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The Man Who Can’t Be Blocked: How Connor Williams Overcame Bullying

The Man Who Can’t Be Blocked: How Connor Williams Overcame Bullying

Culture

connor williams bullying

Connor Williams didn’t grow up thinking he’d be a second round choice of the Dallas Cowboys. He didn’t want to be anything at all. The bullying made his life miserable and he was pushed to a breaking point. Instead of breaking, he got stronger. He transformed himself into an absolute beast on the football team. Here’s how Connor Williams went from the kid afraid to speak up to the man everyone is looking up to.

A Horrible Beginning

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the second-most likely cause of death for individuals 15-to-24 years of age. Ahead of homicide. Ahead of cancer. Ahead of heart diseases and alcohol/drug abuse. And the issues surrounding mental health are only intensifying, especially in sports.

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The stats for bullying are just as alarming, with between 25 and 33 percent of U.S. students reporting that they have been bullied while in school. At one point, Connor Williams, a 6-foot 5-inch 310-pound NFL lineman, was part of this horrible stat. He was bullied, tormented, and harassed. It was physical, it was mental, and it was constant. It nearly took everything away from him, too.

Everything is Bigger in Texas

“Honestly, I don’t know how I could have accomplished what I have so far without your teasing, without your isolation, without your rumor-mongering, your harassment, your beatings, your constant torment” – Connor Williams, 2018 second round pick of the Dallas Cowboys.

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Everything is bigger in Texas, just ask Connor Williams. He grew up with a big personality and an even bigger body, and those things created some big problems that nearly pushed him to the edge. Problems that nearly ruined his life before it every really began. It started when Connor was just a kid and continued until high school. They didn’t seem to ever solve themselves, and Connor was unsure if he’d ever be able to escape them.

Life in Coppell

“I never hurt myself, and I never really heard about kids cutting themselves and things like that until about my senior year in high school. I didn’t even know it was out there. If I knew it was out there, I might have resorted to that. I can see how kids get to that point,” Williams told Bleacher Report.

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With a population of about 40,000 people, Coppell, Texas, is a quintessential suburban town. Sprawling houses, cul de sacs, and green grass. It’s pretty much the American Dream.  Situated about two hours from Dallas, Coppell consistently ranks as one of the top places to live in Texas. Unless you’re Connor Williams. For him, Coppell was a nightmare that trapped and tortured him. For him, Coppell was the antithesis of a dream — a dead end.

Brotherly Love

Just like there is no escaping the oppressive humidity in the Texas come summer, there was no escaping the misery that surrounded Connor day after day, night after night. One could say that Williams grew up in a rather sheltered environment.

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He lived in a nice house in a nice suburb. He had a nuclear family that loved sports as much as they loved him. His older brother, Dalton, was a star high school star quarterback who then became a record-breaking Division I quarterback at the University of Akron.

Connor, although seven years Dalton’s junior, idolized him and wanted to emulate his every move. The problem was he couldn’t.

Bigger Than Most

He would never be the star quarterback for his high school, a position coveted in Texas like no other, a position that makes rock stars out of 11th and 12th graders. He would never be the kid that people filled up stadiums on Friday nights to watch. For a point in his life, Connor Williams didn’t even want to exist, let alone be the center of attention.

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“I stuttered, stammered, and plain messed up any sound I attempted to push out of my mouth,” Williams once wrote in an essay. At first sight, Williams appeared to be your average kid, albeit a bit bigger than most of his peers.

Stuttering Speech

When he opened his mouth, something didn’t seem “normal.” The words and sounds awkwardly spilled out. The sounds were funny, the words illogical. He had a speech impediment, and it made school absolutely horrible for him. Actually, school was the worst for him.

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Nothing compared to the torment he had to suffer through Monday through Friday. It was a harsh environment filled with bullies who never spared a moment to laugh and poke fun at the overweight, funny-sounding Williams. As if public speaking isn’t already hard enough, having a speech impediment and being forced to speak in front of a class full of bullies can be an almost insurmountable task.

Class Clown

They howled and pointed at him relentlessly. Made him the focal point of their cruel humor. “My speech impediment made me self-conscious about how i was viewed in public places like school. It turned me into a class clown. I just wanted to make you laugh, thinking that if I did, you would like me.”

