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When Cary Williams walked into the locker room following Thursday night's preseason game, he felt exhausted and elated at the same time. He felt amazing.
Williams stripped off his wet pads, turned around and was immediately surrounded by five reporters – an uncommon occurrence for the Ravens' second-year cornerback. He had about 40 congratulatory text messages waiting for him on his phone.
Williams just had the game of his professional career in which he made an interception, end zone pass deflection and a ball-ejecting, helmet-flying hit.
Across the hall in the postgame press conference, Head Coach John Harbaugh told reporters Williams played with "great discipline," called him "one heck of a player," and said he couldn't wait to see the game tape.
It was the moment Williams had been pining for his entire life. He finally got his chance, finally got some recognition.
"I don't need the pat on the back because it won't stop me from working hard," Williams said. "But it's cool to get it once in a while. I haven't had it in so long that to finally get it, it feels pretty good. I just want to build on that."
There's been a trend over Williams' 25 years of life. Each time he starts to step into the spotlight, something derails him.
Growing up in Hollywood, Fla., Williams' childhood didn't set him up for the stardom he dreamed of. But Williams also made his fair share of mistakes.
Through it all, Williams has tirelessly worked for a chance to showcase his abilities. Partly because of the Ravens' onslaught of injuries in the secondary, he's finally got it. Now it's a question of whether Williams is mature enough to handle it.
"It was a long road, but I never had a give-up mentality," Williams said. "There's still a long way to go and I'm getting there."
Williams' upbringing was difficult to say the least. His mother was schizophrenic, according to Williams, and bounced in and out of mental institutions. Williams only occasionally visited her.
He added that his father was physically abusive, but was still a part of his life even after Williams moved in with his then-25-year-old cousin when he was 11 years old.
Williams still excelled on the field, but at the demands of his father, bounced around between three different high schools, which scared off big-time college recruiters such as Miami and North Carolina State. Williams was left only with an offer from Fordham (Bronx, N.Y.).
Angry about his lost opportunities, Williams didn't take the right mindset to Fordham. He felt he was good enough to be an immediate starter and was frustrated with a perceived lack of playing time.
"I went to the coach and said, 'Why am I not playing on the field?'" Williams said. "I'm going to be in the NFL in a couple years, so why am I not even playing here? This school ain't even known for football.'"
Williams had been previously suspended twice for similar outbursts. This time Fordham's coaches kicked him off the team and revoked his scholarship.
"I had that arrogance to me," Williams said. "I didn't understand that I need to wait my turn. When push came to shove, I was being disrespectful and I was saying things that I truly regret."
Williams didn't have the money to pay for college, so he dropped out of school and took a job as a telemarketer at DirecTV. He worked overtime all while searching for a way back into football.
After a year off, he got a second chance at Washburn College, a tiny Division II school in Topeka, Kansas. Williams brought a couple bags to Topeka and never left town until he reached his NFL goal. He devoted himself to hard work and football only. Perhaps just as important, Williams began to become a man.
"Through his upbringing, I don't think he trusted many people," said Washburn Head Coach Craig Schurig said. "He started to trust coaches and teammates here. He discovered it was better to work with them than against them. I think he was misunderstood at Fordham. He's very motivated and people sometimes see that as having a chip on his shoulder."
If he was going to reach the NFL, Williams had to dominate at the Div. II level. In one game he caught a touchdown pass, returned a kickoff for a touchdown and broke-up what would have been a game-winning score.
When Williams participated at Washburn's pro day, only one NFL scout was in attendance. But when the University of Kansas allowed him to take part in its pro day, Williams excelled on a stage in front of most NFL teams. His name was called by the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round of the 2008 Draft.
Williams had finally reached the NFL, but he again had to battle to be seen. Williams was cut three times before being signed by the Ravens after starting cornerback Fabian Washington suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in November.
"It was kind of difficult to get over because I felt I was good enough to play on Sundays," Williams said. "I think coming [to Baltimore] was the best career move as far as me being able to play more and for them to see what I've got."
Williams saw action in five games last year, mainly on special teams. He got one start at cornerback, but only played a few snaps there.
The Ravens like Williams' potential. He's got ideal size (6-1, 182) with a huge wingspan, good speed and great hands. The only problem was that he is simply inexperienced.
But with Washington and Lardarius Webb out during organized team activities, then Domonique Foxworth going down at the start of training camp, Washington has found himself in position to fight for a cornerback spot.
Then as usual, just as everything was going well, Williams hit another pothole. In late July, news broke that Williams was suspended for two games without pay for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. The infraction happened a year ago when Williams was with the Titans.
"It's something I'm not proud of," Williams said. "It was a situation where I made the wrong decision. There are rules in place and we as NFL players have to abide by those rules. I feel sorry I didn't. There's a consequence I have to deal with and I'm going to continue to deal with that as a man and use it as a stepping stone in my life."
Harbaugh echoed those sentiments.
"It's going to be damaging to us and to him, but he's got to move on from it," Harbaugh said. "I think he's matured quite a bit from even the time he's been here with us, so we'll see how it goes."
Games like Thursday's help cleanse Williams' mistakes. Asked if he was indeed more mature now, ready to be an NFL prospect, the now soft-spoken Williams flashed a smile.
"I'm past that [maturity] stuff," Williams said. "I think I'm ready to break out mentally. I'm ready to break out physically. I feel very prepared and I relish the moment that I'll one day get to go out there and shine."