By Eric Allen
Darron Lee has a singular focus and it’s on collective achievement.
“It’s not about me,” said the second-year inside linebacker. “It’s about the Jets and what we have to do, so you know that’s my only step going forward.”
Before he started his second professional campaign, Lee spoke of playing a role in a culture change and helping the Jets turn the corner.
“I’m a firm believer in when the team achieves, we all achieve,” he said. “And what I mean by we all achieve, I mean us individually. I’m only focusing on winning ball games and whatever and doing whatever it takes to win ball games.”
Selected No. 20 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, Lee appeared in 13 games for the Jets his rookie season and started nine while collecting 76 tackles. It was a baptism by fire for Lee, a defender who was close to making a few momentum-changing plays in Year 1.
“You are going to win some and you are going to lose some,” Lee said. “That was probably the toughest thing of the transition. I’m trying to win as many as I possibly can, but the guy across from me, he’s getting paid too.”
Through five games in Year 2, Lee has totaled 37 tackles including four stops for loss. He had six tackles in Week 5 against the Browns as the Jets pushed their win streak to three.
“I was having people scream O-H-I-O before I warmed up, so that was a good feeling. It brought me back home a little bit,” said Lee, who spent most of his early days The Buckeye State. “It’s definitely a good feeling. I know what this place is about just by being down there in Columbus because there are guys from Cleveland who were on my team when I was a Buckeye. I knew what this was all about coming in here and I knew I had to bring it today.”
Just 22, Lee played two seasons at Ohio State and combined for 27.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. The talented athlete, who played quarterback and in the secondary as a senior for the New Albany Eagles, arrived in Columbus, OH with a huge chip on his shoulder.
“I came in in as the lowest rated recruit out of everybody,” he said. “We had 26 guys and I was the lowest. It wasn’t humbling. It ignited an extreme amount of hunger because I knew that I was better than half the guys I walked in here with.”
No longer a quarterback though, Lee had to change his mindset. The days of eluding defenders were over and his mission was to get bigger and initiate contact.
“I was just like 208 pounds, I was like I was a twig,” he said. “I’m actually having visuals of my first camp and my string bean arms. It was just all bad man, but there was just switching that my whole mindset and my mind frame of just going from making sure that guy doesn’t hit me to you have to lay that guy out.”
Lee would become an elite college performer at the walkout linebacker sport for head coach Urban Meyer, working the wide side of the field. As a redshirt freshman, he started 15 games for a national championship team and earned Sugar Bowl Defensive MVP honors after recording seven solo tackles against Alabama, three TFL and two sacks.
Known for game-changing plays in C-Bus, Lee would like to make a similar impact for a developing Green & White defense.
“Taking the whole film to another level and taking cues to another level, so I put myself in a better position to make that big play,” he said before his sophomore campaign commenced. “And I’d say that’s the next big part is making that big play.”
By Eric Allen
Stabbed through his back, Bilal Powell wondered if his world was set to fade to black.
“If I die here, this is the idea of what it’s like to be a gangster, a thug in my city,” he remembers. “I had to accept the consequences of my actions and everything that led up to this point. And push comes to shove, I get rushed to the hospital and I have all these detectives coming in, taking pictures, asking me about the gang members and all these different things at that time.”
When Powell was in grade school, he was picked to go to an NFL Play 60 football camp in Tampa, FL where both Derrick Brooks and Deion Sanders interacted with the children. He appreciated how normal the football stars were and he thought maybe someday a kid could look up to him and he would be the normal one. But on this summer evening 12 years ago, that prospect didn’t look too good.
“I’m like I have to take care of me first before I do anything and I just remember blood coming,” he said. “And I’m like, ‘CAN YOU ALL STOP THE BLEEDING?’”
In a moment of panic, Powell was asking the right question to the wrong people. As the blood poured out, it was clear the only person who could stop the bleeding was the 16-year-old filled with rage. With one life to live, he finally had to choose wisely. It took time, but Powell dedicated himself to his faith, his family and football.
He chose to become a man.
“My mom would always tell me you got one life to live, you know, and you got to choose wisely,” says Powell. “Which way you want to live it?”
Powell, who will turn 29 on Oct. 27, keeps getting better with age. The 5’10”, 204-pounder set career highs last season with 722 rushing yards and 58 receptions for the Jets. His 5.5 yards/carry was a personnel best and a franchise record.
Off the field, Powell is thriving as well along with his wife, Jessica, and their two children. He also started the Bilal Powell Foundation to give back to youth, beginning with free football camps and giveaways.
But there was a time when it appeared Powell wouldn’t live to see his late teens. A self-described “menace to society,” Powell was violent at an early age. Without a father figure, he rebelled and turned to the streets of his hometown as an outlet.
“I got stabbed when I was sixteen, June 20, 2005,” he said. “I almost lost my life.”
As an adolescent, Powell did not choose wisely. Like many of his friends in Lakeland, FL, he grew up in a single-parent home.
“My dad has been in and out of jail. He battled a drug addiction, but one thing about him is he always tried to say positive things to me even though he wasn’t doing right and even though he wasn’t present,” Powell said. “He wasn’t the role model that I needed at that time.”
Powell’s mother, Stephanie, a bus driver for Polk County schools, was the one constant to provide support. She was at every Pop Warner game where Powell was a force, but he preferred to be feared more on the streets than on the gridiron.
“I tried to balance both,” he said. “But at one point in my life in my younger days, the gang life — the street life — started weighing more than football.”
“I was very worried,” Stephanie said. “I was afraid that I was going to get a call to pick him up from jail or come identify his body.”
Surrounded by violence and poverty, Powell hung with a tough crew and, between the ages of 13 and 16, neighborhood turf battles were commonplace.
“It’s not just a gang,” he said. “You have guys that grew up with each other since they were in elementary school and in diapers. If one person messed with you, then you got to mess with me. Everyone labeled us as a gang and we just ran with it.”
They ran into a vicious brawl on June 20, 2005. Powell’s side had about 20 kids and a rival crew from another city equaled that number. Not one to back down from confrontation, Powell was engaged in hand-to-hand combat on North Kettles Avenue when his life would change forever.
“I remember the guy that stabbed me,” he said. “He had on a Michael Vick jersey and he had braids. I just couldn’t get a true picture of his face. He hugged me and stabbed me at the same time. I didn’t know I was stabbed, though. All I remember him saying is, ‘I got you.’”
Soon after, Powell recalls someone saying that the other group had bricks and knives. Then he felt a wetness on him and he looked down at his shoes.
“I just remember being like, ‘Where is all this blood coming from?’ So, I pat myself and I’m checking myself,” he said. “I look down at my right side and it was just gushing out. And at the time, I just panicked.”
There was disbelief. The tempo can change in one’s mind when faced with your own mortality.
“My mind was just spinning, it was going a thousand miles an hour,” Powell said. “I was 16 years old and nobody believed that I got stabbed because I was running. One of my friends was smart enough to know that if you keep running, I was going to bleed out. He tackled me down to the ground and I just remember him saying, ‘You have to be calm right now.’”
Powell was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. While awaiting the test results from the knife that went through his back and was an inch from his kidney, Powell decided he would indeed make a change.
“If I make it out of this hospital, I’m going to have zero tolerance for everything else,” he thought. “It made my attitude even worse.”
Powell physically recovered, but his mind was still not right. Not one for education early in his life, he did not register a GPA at one school and he got kicked out of a charter school for throwing a chair at a teacher. Transferring into Lake Gibson HS for the ninth grade, Powell was not initially ready to give up his life of trouble.
“It was scary because when he did get stabbed, he was part of Lake Gibson,” said Doug DeMyer, the school's head coach who was the offensive coordinator when Powell was enrolled. “I got up and was reading the newspaper one morning and that was in the local section about how a local teenager had been stabbed.”
A year after the incident, Powell had an epiphany. Only hours before the sun rose, he woke his mother up.
“I remember to this day, dropping a sock of 9mm bullets in my mom’s hand,” he said. “I told her I’m done with that lifestyle and I was doing things she didn’t know about at the time… Growing up in a single-parent house, I thought I had to be a man. So for me, being a man, I thought that meant get in the streets and sell some drugs to take some weight off my mom.”
Instead of making his mother’s life easier, Powell had put more burden on the woman who wanted the best for him.
“Not only did I put my life in jeopardy, but I put her life and my little sister’s life in jeopardy,” he said. “If people couldn’t get to me, they could get to her and my little sister. That’s when I really started to put things in perspective and that’s when I started seeing things from an eternal standpoint. I was selfless after that.”
“Maybe this is the turning point,” thought Stephanie. “I prayed every chance I get because I didn’t want him to turn out like his daddy. His daddy was on drugs from high school to now and I was afraid that he was going to be that way.”
