MSU head coach Mark Dantonio praises his football team's leadership, chemistry and deep talent. Dale G. Young, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Each year throughout preseason camp, Michigan State’s seniors get a chance to address the entire team.
Every one of them, at some point, will give their “senior speech.”
Some are funny, some are serious. All are a chance for the player to talk about what their experience has meant to them as they attempt to impart some wisdom on their younger teammates and help them, as a group, appreciate what they’re all going through.
In the early days of this season’s camp, it was wide receiver Felton Davis’ turn. The 6-foot-4 budding star is entering his final year with high hopes of improving on last season’s breakout performance when he caught nine touchdown passes and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. For him, the next step is almost certainly the NFL.
But during his speech, Davis focused not on his future. Instead, it was about his hero. To him, that hero is teammate Raequan Williams.
“Ray has been my roommate so there’s a little more of a deeper bond,” Davis explained.
Davis, Williams and redshirt junior wide receiver Darrell Stewart have been tight since they arrived on campus in the summer of 2015. They didn’t know each other beforehand — Williams being from the west side of Chicago, Stewart from Houston and Davis, a native of Richmond, Virginia.
There was no history, but their bond grew quickly.
It’s that close friendship that helped Williams deal with the death of two of his brothers — Antonio Pollards and Corey Hill. Both were victims of gun violence in Chicago — Pollards during Williams’ freshman year and Hill toward the end of Williams’ second year at Michigan State.
“To me and Darrell that was also like losing a brother,” Davis said. “It was something that stung. Being we’re so close it’s something different when you have that brotherhood with a teammate. It’s a different type of hurt.”
The times were tough, all three admit. However, instead of letting it get him down, Williams has used it as a spark, a “wake-up” call as he said.
He started to understand how quickly things could change, how fragile life can be. It’s something he saw every day growing up in his neighborhood full of abandoned houses and potential trouble seemingly around every corner.
Williams decided somewhere in the midst of his despair that he would be different. Not just for making it on his own, but for the difference he hopes he can make down the road.
“Maybe losing my brothers gave me a big wake up,” Williams said. “There’s another kid that’s born into it tomorrow. So, it’s gonna keep recycling and I noticed that after a while and if I can help a little bit I’m gonna try, at least try. I just want to do it.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio sees the energy Williams has. He sees how the rest of the team gravitates toward the 300-pounder with the long dreadlocks and big smile.
“Players love him,” Dantonio said.
It was enough for Dantonio to predict that someday Williams could be the mayor of Chicago.
Williams laughs when he hears that now, but he’s not shying from the possibility.
“Maybe one day. I would enjoy that,” Williams said. “I would enjoy having a say in fixing up Chicago. It’s something I’m very passionate about.”
How might he do that?
“Just going back to the community and talking to the kids because they all want to be best they can be but some get easily distracted like I’ve seen. If I can save one life going back there, talking to them, just joking around with them, take them to get food, show them what hard work is, if I could just save one life that is an improvement to me.”
In the meantime, Williams continues to be a light for his teammates in East Lansing.
“He’s a great guy,” Stewart said. “He’s an amazing guy. You can count on him if you need anything. He is an outstanding guy and he’s always looking out for people. You can always depend on him to fight for you and persevere through anything and that’s why I love him so much. He’s my brother. I look at him like a family member.”
What makes Williams unique is that not only is he a vital part of the team’s chemistry — something Dantonio says is as good as he’s seen in 12 seasons — but he’s primed for a big season on the field. He’s started 16 straight games at nose tackle, including all 13 in 2017 while earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
And along with fellow junior Mike Panasiuk, Williams helps anchor a defense that finished No. 2 in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game last season.
“He will be a difference-maker because of experience,” defensive tackles coach Ron Burton said. “With his athleticism and now understanding the X’s and O’s part, he can be a dominant player and that’s what we’re looking for. With his skill set, his ability to run and his mental side of the game, we expect a lot out of him.”
Williams believes he can deliver on those expectations.
“I’m hoping for a big year,” he said. “I’m gonna play hard. I learned a lot the past two years and I’m ready to play now and go out and show what I can do.”
He’ll do it for himself. He’ll do it for his teammates. He’ll do it for his brothers.
Williams noted that the season-opener Aug. 31 against Utah State is Corey Hall’s birthday. His brother would have been 18.
“Expect a show,” Williams said.