Patriots tight end D.J. Williams spent two seasons with Green Bay before he was released for last season. After a short stint in Jacksonville, he was signed by New England, who cut him and then later re-signed him in December. The 25-year-old Texas native and former John Mackey Award winner (top college tight end) opens up to The Improper about fighting for a roster spot, the Patriots’ weight program, dreams of his first touchdown and his love for playing piano.
Matt Martinelli: How’s your offseason been?
D.J. Williams: It’s going good. It’s been productive. It’s probably been the most intense offseason I’ve been a part of, as far as my first two years in Green Bay and working out in Jacksonville as well. Coming here, I’d say this offseason program is very physically demanding. They also carry it with a smart approach where they’re not trying to get anyone injured, but it’s very intense and high-tempo as far as conditioning and weightlifting. It’s done a lot different here than other places I’ve been to and heard of.
What’s the toughest part of it?
I wouldn’t say the toughest part, but usually in high school and college it’s always about getting stronger. You’re always putting max strength on the bar, and you’re always figuring out what the max weight is that you can lift. When you get to the NFL, a lot of teams usually stay away from that. They usually lighten up the loads and do more repetitions and try to sustain the body for what it is. Here they’re constantly trying to push the body to its peak. In 11 of the past 12 seasons the Patriots have won the AFC East, so you can’t complain with the results.
Any highlights for you this offseason away from football?
I started dating this girl. Here name’s Ally. She’s a little sweetheart. She’s a redhead, so, of course, with sweetness comes attitude. But it’s great. And we just got a puppy together. A bulldog named Talulah.
So are you making your home in New England now?
Well, I just got a one-bed apartment to tide me over. I’m one of those players who has been in the NFL, but I’m in a situation where I’m still trying to find that home, find that groove. I’m a big fan of the program, the head coach and the leaders and personnel of this organization. I’ve bounced around from place to place. So as far as getting my feet wet and getting comfortable, I really haven’t done that yet. I feel like I have to earn that felling of comfortableness. That’s what I’m trying to do now.
Last year you spent time with three different teams during the season. How much more challenging does that make your job?
It’s tough. It’s hard to not let outside things come in and interrupt your focus. You’re moving from city to city, getting bills paid, moving furniture, having all your loved ones and people who care about you calling you 24/7 to make sure you’re OK and the world’s not falling apart. There’s a lot of outside distractions that come with the job, and that’s just part of it. It’s something I had never really been through before. Last year was just a learning experience, and I’ve done nothing but build myself up from it, and it’s given me a whole different perspective on how to carry myself through a lot of different situations.
How often do you get to keep in touch with your family? You said they called all the time last year.
Well, if it was up to my mom and my sisters, we’d be on the phone every day. A phone call maybe once a week, or a like on Instagram or tweet shoutout here or there, that will do it for me. Text messaging is usually the best way. But family will worry about you. I try to tell them to, “Sit back, relax and everything will be good.”
Take me back a couple of years. You get your first NFL paycheck. What did you do with that?
I’m not a big splurger, but I got this really neat piano/electric keyboard type thing. I’m really into music, and writing music. It’s kind of my escape, and I have a great time with that. And I got my mother a house in the best city in America: Little Rock, Arkansas.
Did you lug the keyboard from city to city last year?
I didn’t. The keyboard is not that easy to move all around, but I do have a little miniature keyboard that I bring with me from place to place.
So do you play it on roadtrips?
The only time I play on roadtrips is if they have a piano in the hotel lobby. But because I move around so much, not too many people know that I play. So it’s a fun little surprise to them when I bust out a jam: Anything they want, I got.
Who are your musical influences?
What really got me into loving the keyboard, or wanting to know how to play, would be Alicia Keys. When “Fallen” came out, I was just sitting in the car one day and the groove just hit me. There was this one girl—it’s always something with a girl—and I thought it would be awesome if I could play her something like that. So I figured it out, and I was ready to roll after that.
You’re about to enter your fourth NFL season, and the average career length for an NFL player is a little over three years. Does that make this a make-or-break season?