Success in the classroom would have to come before there would be any achievement on the gridiron. Powell was ineligible to play his sophomore season after lining up at cornerback on junior varsity, marking the first time someone had told him he could not play football.
“I straightened out just to get eligible for my junior year,” he said. “I started summer programs and I signed contracts to maintain a certain GPA. My mom was like, ‘All you have to do is stop worrying about what other people think of you and stop trying to be cool. You can do it.’”
One life to live, Powell was slowly changing his ways. The Lake Gibson staff encouraged him and tried to keep tabs on his whereabouts outside the structure of the school day.
“There were issues because of certain people in Lakeland and certain kids in Winter Haven. We’d try to stay on top of that and push the envelope,” said Keith DeMyer, who compiled a 113-43 mark in 13 years as head coach at Lake Gibson. “Bilal was quiet and didn’t give you a lot of information. I think we had to sell him to let him know that we cared about him not just as a football player but as a young man — making sure he gets good grades, trying to stay off the street and taking advantage of what God gave him.”
“There were nights where I tried to reach out and find out where Bilal was going to be,” added Doug DeMyer. “Who he was going to stay with, who was taking him home and is he going to get something to eat on the way home? You always worried and you did what you could to make sure things worked out okay from day to day.”
Powell, a devastating runner throughout his childhood, loved the physicality of football. He played all day in the summer and was taught the Lakeland mindset from an early age.
“We’re always taught, even in Oklahoma drills, if the hit wasn’t loud enough, then we had to go again,” he said. “We were taught you better be physical or else you won’t play.”
Even though Powell had loads of potential at running back, he started his high school career at corner.
“We had a senior running back that had a great season for us, so we weren’t really in need of a running back because we had a quality individual at that spot,” said Doug DeMyer. “You could see some things in the spring of junior year that he did on special teams with returning the football and interceptions. He was amazing with the ball in his hands.”
The following summer, Powell’s aunt took him and his sister to see his dad in jail. While he had been getting recruited to play CB in college, Powell’s father thought his son had another calling.
“He was like, ‘You know you always have been an athlete. There’s no doubt you’ve always been an athlete, but I’m telling you — you were born to run the ball, man. Just ask them to give you a chance at running back.’”
Not too long before that meeting, one might have wondered if Bilal would be headed to jail himself.
“I played with guys way more talented than I was,” he said. “You have guys who are dead or are serving two life sentences and they aren’t ever coming home.”
In between his junior and senior years, Powell moved in with his high school running backs coach, Rusty Bulloch. The Bulloch family has welcomed more than 20 teenagers over the years to their ranch in Central Florida to help provide discipline, love, respect, direction and meals.
The move would not only speak to Powell’s transformation but his mother’s love.
“She was willing to sacrifice her right and give up her son and let him go live with someone else,” said South Florida head coach Charlie Strong. “But the connection was still there. You won’t be with me, but that love and connection was still there for both of them.”
Powell made the choice to avoid his former haunts and develop as a young man. The easy thing to do would have been to stay home, but he saw a way out through football and additional guidance.
“Just from the conversations I had with that coach (Bulloch) concerning Bilal, you could see the difference in Bilal buying more into the church and asking a lot of questions,” said Doug DeMyer. “He wanted to reach out and know more about God and things of that nature. I think that was kind of a turning point.”
Stephanie never turned her back on her son. She was at every game and Bilal came home on the weekends. In order to take the next step, Powell had to fully commit.
“Being a parent, that would obviously be a tough thing to do. But she was putting Bilal’s best interest at heart when she made that decision and it worked out for the best,” said Doug DeMyer. “It’s one of those things where I would imagine she did a lot of thinking and going back and forth in what she wanted to do, but ultimately, she did what was best for Bilal.”
The following summer camp, the Lake Gibson coaches decided to see what Powell could do at running back during a scrimmage.
“We were scrimmaging with the ones and Bilal took his first carry against the first-team defense, and I believe it was a 54 zone, where he pushed right, hit the cutback and took it 80 yards,” said Doug DeMyer. “That was all she wrote. Coach said, ‘He’s a running back now.’”
Powell was more than just a running back. He was a special performer who could make magic happen on the field. In Lake Gibson’s first game his senior season, Powell rushed for 292 yards and five touchdowns in the Braves’ 40-27 victory over Kathleen HS.
