- Associated Press - Friday, May 1, 2015

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) - Leonard Williams still speaks to his father on a regular basis, making frequent phone calls to him in prison.

He can’t wait to talk to him all about the biggest moment of his life.

The New York Jets drafted the Southern California defensive lineman with the No. 6 overall pick Thursday night, a surprising turn of events since the team thought he’d be long gone when they went on the clock.

“It meant a lot to me and my family,” Williams said Friday at the Jets’ facility. “It was great to have them there. They’ve always been there to support me, no matter what.”

His father, Clenon, wasn’t there in Chicago at the NFL draft site. The 47-year-old Williams is currently at Marion Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida, serving time for various offenses, including robbery with a deadly weapon, according to Florida Department of Corrections records. He was sentenced in 2012, and his current release date is Nov. 1, 2019.

“Me and my dad still have a great relationship, even though he’s incarcerated,” the younger Williams said. “Actually, because of good behavior, they allowed him to have a cellphone or something like that and we’re able to talk a lot.”

Williams frequently sends his father pictures - him and his 2-year-old daughter Leana, likely among them - and keeps him posted on his achievements. Williams’ mother Aviva Russek gave Clenon the good news late Thursday night that their son is now an NFL player.

“He’s really excited for me,” Williams said. “No matter where I went - he’s a Dallas Cowboys fan - he’s really proud of me.”

And, for good reason. Williams, who turns 21 next month, was a force in three years in college. He had 218 career tackles in college in 35 starts, with 21 sacks, five forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions.

Now, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Williams will team with fellow first-rounders Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson on coach Todd Bowles’ formidable front line.

Not bad for a kid who wasn’t able to play Pop Warner because he was too big: 200 pounds at 13, about 20 over the limit.

“I remember there was a really long line going up to the tent where you had to sign in,” Williams recalled. “I was so excited and it was finally my time to sign in and they told me to weigh in. … I was just really sad, man, because they sent me home and I couldn’t play anymore.”

Williams called that moment a “turning point,” something that motivated him to be even better - once he was able to actually play again. He joked that people should start recruiting his younger brother Andrew, who might face a similar hurdle.

“He’s only 9,” Williams said, laughing. “He’s already like 140 (pounds) and he’s only 9, but he wants to play O-line. I don’t know any kid at that age who wants to play offensive line.”

Williams grew up modeling his game after DeMarcus Ware, who has had his share of sacks during an outstanding career. Among Williams’ strengths are his power off the line and speed for a man his size.

Oh, and he’s got quite a mane - which prompted friends and USC teammates to give him a nickname that’s sure to stick in the NFL: Big Cat.

“A lot of people said I resemble a lion, or something like that,” a smiling Williams said. “I guess also because I’m big, I don’t know.”

Williams’ size was only one of the minor obstacles he has dealt with in his life. His family moved around while he was growing up, bouncing from California to Michigan to Arizona and now in Daytona Beach, Florida. There were a few nights spent in homeless shelters, too, just to get by.

Through it all, his passion for football helped him stay focused on the path that led him all the way to the NFL.

“It’s almost unreal to finally be in this position,” Williams said. “I feel like time has gone by so fast. I just remember my mom calling me the other day and said she rode by my high school. It felt like yesterday that I was playing high school football.”

He’ll be playing with the pros next, and a potential career highlight is him getting his first NFL sack against a rival such as New England’s Tom Brady. When a reporter pointed out that the Jets don’t play the Patriots until Week 7, Williams grinned.

“Yeah,” he said, “I definitely want a sack before then.”

___

AP NFL websites: https://www.pro32.ap.org and https://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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