How Detroit Lions RB Jamaal Williams is teaching kids to be themselves

Detroit Free Press

Jamaal Williams strutted off the Detroit Lions’ practice field with his pads in one hand and a clear bag full of anime memorabilia in the other.

The bag’s contents were gifts Williams collected from fans Tuesday shortly after Detroit’s practice concluded. Williams describes himself as a nerd, so much so that he’s told fans over the past few days that he’d happily trade anyone an autograph if they supplied any “Naruto” themed items in return.

Lions faithful heard Williams’ call to action and answered it. Practice ended around 10:30 a.m., but because of how many people showered the 27-year-old with his favorite memorabilia, Williams didn’t step off the field until an hour later.

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“If people bring anime stuff, I know they understand me as a person and they don’t just see me as a football player,” Williams said. “(If) you understand me as a person, you get more attention from me.”

Williams’ love for anime dates back to his childhood. It’s the reason for his nerd persona, and a reason why Williams said he was bullied growing up. Now, he’s determined to use his platform to help younger generations feel comfortable with being who they are.

If Williams, who ran for more than 600 yards last season, can enjoy animated action shows in his spare time, why can’t anyone else?

When he was in grade school in California, Williams remembers wearing backpacks way too big for him and sprinting through hallways with his arms held high behind his back — just as  some anime characters do. Of course, this drew laughs from his classmates at the time; some of his best friends even still tease him about it, but the laughs ceased after Williams started making a name for himself on the field.

“Well, if I wasn’t good at sports (growing up), I wouldn’t have friends,” Williams said with a laugh. “But I was good at sports. … so, they had to accept me for who I am.”

After rushing for a school-record 3,901 yards at BYU in 2016, Williams was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the fourth round of the 2017 draft. He played four seasons in Green Bay before signing a two-year deal with Detroit in May 2021. He’s averaged four yards a carry in his career and had three touchdowns last season to boost his career rushing total to 13.

“I literally can take anybody’s ankles,” Williams said. “I ain’t scared of nobody. Route running, running the ball, blocking… I have no problem having confidence in myself. Because I know what type of player I am and what type of work I put in. I ain’t scared of nothing. Look at my hair, man. Baby dreads, ugly face. I don’t care.”

As for his personal goals this season, Williams wants to cement himself as a leader. Throughout the Lions’ practice on Monday and Tuesday, he was spotted making sure teammates heads were up after they made mistakes. Additionally, he’s taking a page out his old high school coach’s book by delivering motivational speeches in team huddles.

“My coach always said, ‘Lock the gates for 60 minutes of controlled violence,'” Williams said. “I just (wanted to) let my team know I care. … When everybody on the team can believe in each other, trust one another and know that the person next to them is going to do their job, we’re gonna get stuff done.”

Williams left the Lions’ facility Tuesday with his mind set on decorating his man cave — which is actually just his living room — using the posters and action figures fans gave him.

Once he’s back at practice Wednesday, he’ll pivot back to being Detroit’s hype man. But, of course, when that’s over, he’ll look to fill his bag one more time.

“Bring me anime stuff, I’ll give you gloves and anything you want,” Williams said. “You’re my first priority.”

Chandler Engelbrecht is a reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press and can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ctengelbrecht.

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