquischa's birthday, or Mother's Day, or on Aug. 10, the anniversary of her death -- the family openly celebrates her life and impact. But that impact is too great for the passage of time, even at eight years, to heal the wound. The grief process has stalled, and even to this day, Quinnen rarely speaks of those five weeks in the hospital.

"He just doesn't go there," said his father, Quincy Williams Sr.

So Yvarta isn't necessarily waiting on some breakthrough outpouring, some kind of emotional reckoning, to deliver her grandson some closure.

If it comes, it comes.

Meanwhile, there is no arguing with the upshot when it does. Quinnen emerged from relative obscurity to win the Outland Trophy as a redshirt sophomore last year, in his first year as a starter, and entered the 2019 NFL Draft with a consensus of draft analysts projecting him as one of the top prizes.

The memory of his mother has powered an explosive career rise for the former Crimson Tide wrecking ball of a nose guard, one that has made near-instant believers of NFL scouts in a player who was largely anonymous to them entering the 2018 season.

"You just don't see guys come from as far off the radar as he was, in one year, to being the guy everyone is talking about," said a regional scout for an NFC team.

Marquischa, a highly-devoted elementary school teacher, was to have begun her 16th year in the classroom in the weeks following her death. Teaching was in her blood -- her side of the family has amassed more than 100 years of collective experience in the classroom -- and she treated the profession more like a calling than a job. It's said in the family that Quinnen, of the four children, is most like his mom. But there's a stark difference he can't deny: His is not the heart of a teacher.

"They don't make a lot of money. You've got to love it," Williams said. "The educators around me, they would do it for free. That's something you've got to be born with, something you've got to have inside you. I ain't got that inside me."

Marquischa studied early childhood education at UAB and taught first grade and kindergarten at Brown Elementary in Birmingham, just three miles from where Yvarta did the same at Price Elementary. Marquischa became a teacher for largely the same reason as her mother: She didn't want her kids in day care, and her husband, Quincy, was able to care for them during the day because he worked as a night shift manager -- usually until 1 a.m. -- for Associated Grocers of the South. When the school day ended and Quincy had to go to work, he would hand the kids off to Marquischa.

They all attended Price -- the oldest, Quincy Jr., was one of his grandmother's first-grade students -- and out of respect, they called Yvarta "Mrs. Henderson" in school. Quinnen, to this day, still refers to his grandmother that way.

Like her mother, Marquischa balanced work and home any way she could, often showing up at her sons' football practices to watch, along with a stack of papers to grade at the same time. And when it came to her own children's grades, she did not play.

"We talked a lot, but it was never about football," said Corey Dorsey, who coached Quinnen with the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club Jaguars. "She didn't mind her kids playing sports, but if something wasn't right with their behavior or schoolwork, she didn't care anything about football. Some parents just want to hear that the grade will come up next time around. That wasn't her."

Over the course of an hour last November, discussing his late wife and their children, Quincy Williams laughed out loud just once. It came while recalling Marquischa's reaction when subpar report cards came home. If it included two C's, she would tear it up and let the pieces fall to the child's feet.

She wasn't afraid to leverage sports participation against academics. Once, she got Quincy Jr.'s report card, laden with too many C's, while he was at practice.

She didn't wait to confront him.

"She comes right on the field, in the middle of practice, walks right by the coach and pulls me off," Quincy Jr. said. "No grades, no football."

It wasn't just apparent to family that Quinnen would deal with his mother's death in his own, private way. Dorsey coached him for five seasons -- four before his mother's death, and one after -- and expected the 12-year-old to spend that last season picking up the pieces of a shattered childhood, focused on anything but football.

Instead, he got the very same kid he'd always had. However intense the emotional pain was for Quinnen, it would be internalized -- never on display.

"At first, me and my staff walked on egg shells with him," Dorsey said. "We told him he could take some practices off or whatever he needed. Quinnen was having no part of it. I never saw him down. I don't know if he was trying to mask the pain or what, but I never saw any emotion."

One area where coaches did notice a difference, however, was in Quinnen's determination to improve. He'd always been a dominant player -- Dorsey's offense sometimes couldn't even run a play in practice because Quinnen could immediately push the center into the quarterback as quick as the snap exchange -- but he began coupling his talent with a voracious appetite for lifting weights. Growing up, it was Quincy Jr. who took the sport more seriously -- "Quincy's motor just ran a little hotter," Quincy Sr. said -- but in the wake of the family's tragic loss of its matriarch, Quinnen's fire for the game began to blaze.

"He was always trying to lift weights, even when the team wasn't," said Green Acres Middle School coach Jermaine Jackson, who coached Quinnen when he was in eighth grade. "I couldn't keep him out of there."

He carried that passion for lifting weights into high school, where Wenonah High coach Ronald Cheatham found him to be one of the hardest offseason workers he'd ever come across. Colleges began showing early interest as the baby fat began to disappear and his body took on a leaner, harder shape.

Inside, however, he was anything but hard.

