- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

A year ago, Mike Williams wasn’t just home for the holidays. He was home for good.

After three seasons outof the NFL, he weighed about 450 pounds and watched the games from his couch,his career apparently long over. But Sunday night on national television, Williams will start for the Washington Redskins against the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field.

Merry Christmas.

“It’s gratifying to say, Yeah, I accomplished that,’ ” he said. “But there are so many more things I want to do.”

Williams is one of the few success stories of this bleak Redskins season. After losing 100 pounds, he struggled to make the team during the preseason and dealt with injury and performance issues at right tackle. Now, here he is, starting at right guard.

An NFL right tackle since Buffalo took him fourth in the 2002 draft, Williams has made a quick transition to guard and performed capablysince returning from an ankle injury. He has given assistance to a unit ripped apart by season-ending injuries to tackle Chris Samuels, guard Randy Thomas and others. “Right now,” he said, “I am loving playing guard.”

Still hefty at350 pounds, Williamsturns 30 in a few weeks. Except maybe to fill in, he is through as a tackle trying to block agile, quick pass rushers. He is better inside, in limited space,banging on larger, slower opponents.

“Big Mike’s doing good,” quarterback Jason Campbell said. “He expressed to me [that playing tackle] is too much stress on him because he’s not as quick on his feet as he used to bewith all these big, strong fast guys they’ve got now coming off the edge. He feels like he’s better inside because of his size and his strength. He can hold up better on the inside. And it’s working for him. You’ve got to be gratified for his honesty.”

Sometimes there is no avoiding the obvious.

“Gol-lee, I’m almost pushing 30 now,” Williamssaid, smiling. “I’m not as quick as I used to be.What this does is utilize my strength.”

A strong run blocker, Williams has had to learn the nuances of pass blocking as a guard, as well as new schemes andterminology. Nowhe lines up against big tackles about an inch away from his facemask as opposed to smaller ends and linebackers spreadwide.

“It’s really different,” he said. “At tackle, you’re dealing with faster ends, but things happen at the guard position a lot faster. Engaging with the defensive linemen happens a lot sooner.”

Playing guard “is made to order” for Williams, offensive line coach Joe Bugel said.

“He doesn’t have to chase that rabbit,” Bugel said. “He made a great transition. I think he’s at the point now where he knows he wasn’t a real good space player, trying to go on the edge and block those rushers with big-time speed.If he stays on pace and keeps his pace, I think he’ll be a real good football player.”

It’s unusual for a coach to speak of a veteran’s potential, but Williams is an atypicalveteran. After four undistinguished, injury-marred seasons in Buffalo,he was released. Hespent a brief time with Jacksonville during the 2006 season but never played, then wasout of the game until he showed up at Redskins training camp this season.

More important than returning to the fieldwas losingweight; his very life was at stake. In February, Williamsfor the second time checked into the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C., kick-starting a plan to revamp his lifestyle.

“It was part of the process, coming back into the league and stuff like that,” he said. “But it also was something I wanted to change overall in my life. And it was hard, but this was just the first goal.”

Still, rusty from three years of inactivity, Williams struggled during the preseason with the Redskins. He was no lock to make the team.

“He had a tough time in camp,” Bugel said. “He was up and down. He was fighting his weight, and the injury bug kept nipping at him.”

Williams’ chances of sticking looked spotty, buthe persisted. Now Bugel can say, “He came along at the right time.”

Slimming down andmaking the team “feels like it happened so long ago,” Williams said. “It’s almost surreal. There were big question marks: Can he come back?’ Can he lose the weight?’ But it’s about how you view yourself. Do you believe that you can do it? You’ve got to visualize it and just do it, no matter what’s said or what people think might not be possible. You just take it one pound at a time, one day at a time, one minute at a time, and that’s all you can focus on.”

Parts of Williams’ NFL past are painful to recall, but he said he won’t erase them. “I learned from those experiences,” he said. “They created the man I am right now. Do I play differently? Do I work differently than I did in Buffalo? Yeah.

“There were a lot of things based on my history. I mean, that’s what people could only go on. What has he done? What do we remember about Mike Williams?’ Trying to prove I’m not a bust or that I’m not the same guy, that’s not my focus. That’s part of my life. But here are the things I want to do in my life, here are the things I want to accomplish. I’ve got a lot more opportunity ahead.”

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