For Raequan Williams, football isn’t all that different from life.
On the field, the hulking defensive tackle entering his fifth season at Michigan State knows his teammates are counting on him to do his job.
Stay in your gap. Know where your help is.
Those are defining characteristics for an interior lineman in the Spartans defense, and if Williams does what he needs to do, he’s got teammates that do their jobs, too, making them among the best in the nation. It takes a certain discipline that comes naturally for the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder, though Williams knows it’s something not everyone can relate to.
See, his discipline comes from something much bigger than a game. Doing his job while growing up in Chicago’s west side carried far greater consequences than a running back gaining a big chunk of yards. Fail to do what’s necessary where Williams is from and it could mean your life.
“Just in the sense of like, when you’re taking your brothers home from school and stuff like that,” Williams explained. “You have to get a certain job done. Like getting back home from going out to eat with your friends, you have to do a certain job and you gotta get home; you gotta get food for your family. I know it’s horrific, but those disciplines are what taught me that I gotta stay on my game. You know, I gotta help, I gotta make sure the running back doesn’t run to this left side or something like that.
“I’ve got to provide for my brothers and sisters and everybody so those type of jobs you have, that type of thing, you have to get done. That's what makes it easier for me to I know that I have to stay in my gap (on the field) or bad things happen.”
Bad things rarely happen for the Michigan State defense when Williams in on the field. He’s started 29 consecutive games for the Spartans and last season earned first-team All-Big Ten honors by the Associated Press as part of the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation. Entering his senior season, Williams has been named to the watch list for the Outland Trophy and is expected to be an early-round selection in next spring’s NFL Draft.
All of that, however, was never certain. Like most who grow up in the Garfield Park area of Chicago, no day is a guarantee. Danger lurks around every corner and gun violence is a daily occurrence. It, unfortunately, has played a big role in Williams’ life.
In January of 2016, during Williams’ freshman year at Michigan State, his cousin, Antonio Pollards, was shot and killed. A year-and-a-half later, in June of 2017, Williams’ brother, Corey Hill Jr., was also gunned down.
How did Williams make it through, even though he admitted he never really understood how to channel his anger and frustration until he got to Michigan State?
“I feel like you got to make the right moral decision every single day if you want to make it from where I came from,” he said. “Where I came from, you can just say yes to a situation and end up dead, so that is crazy.
“But how, honestly, I don't know. The more I think about it, the more I realize how I'm very blessed to make it from the place where I come from.”
What’s more remarkable is what Williams has blossomed into during his time in East Lansing. Always an engaging personality, Williams draws teammates and those around him closer.
Some call it leadership. Some might just say he’s a good guy. Whatever it is, people gravitate toward Williams.
“Raequan is one of those guys that you can tell is just a caring person,” defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “It doesn't matter if the person, if it's a freshman that just got on campus the day before or a random person that he passed on the street, he's going to take time to talk to people; he's going to take time to care for people. He’s always looking out for the underdog, the guy that needs help, the guy that is struggling. He always knows and he's always gonna do whatever he can to help.”
It’s not limited to his teammates, either.
When Williams was back in Chicago for Big Ten media days, he spent time at a boxing gym near his neighborhood talking with friends and seeing how they’re doing.
“I just went there to chop it up,” Williams said.
He also returns home regularly to work with kids, those in the same position he used to be, trying to make the right choices and build a life for themselves.
“He’s a tremendous young person,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s a very caring, giving person.”
That makes him popular, especially with his teammates.
“He has a persona and he can ground people because he’s been though difficulty,” Dantonio said. “Difficulty is not losing a football game. Difficulty is losing a brother or another family member. That’s true difficulty. What we deal with is sports and that is minor. He’s been down that road and understands what he can give other players.”
Dantonio, of course, has stated often that Williams is destined for bigger things. He reiterated his belief that Williams will one day be the mayor of his hometown, though Williams has plans on the field before any talk of a political future.
When his playing career does end, Williams will have the benefit of having his degree, something that was assured when his mother, LaTasha Williams, told him last spring the NFL could wait. Instead, Williams was going to graduate from Michigan State next semester in advertising management.
“I feel like I just I gotta finish everything I start,” Williams said. “I feel like it would be more cool to be the first to finish college where I’m from than to be the first to go to the NFL. I have a chance to do both; why not do both?”
He’ll almost certain do both, and when that happens, he’ll have made it. And true to his personality, Williams focuses more on what that will mean for his four younger siblings.
“I'm the oldest kid, so everybody in my household looks up to me,” he said. “I feel like I have to do the best all the time because I’ve got so many eyes on me.”