“Close to 400 yards between punt returns and kick returns,” Doug DeMyer said of his final yard total. “That was against Kathleen, a city rival, which was a huge game. He was just unstoppable and Bilal played with so much passion, enthusiasm, and then he talked more on the football field.”
Keith DeMyer believes it was the single greatest performance he has ever witnessed in high school football.
“I want to say he took a punt or a kick return, changed directions and scored from about 80 yards out. He started left, actually did a 360 and came all the way across the other side of the field and hit the sideline,” said the former Lake Gibson head coach. “There wasn’t anybody that caught him. That was the one play. It was something in special teams. When he did that, it was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Then for the rest of the night, he would even make cuts when he shouldn’t have and scored touchdowns. He just outran everybody.”
Strong, who held various roles on the University of Florida coaching staff from 2003-09 including defensive coordinator and interim head coach, recruited Polk County. He remembers a semifinal playoff game between Lake Gibson and Lakeland when Powell attempted to put the Braves on his back against a loaded Lakeland squad full of Division I talent.
“Everybody kept saying that he was a better DB than he was a running back,” Strong recalled. “Then I watched the game that night. He was such a hard, tough runner, but he was fast. If he ever got the edge on you, he was going to outrun you. So just watching that game that night, I said, ‘I don’t know. He may be a better running back than he is a defensive back.’”
In his lone season as a full-time running back on the varsity level, Powell rushed for 1,960 yards and 26 touchdowns. He was voted second team All-State as he averaged 9.0 yards per carry and led Lake Gibson to a 10-3 mark before they lost in the third round of the state playoffs.
Louisville was the first school to offer Powell a scholarship and they stuck with their commitment while he worked on getting his grades up to qualify. He visited the Kentucky school just once and his mind was set.
“I always wanted to grow, I always wanted to challenge myself,” he said. “So, I knew getting away was going to allow me to grow as an individual and allow me to come home and show everybody else there is more than just being in Lakeland.”
After initially receiving eight-to-10 offers from big schools as a defensive back, Powell succeeded on one final test score and earned his scholarship to Louisville.
“There weren’t a whole lot of schools that were sitting around, waiting for him. But Louisville hung in there and when he popped that score, it was like, ‘Oh my God. He made it.’ It was like I was his dad,” said Keith DeMyer, fighting back tears.
Powell experienced modest success between 2007-09, rushing for 933 yards and eight touchdowns in three seasons. He wasn’t on many scouts’ radar when Charlie Strong was hired to replace Steve Kragthorpe on Dec. 9, 2009.
“We were talking and I said I wanted to see the real Bilal Powell,” Strong said. “I haven’t seen him yet. I asked him how much he weighed and I knew in high school he wasn’t as big as he was in college. I told him the guy I saw in high school is somewhere within you. I told him he had a reputation around the city of Lakeland for being a tough, hard-nosed young man that is going to battle for everything he’s got. I asked him why that had changed now.”
This was Powell’s final chance with football and Strong was going to help him make sound decisions. At Lake Gibson, Powell played running back at 180 pounds. But just a few years later, he had bulked up to 226 pounds. Strong instructed Pat Moorer, his director of strength and conditioning, to put Powell on a stairmaster.
“They made me lose so much weight,” Powell said. “They got me back down and I think they put a lot of confidence back in me. And it made me just feel like I was at home. He was a totally different type of coach. He was a great man before he was a great coach.”
The previous Cardinals staff had toyed with the idea of Powell playing fullback. Strong knew firsthand that Powell had explosive traits and he was lethal with the ball in his hands.
“The biggest turn was when Charlie got that job. He always knew that Bilal was a running back and there was no question,” said Keith DeMyer. “We talked all the time and I busted his chops all the time when he’d come in and recruit the area. I felt that when Charlie got that job in Louisville, Bilal was going to have an opportunity to play running back and show people what he could do at that point.”
Strong rode Powell all year and the kid from Lakeland, FL delivered, rushing for 1,405 yards and 11 touchdowns. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry and jumped on the radar of NFL teams. After three consecutive non-winning campaigns, Powell tasted success on a 7-6 club that culminated Strong’s first season with a 31-28 win over Southern Mississippi in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl.
“I can just remember some of the long runs that he had and you’d be wowed because you couldn’t catch him. Once he got to the outside, it was over with,” Strong said. “The players had so much respect for him because they knew to get the ball to Bilal because we’re going to eventually grind it out and win this football game.”
