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A Human Dynamo: Former Rio Rancho High, NMSU Star Shines in CFL

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Rio Rancho High and NMSU alum Chris Williams is shattering records north of the border

It may seem as though Carol and Wallace Williams just aren’t as easily impressed as most of us.

They do care, but what they’ve been seeing unfold north of the border the past few months just isn’t anything new to them.

While their son, former Rio Rancho High and New Mexico State University star football player Chris Williams, is turning heads once again with a record-setting season in the Canadian Football League, the proud mom and dad can’t help but wonder why everyone is so surprised.

“I know it sounds bad, like I’m just saying it because I’m his mom, but this is the same thing we’ve been seeing since he was 8,” said Carol Williams, a track coach at Cleveland High School. “I mean, this is all we’ve ever seen him do, so we don’t know it any other way. He’s played like this at every level.”

What Williams has done this season in the CFL as a wide receiver/return specialist for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats may look a lot like what he did for years at the prep and college levels, but it’s something professional football fans have rarely seen before.

On Monday, the league’s ninth week of an 18-game season, Williams returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown against the Toronto Argonauts for his sixth return touchdown of the season (five on punt returns, one on a 119-yard missed field goal return), setting a CFL record for combined return touchdowns in a season, with nine regular-season games still remaining for his Tiger-Cats. He also leads the league in overall touchdowns with 11 (the next closest player has scored eight this season).

With nine regular-season games remaining (the next of which comes Saturday in a rematch against Toronto), Williams, who boasts a 4.28 time in the 40-yard dash, is also within striking distance of the league’s overall touchdown record of 23 for a season. Williams broke the previous return record of five touchdowns (all on punt returns) held since 1991 by Edmonton Eskimo Henry “Gizmo” Williams.

Aside from the touchdowns, Chris Williams is No. 1 in the CFL in punt return yards at the halfway point of the season with 685 (and an average of 18.0 yards per punt return), No. 3 in receiving yards (704 with a 16.8 yards per reception average) and No. 5 in combined return yards with 934 yards despite not having returned one kickoff all season.

“I guess things have been going pretty well up here this season,” Williams, 24, told the Journal on Wednesday, his personality off the field remaining about as understated as his on-field game is spectacular.

But even if Williams won’t talk up the season he’s having, plenty of those who follow the CFL have been. More and more No. 80 Ti-Cat jerseys are showing up in the stands, opposing coaches are asked weekly about how they can game plan for the speedster, and several of the league’s media members have even suggested Williams is the league’s first-half MVP. Not a bad encore for a player who earned the 2011 Most Outstanding Rookie award after posting 1,064 receiving yards and six touchdowns.

On Monday’s record-setting punt return, TSN.ca play-by-play announcer Rod Black gave this call of the 82 yard touchdown: “The electrifying Chris Williams is back near his 30-yard line, having a season for the ages. … Chris Williams, last year’s rookie of the year. … A high, high, high kick. Williams gathers it at his 30. … There he goes. Chris Williams, there he goes! He’s going to do it again. Unbelievable! 82-yard touchdown and it’s a new CFL record.”

The record is one Williams refuses to take all the credit for.

“What’s really been great this year is how hard all my teammates have been working to block for me and to make what I’ve been doing so much easier,” Williams said. “I’m really loving what I’m doing, but I’m really just trying to do what I’ve always done – that means just working to get a little bit better each time I go out there.”

He would have had the return record a week earlier, actually, had it not been for a very un-Williams-like play that made ESPN’s “Not So Top 10″ list of bloopers earlier this season. On a missed field goal attempt July 21 against Montreal, Williams sprinted downfield for what appeared to be a 118-yard touchdown return. But Williams looked back at the defense and backpedaled the final 10 yards toward the end zone and was tackled at the 1-yard line.

“It was a boneheaded thing to do,” Williams said. “I apologized to my coach and my teammates after the game. That was just so stupid.”

That week, Williams teamed with a Hamilton-based company called Fox 40 and started the “Play to the Whistle” campaign where he, the Ti-Cats and Fox 40 each agreed to donate $1,000 for every Williams touchdown the rest of the season.

He’s scored seven since and may be broke by the end of the year if he keeps up his current pace.

Williams and his girlfriend, Lana Rodriguez, a Rio Rancho High grad who lives in Canada with him during the season, are expecting a child – Williams’ second – later this fall. Fatherhood is something Williams says has helped him remain refocused on chasing his dream of playing in the NFL after brief stints in 2009 with two teams – the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns – were cut short before making either team’s 53 man regular-season roster.

With the Dolphins, Williams was well on his way to earning a roster spot with a spectacular preseason consisting mostly of kick-return highlights until he fractured a bone in his hand and was cut. In Week 12 of the regular season, the Browns called him at home in Rio Rancho and asked him to join their practice squad, an experiment that lasted less than two weeks with Williams not given many opportunities to show off his talents.

After a brief stint with the United Football League’s Hartford Colonials in 2010, Williams signed a contract with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for the 2011 season.

The contract, according to his agent, Brian Cox of California, was for two years, with the Ti-Cats having an option for a third year in 2013.

“Right now, he’s the league’s most dangerous player,” Cox said. “Obviously we’re expecting them to pick up the option for that third year.”

While that may mean a season salary next year of about $75,000, according to Cox, it will also put on hold Williams’ pursuit of the NFL.

The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement signed before the 2011 season makes it difficult for NFL teams to buy out CFL contracts. Despite Williams having signed the contract prior to the 2011 season, and thus prior to the new CBA, “all those existing contracts weren’t grandfathered in under the terms of when they were signed for some reason,” Cox said.

Instead, Williams, it would seem, will be playing in Canada again in 2013 despite there being plenty of interest from NFL teams, according to Cox.

“What I’ve told him is this,” Cox said, “Play out that contract and one of two things is going to happen after the (2013) season: You’ll be a free agent and get signed by a CFL team, and I have no doubt he’ll get a contract to be the highest-paid non-quarterback in the league, or he’ll get a contract then with an NFL team.”

After the season he’s put together so far, it would seem Williams will certainly be one of the league’s most coveted players. He is one of the fastest in the CFL – if not the fastest – and his skill set certainly seems perfect for the nuances of the Canadian game.

The league’s rules dictate far more punting (teams have only three downs to get a first down) and there are also far more opportunities to return missed field goals because the end zones are 20 yards deep, with the goal posts located at the goal line. The field being wider (65 yards) and longer (110 yards) than in the United States also allows for him to use his speed in open spaces a lot more.

It is something he’s been well aware of since his time at NMSU when former Aggies head coach Hal Mumme used to talk about the possibilities to play beyond college.

“Mumme used to say he thinks Chris will be playing on Sundays one day,” Carol Williams said. “But if that didn’t work out, he was the one that really got us thinking about how good an opportunity it might be for Chris to play in Canada.”

Still, the NFL is the dream for Williams, even if he’s not that interested in talking about it.

“I’m loving what I’m doing right now and love working with my teammates every day,” Williams said. “All that other stuff will work itself out, and I’ll just keep working on the things I can control.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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