The Ravens locker room, even on the quietest of days, is a churning, bubbling storm of music and voices. Most of the time, it feels as chaotic as a busy train station, as crowded and lively as a food market. A high-stakes game of bean bag toss in the middle of the room fuels perpetual shouting and arguing. Terrell Suggs' frequently leaves movies blaring on the Blu-ray player set up in his locker, but he ignores the dialogue to rib his teammates, or the media, with his booming voice. Terrence Cody has music thumping from his iPod speakers so frequently, his teammates dubbed the area surrounding his locker as "Patterson Park," and Cody responded by writing those words on a piece of athletic tape, then slapping it on the wall above his locker.
But in a corner of the room, in an area near the showers that is partially removed from the daily clamor of professional football, you can typically find cornerback Cary Williams sitting by himself, tapping away on his white iPhone. He's a happy person, but he doesn't smile a lot. It's taken him years to feel comfortable talking about himself. He isn't shy, but he doesn't open up to many people. The scars of his childhood healed a long time ago, but the memory of how he got them still occasionally lingers.
If you ask the right questions, though, Williams will tell you his life story. You have to lean in close to hear it, because the chaos of an NFL locker room doesn't pause, or quiet down, and offer up an environment that welcomes deep reflection. When Williams talks about how he arrived at this moment, how he became a starting cornerback on a playoff team that has a real chance to make it to the Super Bowl, it's not just a story about an late-round draft pick from a Division II school who defied the odds and became an unlikely NFL success story. It's also a gesture of faith. It requires a measure of vulnerability.
Because it's the most important story Cary Williams can ever tell.
'They're not existing anymore'
Liberty City — the Miami neighborhood where Williams was born and raised — is about as far removed from the glitz and glamour of South Beach as you can possible get. It's reputation as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the entire United States is well earned. Violent crime was the backdrop for much of Williams' childhood. Poverty and drugs were almost impossible to escape. People would argue in the streets, someone would get killed, a funeral would be held, and a few days later, the cycle would repeat itself. Gunshots were sprinkled throughout the soundtrack of Williams' childhood.
"People would get shot a lot," Williams said. "A lot of my teammates growing up, they're not existing anymore. They're dead."
Williams' father, Cary Williams Sr., was determined to do whatever it would take to keep his two sons alive, to keep them from joining a gang, but the burden was enormous. Both father and son agree on this much, even to this day. Williams' mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when her two sons were very young, and Williams estimates he and his younger brother Ronald lived with her for no more than 10 months throughout their lives. They would visit her every time she checked into a mental hospital, always hoping and praying that this time, someone would help her get better. Those prayers were never answered.
"Every time she'd have one of her spells, she'd go into the mental asylum," Williams said. "That was the majority of my life. We'd go to different mental asylums and see her when she wasn't in the best condition. I felt like I didn't have a mother to a degree, because we didn't have a mother-son relationship. I loved her, but we were never able to sit down and have a real conversation, a heart-to-heart. It hurts me every single day when I think about it."
Cary Williams Sr. will admit, right up front, that he struggled to keep his head above water as a single father. He was confused, overwhelmed, and occasionally angry. He was too proud, he says now, to ask for help. At some point, he told himself the most important thing he could do for his sons was keep them away from drugs, and keep them alive. He had been a high school track star growing up in Dade County in the 1970s, and Cary and his brother never tired of hearing the neighborhood urban legend about the day their father outran a car in a street race. Sports, Williams Sr. believed, provided the only chance he had.
"I wasn't a perfect parent, but I always put my sons first," Williams said. "Cary was such a competitive kid, even when he was 5-years old. I always had him play with kids older than him because you could just look at him and see he had that fire burning inside him."