They gravitated towards Powell because of the way he carried himself on and off the field. They knew his background, but they didn’t know the true Bilal until Strong had the seniors stand up before the team and tell their stories.
“He talked about living with the other family, his relationship with his mom and how much he loved her,” Strong said. “Then he also talked about the fight that night when he got stabbed and didn’t even know blood was running down and (he) collapsed. Everybody was sitting there like wow because what they saw was this young man who doesn’t say much and sits off on his own. They never knew that story.”
His story got better at Louisville. During his time at school, a Cardinal teammate said Powell had to meet a girl. Like Bilal, Jessica was a Christian who had found a new perspective on life. She also grew up with limited resources and she was real, owning a true authenticity that Powell appreciated.
“She is always going to be her,” Powell said. “No matter where she’s at — she’s always going to be her. She’s a person who has a big heart. She thinks about other people before herself at all times and I really took heed to that… I truly fell in love.”
Less than six years after his stabbing, the New York Jets selected Powell in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
“I was just so happy. I was so happy for him because I knew his track record and knew the road he had traveled, to see him work so hard in that one year,” Strong said. “He put it all together and got his name called by the New York Jets on draft day. It was like, wow. We had hit a spell there because we had not gotten many guys drafted from Louisville. For him, once his name was called, his confidence really took off.”
Powell wouldn’t have to wait long until he was tested. He appeared in just two games his rookie season, rushing for 21 yards on 13 carries. He assumed the No. 2 back duties in 2012, spelling Shonn Greene while rushing for 437 yards and four touchdowns. Splitting time with Chris Ivory in 2013, Powell rushed for 697 yards and added 36 receptions.
But the Jets singed Chris Johnson before the 2014 season and Powell carried the rock only 59 times in Year 4. He got used a little bit more in his fifth campaign, averaging 4.5 yards on his 70 attempts.
“It’s been a teaching experience for me,” Powell said. “You have to sometimes just have patience and you have to take advantage of every opportunity because you never know when the opportunity will be taken away from you.”
After veteran Matt Forté was slowed by a knee injury last December, Powell became the Jets’ No. 1 option out of the backfield. Over the final four games, Powell averaged 5.0 yards on his 82 carries and 6.7 yards on his 21 receptions. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark in wins of San Francisco (145) and Buffalo (122), finding daylight behind an offensive line that lost four starters during the regular season.
“He showed me a lot running the ball from a toughness standpoint and making the team and the offense tougher,” said head coach Todd Bowles. “Especially running with four offensive linemen hurt, he showed his toughness, his quickness and his resiliency, which showed me a lot about him.”
Powell, who set a personnel best with 1,100 yards from scrimmage and Forté (1,076) were the league’s only RB pair to each record 1,000 scrimmage yards.
“I knew he was tough and a good complementary back,” said Bowles of Powell. “He showed me that he could be the guy."
If there was a signature moment in Powell’s sixth professional season, it was his game-winning touchdown run vs. the 49ers in Week 13. With the game tied at 17 in overtime, the Jets were already in field goal range. Facing a third-and-3, Powell took a shotgun handoff from Bryce Petty and darted left before picking a hole and turning upfield. He broke an arm tackle at the 22 and then zoomed into the end zone with a sudden burst.
Game over. Bowles said Powell did “everything” in the gutsy effort.
After Powell briefly laid down in the end zone in snow angel fashion, he got up and looked up for a kid in the stands and he handed him the football.
“Sometimes we all need a little spark,” Powell said. “Even as an adult, you need a little spark. And I think your spark is a little bigger when you are a little kid and you got this guy handing you a game-winning football with fans going crazy around you.”
Powell has come a long way since the craziness that surrounded him in Lakeland, FL as a young boy. Now with a young son of his own, Powell is going to make sure he is present.
“I needed him. You know when he was battling going in and out of jail — I needed him. Still to this day I need my daddy,” he said. “But I’m not going to allow that to affect the way I raise my son. And everything that I wanted from my dad, I’m trying to give to my son on every level.”
Powell and Jessica have a son and a daughter. Strong believes they will never be in position to want and Powell, who is guided by his faith, will be a light to lead the way.
“I think he’s going to be unbelievable just because of who he is. You think about as a father, what’s going to happen? He’s going to give them everything they want,” Strong said. “I know that’s what’s going to happen because he’s going to say, ‘Well I didn’t have that so you can have it.’ He will be the perfect role model for them. When you watch his kids grow up, they’ll be taught the right way and do the right things and that’s what we want to see.”