I guess if you go by the books, that’s what you’d say. After going through what I went through last year, it just really makes you look at everything different and approach everything in a more professional manner. I understand that in this business it’s going to come down to, how bad do you really want it. Some people may be talented, some people may be bigger, may be stronger, may have all that. Still, at the end of the day, it’s really how bad do you want it. You’ve always seen people with talent and ability who don’t make it. And you hear stories of people who don’t run a 4.3 40, who go through NFL Europe or Canadian ball, and eventually they make it. The difference has been the people who’ve sacrifice the most, and not been selfish, and stay dedicated. That’s what I’ve started to see and realize, is you really make what you want out of it. That’s what I’m doing this year.
Do you ever think of post-NFL plans?
Of course. I’ve always been interested in broadcasting. That’s always seemed fun to me; I’ve always been interested in chitchat, talking, being personable, meeting people. The reason I would like being a broadcaster in sports is to have that perspective. In college, I was “blah, blah, blah. Mister Everything. Top tight end.” Then you get to the NFL and you go through those bumps and struggles. So I can be a firsthand witness of being at an all-time high, and then being at an all-time low. Getting called to the office three times and having coaches tell me I’m not good enough. I’ve had it from both ends of the spectrum, and it’s been a blessing because I appreciate what I have so much more. It’d be awesome if I can have a career in which I can express that to other people, too. I think that’d be incredible.
What would say the best thing about playing in the NFL is?
The ability to take something that people say is so dependent on so many things, and make it yours. You hear stories of some people say they didn’t know the right people, or he just had a bad break. And I think after going through what I went through, I was one of those people. I’d say: There’s a guy ahead of me they really liked, or I hurt my hamstring and I lost my chance there. And I used to let those things make me feel comfortable about getting cut sometimes. Then I had a real look-at-myself-in-the-mirror moment and realized those are excuses. I’m the one who can decide those things. And it’s all in my control. That’s why I want to be successful in the NFL, so I can be a person who can sit back and say that the only person who can stop you is you.
You’ve worked with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Can you compare the two?
They’re both incredibly talented. Understanding the game is the most impressive part. In all the years I’ve been doing this, you really start understanding the game on a different level. You hear people say they have the answer to everything, but you really can’t understand it until you’ve been through it. Just how they can manage the game and anticipate what’s coming before it actually comes. It’s because they’ve been there before. That gives them a competitive edge. Then you combine that with the ability to get it done. Aaron throws an incredible ball. He has a laser-rocket arm, incredible accuracy. The most impressive thing I’ve seen about Brady is his ball location. If on a rainy day he doesn’t want to risk his ball getting intercepted, then all of his balls are going to be waist and below. It decreases the chance of an interception. If it’s a nice day outside and he has somebody beat, he’s going to give them a chance to go high on it. He has the ability to put touch on the ball 60 yards down the field. He has a lot of different throws in his arsenal.
Do you ever think about what it would be like to get your first NFL touchdown?
Oh, I already know. I really, really want one. I’m not going to lie. I’d be disappointed to hang up the cleats before I get a touchdown. It’s something I’m working for, and I want to accomplish. It’s almost like, as soon as I cross the goal line, the hands are going to go straight up in the air. Usually I put up the touchdown sign with my own arms and celebrate with my teammates and watching basketball games, soccer games. It’d be nice to put the hands up for my own effort.
You’ve been outspoken in the past about how your dad’s domestic violence has affected your life. Do you have advice for people in those situations who might not have the courage yet to leave?
I think the biggest thing, especially that I got from my mom, is that people just don’t know if they were to leave and get away from that situation, what’s next. They don’t know what the first step is. I would say what’s most important is reaching out to some people. A lot of people feel like it’s an embarrassment or people feel like they’re going to put someone in an awkward situation and make them feel uncomfortable. It’s not like that at all. I feel like it’s human nature that you always want to help people. I feel like once someone in that situation can reach out , then people understand that you’re trying to help people, and give them incredible encouragement and give them support, and let them know that they’re not on their own. Then you start feeling like you can accomplish more than you ever could. So you feel like you’re not on your own. And that’s the biggest step: Letting go of that fear of embarrassment or feeling like nobody’s going to be there for support because that’s how people are.