Damien Williams finds redemption in Miami after 'long road'

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- After the Chiefs rallied from 10 down in the fourth quarter to defeat the 49ers 31-20 in Super Bowl LIV, Damien Williams expected tears to fall as softly as the confetti.

But as the running back stood in the middle of Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday night, strips of red and gold Mylar at his feet, a gray sweat-stained "CHAMPIONS" T-shirt over his torso, his eyes were dry and clear. That made it easier for him to look back and reflect on a journey whose road has been pock-marked by struggle, much of it of his own doing.

"I've come a long way," he said, "from starting out at junior college, going to Oklahoma, getting kicked off the team, not getting drafted, not getting re-signed by the Dolphins, then joining the Chiefs. I've had a long road, a long road."

The Chiefs likely are not Super Bowl champions for the first time in 50 years without Williams, who accounted for 133 yards from scrimmage, 104 of them rushing, and scored the team's final two touchdowns, his 5-yard catch-and-run with 2:44 to play giving Kansas City its first lead since late in the second quarter and his 38-yard run with 1:12 remaining sealing the outcome.

"He told us in the huddle, 'I'm not going to be stopped,' " right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said of the second score. "He told us, 'You guys do what you do, block and finish, and I'm going to [score].' He literally called his shot. Unbelievable."

So much of Williams' story could be labeled unbelievable, if only because he always seemed to apply the brakes just when he was expected to take off. He ran for more than 2,000 yards one season in high school, but he did not have the grades to attend a major college. He attended Arizona Western College before transferring to Oklahoma, but he was dismissed from the team in his second season for violating team rules. The Dolphins signed him as a rookie free agent, but he did not extend his contract after four seasons in part because of concerns about whether he was mature enough to handle the trappings of success.

He never established himself in Miami as a position player, rushing for only 477 yards and three touchdowns over four seasons, instead earning his keep on special teams. He remained a role player for his first season and a half with the Chiefs, but he finally got an extended opportunity to showcase his skillset the last three games of 2018, when the Chiefs released Kareem Hunt for shoving and kicking a woman.

To that point, Williams had rushed for 53 yards on the season, but he gained 203 yards on 34 carries to end the regular season, then accounted for 250 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns over two postseason games. But just when the clouds appeared to part, after he signed an $8.1 million, two-year extension and was named the starter in training camp, Williams injured a hamstring and was, shall we say, slow in regaining his form. The Chiefs sent a message by giving his reps and his starts to other players.

"In this game, the only day you're going to feel perfect is that first day," said offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who played nine seasons and 142 games in the NFL. "At some point in time, you have to fight your way through that, and he fought his way through it. He found a way to get back into the lineup, and that just goes to show you the character of who he is and what he was able to overcome. I'm happy and I'm proud of him, because you guys just don't know. The kid has come a long way."

Williams has been at his best with the Chiefs when it has counted most: in the postseason. He has scored at least one rushing touchdown in each of his five career playoff games and has added a receiving score in three as well. His 10 touchdowns from scrimmage are a franchise postseason record. Including his one playoff game with the Dolphins, his 11 playoff touchdowns are tied with Hall of Famer Terrell Davis for most from scrimmage in a player's first six games.

"He has some sort of chip on his shoulder, and we love it," said left tackle Eric Fisher. "One of the toughest dudes I know. I love blocking for that guy. You know when he gets the ball, he's going to give you everything. That's something special and someone special to have around."

Playing in a Super Bowl is special by itself, but the fact that the game was in South Florida made it even more significant for Williams, because it was taking place in the same stadium, on the same field, where his pro career began. With the exception of his departure, he loved everything about playing in Miami: his teammates, the coaches and the fans who showed him love.

He was determined to put his fingerprints on the Vince Lombardi Trophy as a way of closing the book on his Miami tenure, and he served notice in the first quarter, rushing five times for 32 yards. He had 47 at the half and 57 through three quarters, before ultimately taking charge in the final 15 minutes with the two touchdowns. While the scores and one or two other plays earned highlight recognition, the little things were just as important, such as his ability to extend drives by converting 11 of his 21 touches into first downs, eight of them rushing. He also converted on two fourth-and-1s, the first of which set up a 1-yard scoring run by quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

"We felt like we executed better as the game went on; we made the right calls," said 49ers safety Jimmie Ward. "But in the fourth quarter, it kind of fell apart. On his touchdown run, I've got to make that play. I've got to make that tackle. In the biggest game of the season, I didn't get it done. But credit to him. He's a really good back."

The opportunity to show it on the biggest stage possible humbled Williams. As he stood amid the confetti, two teammates walked up from behind, minutes apart, and whispered into his ear: "I love you." He repeated the words back to them. It is debatable which felt better, hearing the words or repeating them.

As he bounced from interview to interview, his biggest supporter, his mom, Virleanna Alexander, stood back and took it all in. Pride didn't adequately express what she was feeling.

"It has been a long journey, a very long journey, that started, let's say, back in Pop Warner all the way through high school," she said. "It was not easy. I never doubted it could happen; I knew his capabilities from Pop Warner. But I also knew the only person who could get in his way was him. As long as he didn't get in his way, I knew this could be possible."

"It's amazing," Williams said. "Honestly, I thought I was going to be crying after this. I started on this field. I had fun on this field. I made a lot of plays on this field. To have this accomplishment in the Super Bowl, here? It means a lot to me. Now I'm going to enjoy it with my kids. I've had all my fun. This was all I needed. It's time to relax with the kids."

With that, Williams began a much more memorable journey, through the confetti, away from his past heartaches and hardship and out of the stadium. He may have been departing, but in reality, he had just arrived.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.

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