Quinnen had always been more sensitive, more emotional, more attuned to the feelings of others. A self-described "mama's boy," he was the child who was always at Marquischa's side. He was the pleaser and wanted to please his mom most of all. It might have been her hard-driving discipline that made Quinnen that way. It might have been the bond he built with her while the two spent hours shopping together, cooking together, even checking over her students' work together.

That sensitivity once showed up on the football field his sophomore year at Wenonah High, and it wasn't a welcome display. During a blowout loss to Carver High, Quincy Jr., yelling at his defensive teammates trying to spark them, gave his younger brother on the defensive line an especially loud earful.

"Quinnen comes off the field crying, and I mean he's dropping crocodile tears," Cheatham recalled. "I'm on the sideline asking what's wrong. He said, 'Coach, Quincy's out there fussing at me.' " He took it personally that Quincy was getting after him. I told him you can't let your brother break you down in the middle of a game to where you can't even function."

"He holds doors for ladies, he helps older people with groceries," Quincy Jr. said. "If someone's moving a heavy box, he'll carry it. My mom was that way, and that's why he's that way."

The lane opened behind Daron Payne. When the former Alabama defensive tackle left UA as an underclassman a year ago to become a first-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins, an undersized and largely unknown Quinnen Williams pounced on the opening.

For two years, he had sat behind NFL-bound defensive ends Jonathan Allen, also a first-round pick, and fourth-rounder Da'Shawn Hand -- waiting his turn on the Crimson Tide's conveyor belt for NFL defensive ends. And with two more future pro ends in place for 2018 -- Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs -- he wasn't about to wait any longer. Even if it meant changing positions.

"The coaches never really came to me and asked me about moving inside. It was more me recognizing that my time had come, and I was willing to play any spot to get on the field," Williams said. "I kept my defensive end skills and put on enough weight to handle double teams."

In spring practice Williams took over Payne's position, and the result has been a meteoric rise. He piled up 18.5 tackles for loss in 15 games -- the most by an Alabama defensive tackle in Nick Saban's 12-year tenure -- and seven sacks. The transformation made him the best player on a 'Bama defense once again stacked with draft prospects.

"Last year, he was just another young Alabama guy you knew you'd be taking a closer look at eventually," the NFC scout said. "But moving inside and showing he can get after the quarterback from the interior, that's changed everything. That's about the quickest way for anyone to get noticed."

In Williams, scouts see a combination of lightning-quick hands, the power to overwhelm single blocks and the tenacity to split double teams. Left tackle Jonah Williams, himself a coveted draft prospect, described competing against Williams in practice as trying to block a "300-pound bar of soap." Williams was the highest-graded player in all of college football, according to Pro Football Focus, with a mark of 95.9. In November, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah called Williams "the most dominant player on the field in every game I study."

Quality interior pass rushers like Williams are in the highest of demand in today's NFL. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, arguably the league's best interior pass rusher and a legitimate MVP candidate this season, broke the bank in August with the richest deal in NFL history for a defensive player -- a contract extension worth $135 million with $87 million guaranteed. Finding the next Donald in the draft, for a fraction of that price on a rookie contract, can transform an entire team for any NFL general manager.

A few months before her death, Marquischa Williams dropped by Price Elementary after she'd been to the doctor. She told her mother she had some news, but didn't immediately reveal it.

Her father, Charles, struggling with health problems of his own, had a seizure that same day. The timing to tell her family that cancer had returned just wasn't right. Weeks later, she planned a trip to Alabama Splash Adventure, a water park off Interstate 20/59 in nearby Bessemer, and insisted that every member of the family be there.

But that wasn't the right time, either.

"She was trying to keep it from me because we were dealing with Charles' situation," Yvarta said. "She kept it from everyone, but I knew something was wrong. She finally got so sick she had no choice but to go to the hospital, and she never came out."

When she first checked into Princeton Baptist on July 4, 2010, the family was confident she would, in time, check out. She'd beaten cancer once before, and beating it again was the expectation.

As weeks passed, however, the prognosis darkened. Henry Williams (no relation), longtime director of the Birmingham's A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club, visited her during the last week of her life. Quincy Sr. and all four of their kids were there, too.

"My wife was going through the same thing at the same time," Henry Williams recalled. "They were just sitting around the room. It was hard. There's not much to say in that situation."

In five short weeks, with the kids visiting her daily, she was gone.

Quincy Sr. and Yvarta had much the same outlook when it came to helping four children through the grieving process -- keep them moving and keep them busy. Yvarta recalls an immediate emotional shutdown among the kids and felt keeping them active was the best way to combat it. Quincy left his job, and its night-shift hours, and started his own company as a computer programmer to be more available to the children.

"You can't be hands-on with your kids working three in the afternoon until one in the morning," he said.

They created as much routine and normalcy for the four children as possible, in a situation that was anything but routine and normal. Brothers Quincy Jr., Quinnen and Giovanni and their sister, Ciele, continued with their extra-curricular activities, but a busy schedule, on its own, couldn't fill the void. Quinnen, in particular, felt emotionally empty. Quincy Sr. believes his second-oldest son took it the hardest, because of the extra-close relationship he had with his mom.