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They didn’t. They didn’t laugh with him, just at him. All he wanted to do was fit it, but Connor Williams couldn’t help but stand out. To compound his problems in school, Williams was overweight. He was born big, but that didn’t make it any easier.

Endless Bullying

No matter what grade, Williams was always the biggest, and his classmates reminded him of that daily. “I remember putting a belt around my stomach and pulling it tight like a girdle,” he wrote. For Williams, dressing for school was simple. It would either be a “big, puffy Texas jacket that hid everything, or a football jersey with a shirt underneath.”

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He wanted to hide his weight and hide himself of the harsh reality that consumed him day after day. On the athletic fields at recess, where kids are supposed to escape school, even for just a few moments, life for Williams wasn’t any easier.

Mr. Irrelevant

Taken last every day during the recess football games, Williams was humiliated and even more isolated than before. With each passing pick, the pressure and embarrassment continued to rise. When would they say his name? When would he finally be taken?

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“You said I couldn’t contribute and told me I couldn’t play,” Williams recalls in an essay he penned. “So I just watched. I watched and I watched until I stopped watching altogether.” The torment didn’t die on the athletic fields during lunch break. It wasn’t confined to the hallways in between classes. At lunch, Williams would rush to sit at a table before it filled up.

Left out of Lunch

With only seven spots available per table, it was first come, first serve, and Williams would arrive either first or second. However, the tables would fill up to eight kids, and the principle would come by telling the students that someone had to get up and find a new place to sit.

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That someone was Connor. The pattern repeated itself daily, resulting with Williams, despite being early to lunch, being forced to move and find a new spot. Eventually he found solace in the library.  Although he was still alone, he couldn’t be seen or picked on. The books were harmless, a silent ally he desperately needed.

Tipping Point

Back in the fifth grade, a 160-pound Williams had only one channel to blow off some steam- wrestling. His brother Dalton, then in the 12th grade, was on the high school wrestling team, and on occasion, the younger Connor would be allowed to roll around with the high schoolers, none of whom were able to pin him.

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That was a last resort, however, and it didn’t alleviate any of the pain Connor felt while in school. It was like putting a band-aid on a wound needing stitches. Williams began to grow frustrated with his circumstances. He was approaching a breaking point and needed to change.

Flipping the Script

Rather than try to make friends with the same kids who continuously spurned him day after day, Williams decided to isolate himself. Instead of waiting to get picked for the football team, he walked the track, alone. Each lap a brutal reminder of how much he hated his life.

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While his brother starred for the high school football team, Williams avoided the game altogether, opting to endlessly loop the school track.

“By the time I reached seventh grade, I had had enough of you and your bullying,” Williams wrote. “I approached dad and said, ‘I don’t want to be like this anymore.’ For years, he was waiting for me to say those words. He had always told me that if I ever wanted to change he would help, but he knew he couldn’t force me. He let me come to that conclusion on my own.”

Tough Love

See, Williams’ parents, Jimmy and Debbie, found themselves in a precarious situation. On one hand, they wanted to protect their child and shield him from the pain he experienced. It was instinctual. On the other hand, they had to let him see and experience the real-world and fight his own battles.

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They had to let him be independent and, only as a last resort, would they intervene on his behalf, like the time they had to pick him up in the middle of the night after a sleepover went horribly wrong. Some would call it tough love, the Williams’ called it practical.

Enough is Enough

But Connor had enough. If he fought his bullies in school, he ended up in the principal’s office. Even though he was defending himself, he was larger and more intimidating, and the responsibility to refrain from fighting fell squarely on his large shoulders. If he decided to avoid fighting, the tormenting would never stop.

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He was stuck, so to speak, between a rock and a hard place, and he’d have to fight and claw his way out of it while he still had time. So Connor went to his dad and told him he was ready to transform his body and his life. He wanted to erase any semblance of his former self.

Total Transformation

He was ready to totally reinvent who he was, both physically and mentally. He would use the motivation from the bullies to bulk up and fill into his natural size. When he debated working out or doing that final set, he would envision the bullies mouthing the word “fatty” to him, an image that would forever be burned in his mind.

