LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

New York — Raequan Williams understands how this sounds, given where he’s from and where he’s at now. And for a player who has made a career for himself working in the trenches, carving out an NFL future as a dominant defensive tackle at Michigan State, he realizes it probably sounds a bit counterintuitive.

But it’s the truth, man.

“I don’t really like crowds,” the Spartans’ fifth-year senior co-captain said, laughing. “I don’t like being around a lot of people. I guess I’m claustrophobic.”

So, yes, it’s a bit ironic that this is where he’ll finish a remarkable run with the Spartans, in New York City playing his final game Friday in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

Like many of his teammates, this is Williams’ first trip to New York, and the whirlwind of pre-bowl activities — the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, a visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange — made for some lasting memories.

But last week after a bowl practice back in East Lansing, the 21-year-old Chicago native joked about feeling “scared” when he learned where the Spartans were headed for the holidays.

“I heard it’s like Chicago on steroids,” he said. “I mean, I don’t even like downtown Chicago."

'Last hurrah'

But just to be clear, the idea of skipping this trip was never a consideration. Williams and some of his senior classmates — Kenny Willekes, Brian Lewerke, Mike Panasiuk, David Dowell, Josh Butler and others — all came to that decision individually, just as Williams had done a year ago in deciding to put NFL plans on hold.

“We all like being around each other, like being together,” Williams said. “So why not one more year? Why not one more game?

“I know what got me here — hard work, keeping my head down. I’ll never forget that, I’m always gonna stay true to that. So that’s what went into it, staying true to myself. And it’s an amazing feeling: It’s all my guys, our last hurrah, basically, all together. You couldn’t ask for much more.”

Well, they could. And they did, quite honestly, entering the 2019 football season with much bigger aspirations than a 6-6 regular season and the Pinstripe Bowl. But as those hopes faded in a miserable midseason stretch — injuries compounding the problems for Mark Dantonio’s team — Williams & Co. seemed determined to prove a different point in the end.

“Anytime we can go out and put our name on something, it should mean something,” said Williams, voted a second-team All-Big Ten selection by the media and a third-team choice by the coaches this season. “We know how big this is for the program to get those younger guys back on track and get this program back on track. This is not just another bowl game for us. We’re taking this seriously and we want to win.’’

That’s a message that certainly resonates with their embattled head coach, whose team is playing in a bowl game for the 12th time in his 13 seasons at the helm at Michigan State.

“It hasn't been perfect this year — I'm the first one to sit there and admit that,” Dantonio said. “But the way (the seniors) come every day to lead and compete has been extremely impressive. All those guys figure to be somewhere in a (NFL) camp next year, either drafted or otherwise. I think it's a statement.”

So whether it’s Willekes playing in this game a year after fracturing his fibula in the Redbox Bowl loss to Oregon, or Williams poised to make his 42nd consecutive start — the longest ironman streak by an MSU player in Dantonio’s tenure — this still matters.

End of one journey

What comes next does, too, obviously. Williams, a 300-pound tackle who anchored the nation’s top-ranked run defense last year as a junior, still projects as a mid-round draft pick in April. And he admits it’s “exciting” to think about the “next phase of life that’s coming” — signing with an agent, training for the draft, beginning a professional career. He just prefers not to focus on all that yet.

“We’ve got a pretty good idea what we want to do,” Williams said. “It’s just finalizing everything, talking to my family. But I’m going to wait until my college career is finally officially over to commit to anything.”

In the meantime, it’s impossible not to reflect on the journey he’s traveled the last five years.

Williams was a scout-team player as a true freshman for a Michigan State squad that won a Big Ten title and went to the College Football Playoff. He was voted the Spartans’ Most Improved Player as a redshirt freshman on a team that went 3-9 and ended its season in turmoil. And while the next three years were an emotional rollercoaster ride for the Spartans, for Williams the feelings ran much deeper.

Two weeks after the end of his freshman season, Williams’ cousin, Antonio Pollards — a “twin brother” he’d grown up with under the same roof — was killed in a drive-by shooting on Chicago’s west side. Less than 18 months later, Williams’ 16-year-old brother was shot and killed in a nearby neighborhood, another victim of the epidemic of gun violence in inner-city Chicago.

Williams was heartbroken, and contemplated leaving school to return home. But conversations with those close to him, including his mother, Latasha, left him determined to carry on, realizing his success at Michigan State would be seen as a symbol of hope back home. “If I can help a little bit I’m gonna try — at least try,” he said. And that’s part of the reason he’s still here now, having heeded his mother’s wish last winter, returning for play his senior season and earn his degree before going off to tackle his NFL dream.

The first in Latasha Williams’ family to go to college would also be the first to graduate, which is why that Dec. 14 ceremony at the Breslin Center meant so much.

“It meant everything,” said Williams, who graduated with a degree in advertising management. “That was probably my first time in life I felt like I accomplished something. Graduating and walking the stage, it was a surreal feeling.”

And so is all this, from the last practice on campus to Wednesday's post-practice receiving line for the seniors to the final snap Friday, finishing his college football career in a Major League Baseball cathedral. The end of something big and the beginning of something bigger.

“Everything’s a little shaky — I don’t know how to feel yet,” Williams admitted. “But I know it’s coming fast.”

New Era Pinstripe Bowl

MICHIGAN STATE VS. WAKE FOREST

Kickoff: 3:20 p.m. Friday, Yankee Stadium, New York

TV/radio: ESPN/760 AM

Records: Michigan State 6-6, Wake Forest 8-4

Line: Michigan State by 3.5

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE