NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Duke Williams cried before Sunday’s game as he looked in the mirror, staring at the man he’d become.
The 26-year-old rookie wide receiver, promoted from the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad Saturday, was about to play in his first regular season NFL game. And hours later, he’d catch the game-winning touchdown, a seven-yard dart from quarterback Josh Allen with 9:49 remaining in the fourth quarter, to give the Bills a 14-7 victory against the Tennessee Titans and a 4-1 record heading into the bye.
“All I was thinking is, if I can get my hands on it, I’m coming down with it,” Williams said. “I knew it was tie game, and I seen that ball. I wasn’t going to let anything stop that. Not that. Not in this moment right here. And it’s crazy. It’s a feeling I can’t explain.”
Allen handed him the game ball.
“I just wanted to let him know that I appreciate him,” the quarterback said.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) October 6, 2019
Williams lined up in the slot to start the game and played extensively, finishing with four catches on four targets for 29 yards and the score.
His playing time came at the expense of Zay Jones, the underperforming 2017 second-round pick who appears to be the fourth wide receiver on the roster, at best.
Jones barely played and wasn’t targeted, but said he was proud of Williams after the game.
“Someone who has came through so much and has worked his tail off to be in this position,” Jones said, “and then have it pay off, and being able to celebrate with his teammates, everyone here is proud of him. It was an awesome thing to see. You can’t say enough about a guy who’s really done everything right. He’s really deserving of it. The guy, he’s a great football player and everyone’s really excited for him.”
Jones was unsure what Williams’ success meant for his role with the team moving forward.
“I just do my job, you know? That’s all I can do,” Jones said. “But we just won, so I’m just going to enjoy that.”
Years earlier, during his senior season at Auburn, Williams cried very different tears after being kicked off the team following a series of rules violations and a drunken rampage at a bar.
“I was more than depressed,” Williams told The Buffalo News when the Bills signed him to a reserve/futures contract earlier this year, after two seasons in the Canadian Football League. “Man, I used to cry myself to sleep at night. Anxiety attacks. I’d just lose it. I ain’t really care no more. I was ready to let myself go. That’s what a lot of people don’t know.”
Williams was named the top junior college recruit in the nation by Rivals.com after starring at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and as a junior, led Auburn with 730 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games. But he was twice suspended for breaking team rules, including for the Outback Bowl. And the bar fight during his senior season proved the final straw.
Williams said he received counseling several times each week, which helped with conflict resolution and managing his emotions. But he bombed at the 2016 NFL scouting combine, and then again at Auburn’s pro day. He signed with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent, but was released at final cuts, then spent a year out of football before signing with the Edmonton Eskimos.
Last season, he led the CFL with 88 catches for 1,579 yards and 11 touchdowns in 18 games.
“It was a long, rough journey. I had my ups and downs,” Williams said. “I was discouraged. And I had my thoughts about, just, it’s over, but God wasn’t done with me. He’s working through me, and whatever I can to show whoever’s watching me that anything’s possible as long as they believe in their dream and believe in God Himself.”
The Bills signed Williams in January, and he finished the preseason with eight catches for 71 yards and a team-high two touchdowns.
Williams, listed at 6 feet, 3 inches and 225 pounds, was the tallest and heaviest receiver on the depth chart. He offered a size and physicality the team otherwise lacked.
But he failed to make the team’s 53-man roster and passed through waivers unclaimed.
He spent the last four weeks grinding on the practice squad.
“I knew I was going to have to come and work,” Williams said. “I don’t mind work, because I know when you work hard, you’re always rewarded. No matter when it comes, it’s going to come. And even if it was this week or after the bye week or even in the middle or late in the season, I knew the time was going to come. I was just working, staying ready so I wouldn’t have to get ready.”
Williams said he knew he was being promoted earlier this week.
“I knew the plays that I had,” Williams said. “I was just thinking about it all week long, went to sleep with it on my mind, woke up with it on my mind.”
The Bills released tackle Conor McDermott on Thursday, clearing a roster spot, and after Allen cleared concussion protocol Saturday morning, Williams earned the nod.
“I love his juice,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “I loved the toughness he brings. He’s earned it. The way he practiced, his behavior, in terms of his habits. One practice to another, all the way through the first four weeks leading up to this week. He made plays in practice and in the one-on-ones, so he earned it. It’s one game, so we’ll just take it one game at a time. It’s important that he continues to improve.”
Williams’ touchdown catch came on third-and-3 at the Titans’ 7-yard line, with cornerback Adoree’ Jackson in coverage.
“He was head up to outside a little bit, so I just went at him, gave him a little move and took it inside,” Williams said, “and I knew Josh was going to give me a chance.”
The crowd, heavy with Bills fans, cheered “Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuke!”
Just like the fans used to chant at Auburn.
Williams didn’t have much time to celebrate. He had to line up with the kickoff coverage unit.
He danced there on the line beside his teammates, head bobbing, arms twisting, and as Stephen Hauschka sailed the ball into the end zone for a touchback, Williams sped down the field, the first to cross the goal line.
“I’m trying to get to the end zone first,” Williams explained later, “so I could get some points for our (special teams) meeting tomorrow.”
He then ran the length of the end zone, pointing at the cheering fans, rounded the corner and made his way up the Bills’ sideline, absorbing a storm of congratulatory pats on the head and hugs from receiver Robert Foster and receivers coach Chad Hall.
Marcus Mariota was being sacked by Darryl Johnson by the time Williams finally took a seat on the bench beside Jones.
“I said, ‘Good (stuff) Duke.’ I was like, ‘I’m proud of you. Keep doing your thing,’ ” Jones said.
Williams said he and Jones shared another special moment earlier in the day, prior to kickoff.
“Zay prayed for me before the game,” Williams said. “He held me and prayed for me, so he’s always in my ear and he’s always telling me how to do things, and this is a big credit to him. Me and Zay, we’re tight. And he’s a good man.”
Williams, once an outcast few believed in, was suddenly the one offering encouragement.
“I like Zay. I continue to learn from him. I continue to learn from everybody else in the room,” Williams said. “We’re all a team. We’re all one. So that’s what it’s about.
“Zay’s still playing a big part, and we need him, and we love him.”