In time, the kids became more independent. Quinnen, who was about to enter seventh grade, took on cooking chores with the kitchen skill he'd acquired from his mom. And all the kids picked up slack when it came to chores around the house.

In high school, they would wear all sorts of pink during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), including on the football field. Quincy Sr. would spare no expense for cleats, headbands, wristbands or anything else pink the kids wanted to wear to honor Marquischa's memory. Quinnen has several tattoos dedicated to his mother, including a large one on his chest of a pink ribbon.

Marquischa's presence still resonates in many ways. Her photo anchored a collage Yvarta designed to celebrate Quincy Jr.'s graduation from Murray State in December. Her younger brother, Jeremy, took her phone number after her death and has kept her voicemail greeting; any time the kids want to hear her voice, they only need to call Jeremy.

But those five final weeks in the hospital never have surfaced as a talking point for closure.

"I didn't try to make the kids talk about it -- we tried to keep living a normal life," Quincy Sr. said. "I prepared them for it before it happened. We had some family meetings with just me and the kids, but they were so young."

The three brothers took divergent football paths due to academics. Quincy Jr. struggled in school as a freshman, just after Marquischa died, and by the time he was a junior, Cheatham estimates he lost 15 FBS scholarship offers because there was little faith he would qualify. Entering his senior year, he needed straight A's to do so, and did exactly that. He signed with Murray State because the Racers maintained their scholarship offer when others didn't.

Quinnen was two years behind Quincy Jr., a freshman when he was a junior, and saw first-hand how poor grades during those early high school years could destroy big-time college football hopes.

"He could be in the situation I'm in if he had started studying in the ninth grade," Quinnen said of his older brother. "I saw the way it was going for him and thought, Why would I do the same thing? Not that he's in a bad place, but I put myself in a little better position."

A four-star recruit who wound up choosing between Auburn and Alabama, Quinnen qualified with ease to sign with the Crimson Tide, while Giovanni did not. The brothers now speak to school children aspiring to play college football about the importance of making qualifying grades. They use their different stories to drive home the same point.

"When we go talk to kids, we tell them there are three ways it can go -- the three ways it went for us," Quincy Jr. said.

They've told their story at the schools they've attended -- Green Acres Middle School, Wenonah High and Jackson-Olin High, where Quincy Sr. attended, and a few others. Usually, however, they spread their academic gospel at Wenonah.

"It's a platform we've got on the west side of Birmingham. We want them to see us and say, 'They did it, so can we,' " Quinnen said. "In Birmingham, you don't every day see black males succeed and be positive role models."

Quinnen gets back to Wenonah High as often as he can, uplifting students there who need it in any way possible. In-season, Sundays are the day college players have most to themselves, and Quinnen oftentimes made the one-hour drive from Tuscaloosa the day after home games.

Or even road games.

Just hours after Alabama's team plane touched down in Tuscaloosa from Baton Rouge following a 29-0 win over LSU in early November, he drove to Birmingham to take Yvarta to church and then head to Wenonah for a little preaching of his own. The Wenonah Dragons still watch film on Sundays at 3 p.m., as they did when he played, so Quinnen knows what time he can catch an audience.

"He shows the kids that national championship ring he's got, but he doesn't do it to say, 'Look what I've got,' " said Cheatham. "He does it to say, 'Look what you can get.' "

Closely guarded and fiercely private, Quinnen typically passes on chances to speak publicly about his mother's death. If it's not an open topic for family, it's certainly not one for strangers.

His thoughts on it are his alone.

But after bounding through a hallway of Alabama's Mal Moore Athletic Complex, jovially greeting a few teammates on a cold November Tuesday, he's caught in a rare mood to reflect. With some trepidation, he travels into the blind spot long enough to shed some light on why he goes to Birmingham schools and preaches the importance of academics.

Why he still goes back to the Wenonah High locker room to counsel Cheatham's players.

Why he still goes back to the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club to speak to the kids there.

"Nobody knew what I went through. My brothers and sister didn't know, my dad didn't know, my grandmother didn't know. Only I knew what I was going through," Williams said. "So now I look around and think, I really don't know what somebody else is going through, so why can't I be that person to make their day brighter?"

His recall for the summer of 2010 is fuzzy, so he warns in full disclosure that he questions his own ability to accurately piece together a full accounting. It's a whirring flash of memories he doesn't often conjure. But one memory, from one of his daily visits to the hospital, remains vivid.

One last instruction from the best teacher he ever had, riveted to his psyche.

"She said, 'You're going to be the one who makes sure everybody in the family stays together,' " he recalls.

In the end, Quinnen says, the tragedy destroyed him and changed him at the same time. Crippled him, defined him, pained him and matured him all at once.

Yvarta Henderson might not be sure exactly where Quinnen is on the path to closure.

But this she knows: Marquischa Henderson Williams is making the trip with him.

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