PROVO — Jamaal Williams arrived on BYU's campus in 2012 as a 17-year-old freshman, not knowing much about the school's unique culture.
He was about to embark on what would be a turbulent and prolific career as a Cougar running back. Over the next five years, an array of accomplishments and trials came his way.
Williams, who became the school's all-time leading rusher, returned to campus on June 22 for Media Day, fresh off an impressive rookie season with the Green Bay Packers.
Williams’ ebullient, fun-loving personality was on full display at the BYU Broadcasting Building as he answered questions and joked with former Cougar teammates, all while sporting a Louis Vuitton fanny pack.
Some things never change.
Williams acclimated relatively quickly to the environment in Green Bay, which he said is similar to Provo.
“It reminds me of here, how family-oriented it is, making sure the fans are involved with the team,” Williams said. “It’s nothing new. I’m used to it now because of BYU and how great the fans are here. They care, just like in Green Bay. They have faces painted, backyards looking like football fields, former players painted on the wall. It’s a great atmosphere to be in.”
Last season, Williams participated in and embraced the longstanding Packers’ training camp tradition known as "Dream Drive." Kids wait for players to emerge from Lambeau Field, hoping one of the players will choose them to ride his or her bike across the street to practice.
While Williams fit in relatively quickly in Green Bay, not everything went smoothly for him at BYU. Not only did he endure serious injuries, but he also withdrew from school prior to the 2015 season due to what he later revealed as an Honor Code violation.
Williams, who is not LDS, turned down opportunities to transfer and decided to come back for his senior season in 2016. He finished his collegiate career with 3,901 yards rushing yards, No. 1 in BYU history. As a senior, he ran for 1,375 yards and set the record for most rushing yards in a single game, racking up 286 yards, and five touchdowns, against Toledo.
Williams became a fan favorite at BYU not only because of rushing ability but also because of his candor and his willingness to be true to himself.
Prior to the 2014 season, he announced his own one-game suspension. Williams said at the time that to try to avoid trouble, he had taken up a new hobby — roller skating.
“You may laugh,” he said, “but I’m pretty good now.”
Before games while playing for the Cougars, Williams enjoyed dancing on the field and interacting with fans, including throwing passes to kids in the stands.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake loves that Williams could carve his own path in Provo.
“He could be himself here at BYU and have success. He’s had some adversity along the way,” he said. “He’s one of the most-loved players that has ever been through here. Green Bay earned a bunch of fans when they drafted him.”
During a BYUtv program filmed on Media Day involving former Cougar players in the NFL, Williams said that his current Green Bay teammates frequently ask him questions about the Honor Code.
“How did you do it?” they wonder.
“The only answer I can give them is football,” Williams said. “I just sacrificed for football. Playing football and getting to the NFL and all I’ve got to do is go to school and follow the Honor Code for four or five years, then, yeah, you should be able to do it. The Honor Code is more to be able to help you than it is to hurt you.”
Had he not attended BYU, Williams added, “I’d probably be a wild man.”
As a rookie, Williams, a fourth-round draft pick, recorded 153 carries for 556 yards and four touchdowns and he caught 25 passes for 262 yards for two touchdowns.
“It went OK. My expectations will always be higher than anybody puts on me,” Williams said of his rookie campaign. “Overall, I think I did OK in how I handled it and the situations I was put in and the opportunities that I got. I’ve been through a year already and I know what to expect. Really now, it’s recalculating what I did good and did bad and adjust a little bit.”
His best memories of the past season?
“I’ll always remember my first touchdown, but that was at the end of the game and it didn’t matter that I scored,” Williams said. “But it will always be my first touchdown. Probably my game against the Browns because I caught a receiving touchdown. I had two dances. I was surprised they left me open. That was the funny part. I got more dances this year. I’m expecting to get into the end zone a lot more, too.”
Williams’ former BYU teammates liked watching him play on the NFL stage.
“It was really fun. I picked him on my fantasy team. I picked Jamaal,” said senior running back Squally Canada. “It was worth it. Every time he played he got 22 points. I watched every game that he started. It was really cool. I always knew he had it in him.”
Having experienced a turbulent and prolific BYU career, Williams is proud of the road he’s traveled to the NFL. And he cherishes his BYU connection.
“About every two weeks, there’s a BYU fan outside the gate (at Lambeau Field),” he said. “I make sure I take a picture with them.”