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Connor’s dad converted the garage into a full-scale gym equipped with weights, chin-up bars, and a television that showed only one thing, a P90X workout program. Connor’s journey towards relief and happiness began in his garage at 5:30 in the morning, every single day.

Early Bird Gets the Worm

“We committed to waking up at 5:30 every morning and going down to the garage to train together…I started going to the YMCA, too, running and lifting every other day. I joined a youth basketball league to work on my footwork and cardio.”

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The results were staggering.  His once rotund frame start to fill in with more muscle and less fat. His self-confidence shot through the roof. In the eighth grade he was invited to his first birthday party. It was one of the first times he remembers fitting in with people. Just as he finally started to fit in, Connor would again start to stand out, but this time for all of the right reasons.

Putting on the Pads

In high school, Connor decided to join the football team, partly because he grew up in Texas where football is almost like a second religion that is worshiped on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays (high school, college, NFL) and partly because he idolized his brother and wanted to follow in his footsteps.

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He also wanted to continue his training and stay fit, and there’s no better way to do that then running and working out with pads in the unrelenting Texas sun. Joining the football team, turned out, was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. In sports, you are judged on performance and how you help your team win. Not speech impediments. Not weight.

Big Man on Campus

Initially, Connor started out as a tight end. Late during his sophomore year, the starting varsity tackle went down with injury and Williams filled in admirably. He would never play another position. He found his role on the team and would not be slowed down, stopped, or dissuaded. Connor Williams would never relinquish his starting role.

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By his junior year, the now-converted offensive lineman had 38 scholarship offers from some of the biggest football programs across the country. In a matter of years, Williams went from being unable to watch football to a man who could potentially make millions playing it.

Burnt Orange Dreams

Still shy and not a vocal leader, Williams had his “a-ha” moment laying on his back in full pads. He wasn’t taking a rest or soaking up the sun. He was lying on his back because Solomon Thomas, the third overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, had just blown him up.

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It was power and size versus size and power. A titanic clash on the practice fields that showed Williams two things. He was capable of being a star one day, but he still had a lot of work to put in.

As the scholarship offers continued to pour in, Williams waited for one in particular. “Every Texas kid dreams of putting on the burnt orange uniform,” Williams wrote, “and now this had become my reality.”

Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds

Considered just a three-star recruit, Williams used this as motivation. Nothing would slow him down. Nothing would stand in his way, and nothing could ever bring him back to the pain and agony he suffered for all those years before he found football.

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After signing his letter of intent to play at Texas, the same kids who bullied Connor extended a hand and tried to be his friend. The kids who sat idly as Connor was picked on also wanted to get in on the action and claim him, the town’s biggest celebrity, as their friend.  “I went from being the chubby kid no one wanted to be around,” he recalls, “to the cool kid on campus who needed to add weight. (How’s that for irony?) And all of you suddenly wanted to be my friend.”

Moving Forward, Not Forgetting

But Williams didn’t forget. He didn’t forget the pain he was subjected to. “I remember thinking, ‘Where were y’all when I was going through my pain? I don’t need you now.’ You were the kids who tormented me growing up and now wanted to be my friend. But with my new confidence (and new body), I was good by myself. I didn’t need you.”

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Williams’ Texas career got off to a great start, and he was named a freshman All-American following his first year blocking for the Longhorns (2015). It was a nice nod but nowhere near where Williams wanted to be. Not even close.

Trouble in Texas

He had sky-high expectations and was still very hungry to prove himself worthy of wearing the famous burnt orange. After his sophomore season (2016), Williams was named a first-team All-American. It was just the fourth time in Longhorns history that a sophomore received the honor. He was also a first-team All-Big 12.

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NFL teams put Williams in their sights as a potential top pick. Scouts filled the stadiums to watch him. He was primed for a big junior year, a year that, if all went well, could land Connor Williams in the top-five of the NFL Draft. But football is a dangerous sports, and one’s fortunes can change in an instant.

Adversity Strikes

Facing adversity is now in his DNA. It’s a part of him that cannot be removed, nor would he ever want it to. During his junior year, Williams suffered a knee injury. He missed significant time while he recovered, and when he returned to the field, he looked rusty.

