Often when you think of professional athletes, you assume everything came easy to them. It’s as though they were bestowed with the talents and genetics that made their paths to the professional ranks as simple as tying their cleats and walking onto the field. While we would never dispute the fact that a guy who holds a state record in the 100-meter dash was born with some gifts, it doesn’t nearly tell the whole story.   

Panthers-turned-Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams has had to overcome serious adversity to get to where he is. He was originally brought up in a tough Little Rock, Ark., neighborhood. He topped out at a rather generously listed 5-foot-9, which isn’t diminutive, until you consider he plays in the NFL. He walked six miles to practice on foot as a kid, surprising his coaches who assumed he lived a block away. Before that, his pigskin career started young—at the age of 8—on a dare. He’d play on the pavement on his street, dodging cars as his love for the game solidified. Right before he hit his teen years, he moved to rural Wynne, Ark. His surroundings might’ve changed, but his love for football didn’t. He quickly moved up to his new high school’s varsity squad and became a local star with offers from colleges throughout the U.S. He chose a school just 60 miles down the road (and across the Mississippi River): the University of Memphis. 

By jumping to the collegiate level he was able to showcase his talents for a nationwide audience. He became not just a D1 player, but a great one. He led his conference in rushing yards as both a sophomore and junior. Then, after finishing as the runner-up the year before, he led the entire nation in rushing as a senior. He left college at the fifth spot on the NCAA FBS’s all-time rushing yards list, a position he still stands firm at today. And, on top of all those accomplishments, he became the winner of the first ever ARA Sportsmanship Award for the way he carried himself both on and off the field. 

His standout amateur career caught the eye of several pro scouts, despite potential worries about his size. After several strong pre-draft workouts, many of those fears were eradicated. Still, he dropped down draft boards as teams filled their running-back needs with free agents. After being projected as high as the fourth overall pick to the Jets in the 2006 NFL Draft, he dropped several slots down and was finally taken when the Carolina Panthers snagged him with the 27th choice. In 2008, he rewarded their decision by leading them to the postseason, while simultaneously leading the NFL with 20 touchdowns. That same season he was named the Pro Football Writers of America’s “Most Improved Player of the Year.”

Then in 2014, Williams lost his mother Sandra Hill to breast cancer, the same hereditary disease that claimed four of her sisters between 1992 and 2011. It’s a cause that he’s done his best to spread awareness of, and is most visibly displayed by the fact that he paints his toenails (and dyes his hair) pink. Rather than wallowing in grief, Williams channeled that emotional energy into a goal; one that we’d say has worked out pretty well given his decade-long employment in the NFL. 

It’s common knowledge that the toll on an NFL running back’s body is not conducive to a long career. In fact, the average running back logs between two-and-a-half and three years (depending on what stats you choose to believe) before filing his retirement papers. DeAngelo will soon be entering year 10 thanks to a system that saw him splitting backfield carries with fellow Carolina Panther Jonathon Stewart. At 32 years of age, many running backs aren’t sought by other franchises. Instead they’re looked over in favor of their younger counterparts. But Williams is still going. It’s yet another challenge he’s bested, though it’s hardly surprising after watching the above video.

After all, you may wonder what type of grit has to be instilled into the mind of an NFL back that causes him to run directly into a pile of 250–350 pound men, who can nearly run 4.5 40s. Well, the footage at the top of your page should answer that. And believe us, hearing it from the man himself does his struggle a lot more justice than any write-up could ever do.

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Image via Complex
 Image via Complex
 Image via Complex