Coming off the sidelines Jerrol Williams: First start in three years looms for the Ravens linebacker, who's healthy again after a one-year layoff.

September 27, 1996|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Jerrol Williams laughs as he recounts his old football wounds.

Five times over his seven-year NFL career, Williams has gone under a surgeon's knife. Arthroscopic procedures have repaired his left elbow twice. Then came his separated left shoulder, his broken right wrist and his fractured right foot, which still contains a three-inch pin.

"Airports, beware when I come through," said Williams, 29. "I've got plenty of scars, and I'm still young. I'm a Renaissance man."

Williams, 29, scars and all, is also the oldest linebacker among the five healthy Ravens who play the position. And heading into Sunday's game against the visiting New Orleans Saints, he might be the healthiest.

With weakside linebacker Mike Caldwell out with a knee injury for the next month, Williams moves in to start in his place. That will mark Williams' first start since 1993, the year after he left the Pittsburgh Steelers -- who drafted him in 1989 -- to sign with San Diego as a free agent. It was also the year he suffered the shoulder and foot injuries that put him on the Chargers' injured reserve list after he started five games.

Those injuries started Williams on a downward spiral of luck that culminated with his release by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994 and a broken wrist in the summer of 1995 with the Green Bay Packers, who cut him late in training camp.

Worn down physically and mentally, Williams retreated to his home in Las Vegas, where he spent the rest of 1995 away from football and involved with his salon business and newborn son.

"I got on with my life, hardly even watched any football," Williams said. "'I got more involved with diapers, bottles, everything I could do with my son. It kept my mind off my injury. It wasn't hard to have a lot of diversions from football. I just happened to stay in shape."

This past spring, the Ravens, who were thinking about cutting Pepper Johnson and looking to replace him with a proven veteran, called on Williams for a workout. Soon after that, Williams signed and was shaking off the rust in another training camp.

Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who coached Williams with the Steelers in 1992, remembers how quickly Williams convinced him of his serious intentions to return to the game.

"He told me he wanted to play, and that's all I needed to hear," Lewis said. "Jerrol has never told me he wanted to do something without following through on it. He's dependable. He knows this is a business. That's what we were looking for, a guy who was hungry. Just because he was out of work doesn't mean he can't add something to you."

Rookie middle linebacker Ray Lewis said he constantly learns something from Williams, who made his mark first as a pass-rushing specialist with Pittsburgh, then matured into an every-down performer in his fourth season in 1992, when he started every game for the Steelers. Pittsburgh was beginning to round into Super Bowl contention when Williams tested the free-agent market and left for San Diego.

In Williams, Lewis sees a guy with the scars to prove his mettle, and the knowledge to pass on to younger players what to expect in the NFL, and how to make the adjustments that prolong your career.

"Me and JW have a great relationship," Ray Lewis said. "He motivates me. He says, 'C'mon, super-rook,' and I'll say, 'C'mon, old man, teach me something.'

"I always see him leaving here last. He's always working on this part or that part of his body. He's at that age where you have to keep yourself going at all times. It's just dedication. It's a good thing for a young man like me to be around somebody like that."

Football savvy aside, the second time around has been quite a challenge physically for Williams. He stands 6 feet 4 and says the vegetarian lifestyle he adopted three years ago has left him with a 230-pound frame that has more muscle and lower fat content than when he was selected in the fourth round out of Purdue.

Then again, playing football at the highest level puts inordinate pressure on the best-conditioned bodies, a fact that Williams relearned while readjusting to the two-a-day practices in training camp.

"I've come back so many times [from injuries]. Anytime you get cut on, there's that much more preparation time, healing time and maintenance to worry about," Williams said. "In training camp, you don't get a chance to let the hurts rest. Once I get through those two-a-days, I know I can make it through the season.

"But I'm still having an affair with the ice tub."

Marvin Lewis admires Williams' businesslike approach, his ability make corrections on his own, from play to play. And Williams has a feel for business off the field. Along with his father and sister, he co-owns a full-service beauty salon in Las Vegas. Although he has yet to obtain a license and thus cannot work in his own shop, Williams has been cutting hair on the side since the 10th grade. A group of Steelers used to stop by his house for a discount cut.

For now, Williams is concentrating on cutting down opposing quarterbacks and ball carriers. He started the season as a third-down specialist -- Williams has nine tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble and leads the team with four special teams tackles -- but the Ravens are counting on him to shore up a defensive area that could use a few big plays to go with his experience.

"Jerrol kind of keeps to himself, but he's always learning," Marvin Lewis said. "Early in camp, he was trying so hard that he made more mistakes. He was trying to make the spectacular play too much, instead of just making his play. He's come around, and we're going to be better for it."

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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