While we often like to view the world in terms of black and white, the reality is it is made up of grey. Life is a series of choices and people are not infallible. Bilal Powell’s early life was marked by darkness, but he saw a light and he never turned back. Blessed with great vision on the field, it took a while for Powell to see his opening in life.
“We bring up his name a lot of times to kids because there are a lot of kids that don’t come from the best situation. It’s one of the things we talk about at all the time,” said Lake Gibson head coach Doug DeMyer. “It’s up to you as a kid and a person to be able to get your grades and do the right things in the hallways and the community. I know some kids have it tougher than others, but if you want to, the opportunity to do the right thing is always there.”
Just like Powell proved on that memorable kickoff return vs. Kathleen, you can change directions and still find the end zone. He provides hope for many talented kids who might be going down the wrong path.
“I’m excited that we can have somebody like that. Just for him to show up, hang out in the weight room like he did today and talk with the kids,” said Keith DeMyer. “When he comes in here and sits and talks to the team, that’s exciting to me because it proves to these kids that it doesn’t matter where you’re at now. If you have a dream, it can happen for you right there.”
The unassuming Powell has often been misunderstood. He has a laid-back demeanor and speaks lowly, often carrying his head down while thinking. But another part of his evolution has been the welcoming of others into his circle.
“I think I’m a lot more open. When I say that, I mean I was really like protective of myself because of how I grew up, and now it’s like not everyone’s against me,” he said. “So, it’s allowing me to open up to certain people and that was one of the things that I wasn’t used to doing.”
You have one life to live. You have to choose wisely. Which way do you want to live?
Looking for talent in his first year at USF, Strong is back recruiting Polk County and he has a question for a troubled high schooler.
“Do you know this guy? I want you to go look him up,” he said. “His name is Bilal Powell, he plays for the New York Jets. He’s from right there in Lakeland.”
By Eric Allen
Before Leonard Williams cleaned his locker out for a final time in 2016, Jets head coach Todd Bowles brought him into his office for an exit interview. The powerful, long-limbed defensive lineman was given something to ponder entering the offseason.
"He told me guys respond well to me, that I do things right and that he would want me to be a leader," Williams said. "He told me he couldn’t push it on me. He wanted me to be a leader, but at the same time he said, 'I can’t force you into it. It would have to be something that you want to do.'"
Williams is still a baby by NFL standards. He took a leap in Year 2 and earned a Pro Bowl invite after leading the Green & White with 7 sacks and 25 QB hits. He also finished second on the team with 86 tackles and his 11 TFL tied for second. Bowles told Williams his play never took a dip despite the team's struggles and he left the 23-year-old with a challenge moving ahead.
Embracing a change in mindset, Williams got to work. In an effort to better his mind and his body, Williams took leadership courses, participated in mixed martial arts classes and yoga, meditated and sought the advice of Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Curtis Martin.
"There's always room for improvement," Williams said.
Before Williams met his future girlfriend, Hailey Lott, at a college party, Williams met her father. A star defensive lineman at Southern California from 2012-14, Williams periodically had interaction with Ronnie Lott. One of the greatest defensive backs in NFL history, Lott was a four-time Super Bowl champion and eight-time first-team All-Pro who starred at USC and helped the Trojans to a share of the 1978 national championship.
"At SC, a lot of guys come back," he said. "Ronnie would sometimes come to our practices or to our meetings and talk to us."
But a mentoring relationship didn't truly forge until Williams met Lott's daughter. By chance, Hailey, a Loyola Marymount student, attended a luau party at USC and met a gentle giant.
"I ended up meeting Leo," Hailey said. "He approached me and what stood out to me was his confidence and his gentleness. He was really kind and confident and we slowly built our relationship from there."
Williams was anything but gentle on the field in college, averaging seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss in three Trojans seasons. The New York Jets were surprised when he was still available with the No. 6 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft and GM Mike Maccagnan was elated to get that kind of value with his first pick as the team's general manager. He didn't disappoint in his first two pro seasons and last year Williams became the youngest player (22 years, 192 days) among 56 Jets and Titans to be awarded team MVP.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Williams attended the Ascension Leadership Academy in San Diego over the course of five weekends this offseason.
"It's really like self-development," he said. "I had to figure out what I wanted and how I wanted to be great. I had to figure out the ways I wanted to be and I think by doing that, I can have others do the same."
