Sometime today, before he even thinks about putting on his uniform, Derion Williams will go into the training room at the Badlands Activities Center and get his wrists taped.
He will casually walk back to the Dickinson State football team’s locker room and find a marker. On the white tape, the 22-year-old will write the same words he has before every game since his senior year of high school.
L-Ray. 21-26. RIP. Believe. Bless. Never Quit.
It’s Williams’ way to remember, to never forget and to remind himself why he’s playing the game.
It’s how the Blue Hawk senior honors London Ray, who died on July 26, 2006, in a motorcycle accident in Las Vegas. Ray was Williams’ brother, best friend, mentor and father figure.
“Every game that I’ve played in, before that, I pray and I thank him and God for giving me this opportunity,” Williams said.
At 12 years old, Williams had an instant connection with Ray, then 16, when he entered the Ray family’s home.
Williams and his biological brother, Dequevies Williams, were two of hundreds of foster children from lesser means the Rays have accepted into their home throughout the years. London Ray was the only biological son of Roy and Radiance Ray.
“As soon as I went into the house, we made a connection because he loved football and I loved football,” Williams said. “He taught me everything that I know about football.”
When Ray moved out of his parents’ house to be on his own, Williams followed.
Williams moved in with Ray before his junior year of high school, even though it meant going to his third high school in three years.
Williams didn’t care though. He just wanted to be with his brother.
One year later and a week after his wedding, Ray’s life was tragically cut short. His death happened a little more than a month before Williams was to start his senior year of high school and football.
“That really crushed me,” Williams said. “I wasn’t going to play football after that. My foster family, they told me that that’s not what he’d want from me. I knew that’s not what he wanted from me.”
Williams began his wristtape ritual before the first game of his senior year at Sierra Vista High School in Las Vegas.
Now it’s habit.
Four years after nearly walking away from football, Williams is in his fourth season as a starting cornerback for the Blue Hawks, is a first team NAIA All-America selection, DSU’s all-time leader in kick returns (68) and kick return yards (1,320), and has established himself as one of more electrifying players ever to wear a Blue Hawk uniform.
“Everybody wants players to play hard and give an effort with it,” DSU head coach Hank Biesiot said. “But from day one, he’s a kid that busted his skinny, little tail all over the place. That’s a refreshing thing. That motor is a thing that makes some guys unique, and a lot of the better players have that for whatever reason. He gives an effort and isn’t always picture perfect, but he gives an all-out effort.”
Williams is a picture of determination.
He wants to win. He wants to make every play. But he doesn’t want to be selfish about it. That’s not the type of person he is.
Williams’ 58-yard, game-winning touchdown reception off a tipped ball to help the Blue Hawks to a 25-21 last-minute victory over Concordia College on Sept. 4 may go down as one of the most memorable plays in DSU football history. Williams was just happy he helped give Biesiot his first career win over the Cobbers.
“I’m very excited to say I was part of that team that year that helped coach Biesiot achieve one of those goals,” Williams said.
DSU football has given Williams a foundation upon which to be successful.
As a cornerback, teams haven’t thrown his way much the past two years, though he only has three career interceptions. Teams test Williams once or twice a game, Biesiot said. On kick returns — Williams’ favorite part of the game — fans, players and coaches hold their breath, waiting for him to break another big one. Williams has three career kick returns for a touchdown, which is tied for the school record, and had a 70-yard game-winning punt return for a touchdown to beat Valley City State his sophomore season. Last year, he returned a kick 90 yards for a touchdown to put DSU ahead of South Dakota Mines in the fourth quarter.
“When a kickoff is coming my way, I always think touchdown first,” Williams said.
Williams said he studies special teams and understands its importance, an attitude that makes Biesiot smile.
“He takes a very positive attitude on special teams,” Biesiot said. “We all talk about it and everybody preaches it. He lives it.”
On game day, Williams is as brash and loud as anyone else on DSU’s sidelines.
Off the field, he’s a quiet, deliberate speaker who rarely raises his voice.
“Once the game starts, he likes to be a leader and lead by example,” said Rashad Williams, a DSU running back from Las Vegas who was a sophomore in high school when he first met Derion Williams. “I’ve seen him growing in the past few years. He definitely became a better player and a better leader.”
Williams’ story is one he doesn’t like to tell. He doesn’t talk much about his beginnings in the impoverished parts of Las Vegas. He’s too humble for that and he surely doesn’t want anyone’s pity.
The way Williams looks at it, he is fortunate to be where he is today.
“That’s why you’ll see me with the confidence (on the field),” Williams said. “I have an attitude to where I don’t quit, or I don’t think anything is impossible. I made it from the ghetto, the hood, whatever you want to call it, to where I am today, to college.”
Williams is a solid student, one year away from graduating college with a bachelor’s degree in business administration major and a minor in management.
One day, he’d like to start his own business. He also wouldn’t mind staying in North Dakota.
“It’s grown on me,” Williams said.
First though, he has to finish a little business on the field.
About an hour after he finishes his memorial to Ray, he’ll put on his pads, say a prayer and step onto Fisher Field at the Badlands Activities Center to help DSU begin its quest for a third consecutive Dakota Athletic Conference championship against Dakota State.
“I’m very fortunate for what I have achieved here at Dickinson State,” Williams said.