St. JOSEPH, Mo. – Newburgh, Scott Pioli knew.
The area was near his tiny hometown of Washingtonville, N.Y., and the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs knew that Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams – who had just entered his office during a pre-draft visit in April of 2011 – was originally from there. Williams grew up in Virginia, and Pioli knew that too, yet Williams still had the accent of someone from Newburgh.
So when Williams began to talk about his birthplace, Pioli pointed to a map of Washingtonville that hangs in his office, circa 1870, and the relationship instantly changed.
“Everything went away,” Pioli said. “The interview ended and it became a conversation between two guys.”
The conversation, in fact, turned to a third man, a man just a memory for Pioli and a man who could have been just a memory for Williams had he let it. As Pioli talked to Williams working his due diligence of a potential player, he found out Williams’ backstory. Williams was raised by his mother because his father was in prison. This wasn’t a shock, because Pioli had heard the rumor that’s where Williams’ father had been. Eventually, Williams mentioned his father’s name – Randy – and Pioli began to think.
There had been a Randy Williams who was a star running back for Newburgh Free Academy at the same time Pioli had played linebacker for nearby Washingtonville High School. Pioli pointed this out, and the burgeoning bond only got stronger.
“We got to rapping and come to find out they are the same age and probably played against each other,” Williams said. “It was cool to talk about that.”
The discussion went long, and Williams detailed his father’s story for Pioli. And when it was over, Pioli had a question.
Would you mind if I write your father?
Randy Williams is serving a life sentence at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Convicted of conspiracy and drug trafficking, he has been in jail since Ryan Williams was 9.
Ryan Williams, drafted by the Cardinals, has remained close to his father, however. He calls him “two to three” times a week, although the consistent day has been on Sundays, and Williams admitted “I don’t know how that will work out this year.”
Williams loved the idea of Pioli reaching out to his Dad. He knew such a letter “would mean the world to him.”
“Out of the goodness of his heart,” Williams said, “I guess he felt my story.”
Pioli can’t quite explain why he felt the need to contact Randy Williams. Some of it had to do with the sense of home, and the love he feels for Washingtonville and everything connected with it. Some of it was because of Ryan Williams, a kid he already had a good feeling about after having been convinced by Virginia Tech assistant and close friend Charley Wiles.
It was deeper than that. The thought of what Randy Williams could have been, from a life once very similar to Pioli, made Pioli think.
“When you hear a hard-luck story … I mean, with the wrong set of circumstances, life could have been different with us,” Pioli said. “It generates a little bit of humility. With all of us in life, we’ve all done something we wish we hadn’t have done. I don’t know. I guess I felt compelled to reach out.”
Randy Williams and Pioli struck up a correspondence. Sometimes a few letters are traded back and forth. Sometimes there are long stretches where there are none.
When Ryan Williams ruptured his patella tendon in the preseason last year, “I was crushed for the kid.” Pioli sent Ryan a text of encouragement, but he couldn’t help but think of Randy as well. In one of the initial letters Randy Williams sent to Pioli, he expressed regret being absent for his son, for Ryan’s mom and for Ryan’s siblings.
“There are real people in jail,” Pioli said, with some emotion in his voice. “There are bad people in there. There are good people in there.”
When the Cardinals and Chiefs came up with the plan to hold a joint practice during training camp, Pioli immediately thought of Ryan Williams coming to visit. When he arrived, Pioli would have a picture taken of the two of them together, and they would each sign it and send it to Randy Williams.
When Ryan Williams signed, it was “Love, Chuck,” his nickname used by everyone on his father’s side of the family. He still visits his father every chance he gets, in addition to the phone calls. He loves the idea of Pioli reaching out, but it wasn’t going to improve his relationship with his Dad.
“He’s been my father since April 9, 1990,” Williams said. “Someone else wasn’t going to make us closer, but it made (my Dad) feel a lot better.”
Williams is matter of fact with his father’s situation. Asked what lesson he takes from his father’s troubles, he is quick with an answer: “Stay in the NFL.”
“Every time I go home – and I’m the spitting image of my father – they tell me, ‘You’re good, but you’re not as good as your Dad,’ ” Williams said. “My father was kind of committed to the streets right after high school, so don’t judge, but hey, when you are making that kind of money at 18 or 19 years old, especially in the circumstances we lived in, sometimes it’s hard not to bite.”
“Good people do bad things in life,” Pioli said. “(Randy) is paying a hefty price.”
Williams smiles when he talks about how Pioli told him that he was proud of the way he has returned from his patella injury. In what seemed like a coincidental connection, Williams said he considers Pioli “a good friend.”
The Chiefs didn’t necessarily need a running back the year Williams came out, not with Jamaal Charles in place. Each team only gets 30 pre-draft visits, so out of the hundreds of players they could have brought in, that one would have such a tie with Pioli was unlikely.
But maybe it wasn’t.
“It was random, but not an accident,” Pioli said. “That meeting was supposed to happen.”