Keeping an open mind has become a trademark for Williams. He was initially closed off to the ideas of yoga and meditation, but Hailey made him see things in a different light.
"We start with meditation. By doing that, we set our mind and look inward and focus on our breath and find where our mind is at," he said. "Focus on our thoughts, try to clear our head and try to set intentions on what we need."
A life enthusiast, Hailey is both a meditation teacher and yoga instructor.
"There are so many different types of meditation and the one type I love is visualization," she said. "And I also think that's one of the best meditations to do as an athlete... For Leo, maybe it's getting that sack in the game and picturing him tackling whomever that is that week. We think about it, talk about it and we focus on our breath a lot."
As Hailey says, people can get controlled by their thoughts. Meditation allows Williams to take a step back and see his thoughts for what they are.
"Before yoga, sometimes I'll have all these racing thoughts in my head," he said. "Yoga and meditation really help you just be in the present moment and be where you're at today."
One of the things Ronnie Lott learned at SC was if you are a Trojan, then you are a Trojan for life. Williams is a fellow SC alum, but the special bond that Leo and Hailey share drew the legendary safety even closer to a young defender who seemingly has a limitless ceiling.
"You always want to pass on what was important to people who you think can be great and I believe he can be," Lott said of Williams. "There are a lot of times we think we know it's in his heart, but he has to exhibit that every day. One of the great things for him is that he gets to exhaust every moment."
The third commonality between Williams and Lott is the Jets. While Williams is starting his career with the Green & White, Lott's final 31 career games came with New York’s AFC representative in 1993-94.
"One of the things you realize is when you put on that uniform — especially that Jets uniform — there are certain criteria that you have to have within yourself of what you want to be and what you want," Lott said. "I think Leonard has a chance of setting a new standard. He should want to be better than any defensive tackle in the league. That's what you want, that's what you strive for. His expectations should be that high and he should not want anything other than being the best and what I mean by being the best, the best ever."
The 58-year-old Lott was the No. 8 overall selection by the 49ers in the 1981 NFL Draft. In 14 seasons, the 10-time Pro Bowler collected 72 interceptions including 9 in the postseason. Not known to be the most gifted athlete, Lott prided himself on his effort and toughness. He was a devastating hitter who played like a linebacker in the back end.
"I think that he just sees Leo as somebody he can help," Hailey said. "My dad loves to help people in any way he can and my dad and Leo have so many similar situations like getting to the NFL so young. Just going through that process can be tough and I think my dad is just happy to give any guidance he can."
Lott's guidance can extend beyond football. He is a valuable resource to Williams whenever the latter needs to bounce something off of him.
"He knows what he's doing, he's been through it before and he always gives me great advice," Williams said. "You know if I'm struggling with something in life or in football or in relationships with family, anything, he's here for me and it's really great."
Since Williams and Hailey maintained a long-distance relationship during the season, he devoted most of his offseason free time to joining Haley in Northern California. For workouts in the area, Lott suggested trainer Tareq Azim and the Empower program.
"Curtis Martin actually told me that if he could go back and change one thing about his career, it would be that we would do more MMA, boxing-style stuff while he was playing," Williams said. "I talked to him about me training with Tareq and he told me that starting early will be very beneficial for me."
The customized Empower program is designed for people to break through mental and physical barriers. Instead of rest between sets, Williams might be doing jumping jacks, bear crawls or planks.
"Our workouts are primarily based upon what we can do with just our body weight because that is what Leonard uses on the field," Azim said. "So we'll push our workouts to know there is no count, there is no time limit, there is no nothing. Everything goes until you can't go anymore and that's where I feel these guys start to wake up."
Azim suggests that people have only seen 10 percent of what Williams is capable of doing and the best is certainly yet to come.
"The beautiful thing about Leonard is his level of humility, understanding what he's capable of doing as a physical specimen and as a mental specimen," Azim said. "To still be here and to be a student of the fundamentals is what I think separates him from anyone else I've ever coached."
Lott acknowledges that not everyone can master being in a leadership role at 23. He contends that a lot of people are afraid to smell greatness, but Williams took a number of steps this offseason to allow him to understand his purpose in life and get the most out of himself.
"Leadership is bringing all that you got, bringing all that you are and I think this is where I believe he can do that," Lott said. "He can control that and the next step is for him then to encourage others to see if they can explore being their best and trying to get the most out of themselves."