- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving was a bleak day for the Williams family on Lee Street in Northeast Washington two decades ago.

Cheron and her husband, Edwin, both were habitual users of cocaine. The drug problem left them unable to tend to their two young children, who instead were placed in the care of her parents.

One of those children was a toddler, nicknamed “Ham” for his huge legs that resembled ham hocks. Edwin Jr. wasn’t just big, he was too big - he wasn’t allowed to play youth football because he weighed almost twice the 75-pound limit.

The odds of that child, emerging from those circumstances, one day starting in the National Football League were astronomical.

On Sunday, Edwin Williams Jr. will beat those odds. Williams, now 22 and a rookie free agent, is expected to start on the offensive line for the Washington Redskins when they face the Philadelphia Eagles.

Williams’ ability to play both guard and center, where he started for three years for the Maryland Terrapins, won him one of the final 53 roster spots with the Redskins coming out of training camp this summer.

But a roster spot doesn’t guarantee playing time: Williams was placed on the inactive list for each of the Redskins’ first five games and suited up the next four games without ever stepping onto the field.

Williams’ moment finally arrived on Sunday in Dallas, where a struggling Redskins team faced its bitter rival in the Cowboys.

Starting guard Chad Rinehart suffered a season-ending broken leg on the first series of the second half, but coach Jim Zorn didn’t insert the more seasoned Will Montgomery in his place.

Zorn instead chose the 6-foot-3, 315-pound D.C. native with the ready smile and the bachelor’s degree in communications.

“He held his own,” Zorn says of Williams. “He did a nice job. He was physical. He anchored very well. When he got his hand on a guy, he stayed with him. The more he stayed in there, the better he got. As he gets more and more comfortable at that position, he’s going to try not to let it go.”

That solid performance in his NFL debut marks a major milestone in Williams’ journey, but he is not the only member of the family who has come a long way.

Even when Mrs. Williams was pregnant with daughter Danielle in 1983 and with Edwin Jr. in 1986, neither she nor her husband could let their addictions go.

“I did an awful thing: I jeopardized innocent babies’ lives,” Mrs. Williams says. “Only through God’s grace did these kids survive. But I was caught in the grips of my addiction. It’s no excuse. It’s just how it was. There was so much I didn’t know.”

For about a decade, they struggled to beat their problem. While her parents cared for the children, Mrs. Williams and her husband were on the streets of the District and cities up and down the East Coast. Eventually, they entered rehab and emerged clean.

After a three-year absence from their children, Mr. and Mrs. Williams returned home, ready to take part in their lives again.

Mrs. Williams has been clean for 18 years and is a dissertation shy of a doctorate degree. She also counsels addicted women and runs a compliance firm for mental health facilities.

Mr. Williams has been clean for nearly 20 years. He is a project manager for the Juvenile Detention Center in Leesburg, Va., near the house he shares with his son.

The couple, however, eventually divorced.

“We took [the children] to all of our [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings when we celebrated the anniversaries of being clean,” Mr. Williams says. “I’m sure that had a strong effect on them. I always told Edwin that he had to be better than me.”

Mrs. Williams made certain of that. As the children reached their teenage years, she regularly tested them for drugs with a kit she carried in a purple bag - a kit that has become legendary in the Williams family and one that she uses to this day.

The younger Williams didn’t entirely keep out of trouble growing up, even under the watchful eye of his mother.

He stole a BB gun when he was 10 - a theft that earned him a serious spanking from his grandfather, Thomas Pierce - and in his early teenage years he tried alcohol and marijuana.

Still, the example of his parents ultimately led him to where he is now, even if the journey wasn’t always easy.

“I’m really proud about how far my parents have come,” Williams says. “Their stories kind of steered me in the right direction, but at the same time, I was a hard-headed kid. I was a selfish child. I would talk back to my mother. I didn’t want to feed the dogs. I only looked out for Edwin. I didn’t want to help anybody.”

Williams attended the tiny Our Lady Queen of Peace School - his mother worked three jobs to give her children private-school education - and later switched to DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville.

The move was tough at first. Williams spent ninth grade on academic probation. But his blossoming love of football - he finally was permitted to play - followed by the death of his beloved grandfather changed his ways.

“I decided to stop being a knucklehead, get myself together and do the right thing,” Williams says. “I wanted to make my grandfather proud. I feel like I’m kind of carrying on what he can’t do anymore. I started being a more positive, helpful person.”

As a reminder, Williams wore a T-shirt bearing his grandfather’s photo under his practice jersey at DeMatha and Maryland until it was more tatters than T-shirt.

He played last season at Maryland while attending graduate school. He was not chosen in the NFL Draft in April, then signed with the Redskins as a free agent.

After a long wait for his chance to play, Williams finally made his debut - an appearance on the field that gave his father chills and set his mother’s phone to ringing with calls from well-wishers from across the country.

Still, Williams says, he isn’t satisfied with how far he has come.

“It’s been a pretty crazy ride,” he says. “When I was going through camp, I never thought it was impossible to make the team. I always knew I had an opportunity. But I’m blessed to be versatile and play different positions. I’m happy I got my feet wet, but it was kind of bittersweet because we lost to the Cowboys. It was just half of a game. I still haven’t really proved myself at all.”

Against the Eagles, he will get a chance to prove himself again, this time as the son of drug-addicted parents who rose to start for his hometown NFL team.

On Thursday, three days before he steps onto the field in Philadelphia, Edwin Williams Jr. and his family will have extra reason to give thanks.

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