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Scouts weren’t sold on Williams just yet. His junior year was somewhat a reversal of fortune. No longer was he slated to be a top pick in the draft. Some analysts even believed he would benefit the most by returning to Texas for his senior year, one final chance to prove to scouts what he’s really made of.

An NFL Talent

Despite the concerns and criticisms, Williams declared for the NFL Draft. When he declared, he instantly became one of the more polarizing players in the draft. Some analysts projected him to be a lock for the first round, while others, citing a disappointing junior year, projected him to fall to the third or fourth rounds.

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NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein noted that “Williams seemed to lose some lateral quickness and had troubles holding up at a high level in protection. A move to guard or center is a possibility depending on how his arm length measures out. Williams is a plus run blocker with plug-and-play technique across the board. If he regains his 2016 form, he will be a good NFL starter.”

Thank You, Bullies

NFL scout Chris Trapasso had this to say about Williams: “Mean streak in the run game is noticeable, and his athleticism helps him there too…Could dominate at guard.” The bullying, Williams writes, “built me in ways unimaginable. I am thankful I was the kid being bullied, and not the bully.”

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What Williams doesn’t want, as he tells his story to the world, is sympathy. “What you have done for me can never be repaid,” he says. “While I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, I most certainly wouldn’t be in the position I am without you.”

“If your torment was something I had to go through to be where I’m now, then it was all worth it,” he explains. It certainly was.

Hometown Hero

Taken 50th overall by his hometown Dallas Cowboys in the 2018 NFL Draft, Williams still has a lot to prove. His head coach at the University of Texas, Tom Herman, said Williams has “maybe the quickest feet of any offensive lineman I’ve been around” (SportsDay).

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Williams’ future looks incredibly bright. Despite falling to the second round in the draft, Williams remains optimistic, and even though he waited the entire first round in the green room without hearing his name called, he understands that event was just another stepping stone in his long journey towards personal happiness and success. Just another test for him to pass.

Football as an Afterthought

“Back in the green room things didn’t go according to plan the first night. I mean what I’ve been talking about all week is telling my story as a kid, and talking about my adversity and telling about how adversity comes in all shapes and sizes, and I mean adversity hit last night and I’m glad to see it live and glad to see how I respond to it,” he told the NFL Network.

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However, Williams isn’t focused exclusively on football. It’s actually his life off the gridiron that matters most to him. It’s his life off the field where he believes he can have the biggest impact. He is using his newfound celebrity as a platform to promote his life’s story.

A Helping Hand

He hopes that by sharing what happened to him, others can avoid going through the same traumas. “I need to be able to speak up and say something for kids that are hurting. For it to make anybody’s experience less traumatic, I’m willing to speak up all day,” Williams told SportsDay.

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Despite it all, Williams is perfectly content with how his childhood went. In fact, he considers himself rather lucky. “I wouldn’t trade what happened to me for anything,” he said to Bleacher Report. “It made me who I am today.”

Williams has remained grounded, humbled even, as he transitions from college star to professional football player, and his journey and upbringing played no small part in Connor’s ability to excel.

Tackling What Matters

He doesn’t, however, forget what happened to him and how he can, by sharing his story, greatly affect the lives of others. “It’s been incredible,” Williams said to SportsDay. “It’s been more than I imagined. So many people are reaching out to me on all platforms, thanking me for my bravery to be able to speak out about it.”

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“They shared similar experiences, and even parents had been able to tell that story  to their kids and that it provided at least some kind of comfort. It’s something I couldn’t even imagine. It’s been such a rewarding thing.”

Connor Williams, a man who can block the best of the best in the NFL while tackling one of the biggest issues in America today- bullying and mental health.

A Final Thank You

As a closing statement in his essay, Williams thanks the bullies one final time for helping him become the man he is today. “You taught me about humility. You taught me about the importance of family and real friendship. You taught me what it means to care about people and treat others with respect.”

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“You taught me about how hard work pays big dividends.”

“You taught me the proper way to positively channel my anger.”

“You taught me that being alone doesn’t mean you have to be lonely.”

“You taught me to be hyper-critical of myself, to be my own worst critic, and to never be satisfied.”

Thank you Connor Williams for continuing to share your story, because without guys like you, the problems you faced will always remain problems.

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