Time is running out with 13:43 left on the clock. Down 7-24. BYU has to score. The ball is snapped. Bodies, pads, helmets crash together.
Jamaal Williams takes a pitch from Taysom Hill, rolls to his left, dodges a defender, collides with three more defenders and somehow finds himself in the end zone. Touchdown.
Williams’ fourth-quarter touchdown — the first in his career at BYU — kept the Cougars alive against Utah on Sept. 15. We all know how the game ended. But for Williams, it was just the beginning.
“All you heard was nothing. It was just silent,” Williams said, smiling as he recalled his first collegiate touchdown. “It was wonderful. I was just shocked that I got in, so I kind of froze for a minute until one of the linemen came and shook me.”
Williams — or “Baby J,” as he’s known among other student athletes — is just a freshman and is already making waves on a veteran BYU offense, playing in all eight games thus far and averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
Oh yeah, and he’s only 17.
“For a 17-year-old, Jamaal Williams is very mature,” junior running back Michael Alisa said. “He came in with a hard-working mentality. He came in with the mentality that he wanted to contribute to the team, and he’s definitely been able to do that. It’s impressive for his age, but just as a newcomer it shows a lot about his character.”
Williams, a native of Fontana, Calif., is a prototypical college running back, standing at 6 feet tall and weighing 190 pounds. Though he is nearly a year younger than most players in his class — Williams skipped second grade; he turned 17 in April — he helped Summit High School win a California Interscholastic Federation division championship last fall; he was also named league offensive MVP, CIF offensive MVP and received All-CIF and All-League First-Team honors. Williams was recruited by New Mexico State, UCLA, Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona State, San Diego State, Boise State and BYU.
With so many options on the table, Williams said he picked BYU because of its high moral standards.
“I picked BYU mostly because most of the football players are like me,” Williams said. “They do all the things you know you have to do if you want to win. That means you don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you don’t do anything that you know is going to be an obstacle in winning a championship.”
Though BYU’s standards matched his own personal standards, Williams — who is not LDS — said living in Provo has been quite the culture shock.
“It’s way different. It’s awkward at times, but I’m getting used to it. It’s just going to take a while, because it’s extremely different than where I’m from,” Williams said, pausing and chuckling. “There’s lots of white people.”
Williams said life in the dorms at Helaman Halls is one of the biggest surprises he has encountered during his few short months in Provo.
“People don’t sleep. At all,” Williams said. “They stay awake at like two in the morning, yelling and having fun all the time. They just don’t sleep. Ever. I’ll be asleep, and I can just hear them yelling, playing tag in the hallways, it’s just crazy.”
Williams said aside from missing his friends and family, he misses his boxer Dayday the most. To help ease the separation, Williams said he goes bowling a lot more than he used to and enjoys talking to girls and hanging out with his other freshmen football players outside the Cannon Center.
“We just hang out outside the Cannon Center, and we just do outrageous things,” he laughed. “We’ll go window singing a lot. We go to the girls’ dorms, and we’ll throw a rock at their window, and we’ll start singing to them. It’s pretty awesome.”
Williams said that another shock is the number of married players on the football team, many of whom are almost 10 years older than Williams is.
“I’ve never seen so many married people in my life,” Williams laughed. “It can be awkward. It’s just funny to hear (teammates) talking about their marital problems and I’m like, gross, I’m only 17! I’m not even thinking about getting married. I don’t even have a girlfriend. It’s just funny to hear their problems because they’re, like, old people problems. But the guys aren’t even that old.”
However “awkward” the dynamic may be, Williams said the players accept each other for who they are, and he is learning valuable lessons from older, married players.
“The positive thing about it is they really seem like they’re happy with their lives, being married and stuff,” Williams said. “So I know that if I look for the right person, when it’s time, then I’ll be as happy as them.
“It’s also fun being on a team with older guys because I feel like I have an advantage because I feel like my team is old and experienced and they know what to do. I feel like that gives us a great chance of winning almost every game we play.”
While Williams is dealing with cultural differences in Provo, he is also learning how to balance the demands of college sports and school work at the same time.
“It’s a little more difficult than it used to be. I have to really stay on the ball and can’t fall behind,” Williams said. “I have two mindsets. There are times for classwork and just all school stuff. Then when it’s time for football, I have to change the perspective of the day to football time and can’t worry about school at that moment. Because if you’re trying to think about homework while you’re about to run a play, you’re going to do pretty bad.”
According to Alisa, Williams’ ability to compartmentalize school work, football and his social life is one of the biggest factors contributing to his success thus far.
“One of the biggest characteristics of a good football player is the ability to just put aside any stress you feel,” Alisa said. “In college football, thousands of people are watching you, so it’s easy to get your stress level up. As a young kid, you’ve got to be able to put that aside and focus on the task at hand and just do your job, and that’s something that (Jamaal) has been able to learn pretty quickly.”
Williams is taking classes in sociology, health, student development, environmental science and an introduction to Mormonism class, but he doesn’t know what he wants to major in yet.
“I just don’t know. None of my classes really amuse me that much, so I just don’t know what I’ll do yet,” William said. “I’m only 17 though. I don’t even pay for my own stuff yet!”
Williams said the biggest thing he has learned as a collegiate student athlete is time management.
“I’ve learned that if you don’t fall behind, you’ll be okay,” he said. “Just enjoy your time here and don’t dwell on the things you can’t do, just be positive about the things you can do. That will make your life here easier and a lot more fun than you think it can be.”
After all Williams’ BYU experience has entailed — football games, cultural differences, school work, etc. — he says one of his favorite things is being able to set a positive example for friends in Fontana.
“It gives me a warm heart inside to see that I’m really having a positive impact on people’s lives back home,” Williams said. “They may not like BYU, but they like BYU because I’m here. I really appreciate them because they support me being here and playing football. It’s awesome showing them that you can go anywhere and play football and still be happy with your life.”