Brian Williams Feature

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All this attention can be a little overwhelming.

"Whoa, I didn't know about all these articles," Green Bay Packers linebacker Brian Williams says as he thumbs through his suddenly mountainous personal file. "Maybe they're starting to notice me a bit more.

"I'm still doing the same thing."

Yes, he is. And that would be chasing down any opposing runners, hounding would-be receivers out of the backfield and perhaps scaring a quarterback or two with a few blitzes here and there. If you haven't noticed Brian Williams yet, you're probably not alone. But in just his third season in the National Football League and his second season as a starter, the seemingly subdued Williams is fast becoming one of the top young talents in football. His swift ascension is all the more remarkable when you consider what a lousy opening his pro football career endured.

Mike Holmgren remembers.

"When I think how close we came to sitting him down or releasing him two years ago, I shudder," he said.

Release him? Your team's second-leading tackler during last year's Super Bowl run? This guy had 95 stops, three fumble recoveries and four passes defensed in 1996 -- a monster season by anyone's standards. Trouble is, that was exactly 95 stops, three fumble recoveries and four passes defensed more than he had the previous season.

Williams was a third-round draft pick out of Southern California in 1995. The Packers liked his speed and athletic ability, figuring he could make an immediate impact on special teams and even crack the lineup in his initial season.

Then came the mysterious groin injury, one that nobody could seem to pinpoint but nevertheless hindered Williams' ability to perform.

"Other people can't feel the pain, all they can do is listen to you say that you're hurt," Williams says. "Nothing was showing up, but I knew something was there. It hampered my running."

So Williams sat. And by the time he returned to the field, he wasn't nearly the player the Packers thought he would be.

"I missed half of training camp, which was the most important part of me learning the system," Williams says. "And by the time I came back, we were already playing preseason games. I was very confused about what I had to do within the framework of the defense.

"When I finally did come back, I still wasn't healthy. If you saw me play, you would understand why people were frustrated."

Williams did not play one down from scrimmage his rookie season. He often looked bewildered on the field and even committed four major penalties in a span of three weeks on special teams. His future with the team was on shaky ground.

"I don't know how close they were to cutting me," Williams says. "My big concern was just getting healthy. Once I knew I was healthy, I could get back to the level where I could perform."

Williams arrived at the second of three 1996 mini-camps a totally revived football player. He knew the system and, more importantly, he knew he could function out on the field.

The results were staggering. Williams dominated in the preseason, leading the team with 23 tackles. He was elevated to the starting right outside linebacker slot and never relinquished it. Williams started all 19 games (including postseason), played 80 percent of the snaps and posted some huge numbers along the way. He collected a career-high 16 tackles in the second Tampa Bay game of last season and helped sack Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer to end the Bucs' final drive. He had 15 stops in Green Bay's emotional, 23-20 overtime win over San Francisco on Monday Night Football. He tied for the team lead in playoff tackles with 15, adding a forced fumble, fumble recovery and interception in the process.

"I knew I could play in this league," Williams says. "But I never imagined that I would go from almost being cut to getting in the starting lineup."

Holmgren has called Williams last season's most pleasant surprise. It was a comment that flattered Williams, but he entered this season determined to sustain his breakthrough effort of 1996.

"That was last year," Williams says. "You want those things said about you year after year. I don't want to be a surprise anymore."

Then no one should be surprised with the linebacker's play thus far in 1997. Williams is third on the team with 36 tackles, showcasing the same nose for the ball that he unveiled last year. That was never more evident than in the Packers' Week 3 win over Miami, when Williams paced the team with 10 tackles and seemed to be everywhere on the field.

"Sometimes it's just a sense of what's happening out there, an awareness," he says. "I always watch both sides of the ball when I look at film. And my speed helps me get there."

Yet when it comes to pinpointing Green Bay's defensive stars, Williams is rarely noted. Then again, on a unit that boasts the likes of Reggie White, Gilbert Brown and LeRoy Butler, making a name for yourself can be a tad difficult. But Williams is accustomed to toiling in the shadows.

"At USC, I was always overshadowed," he says. "We had Willie McGinest, Keyshawn Johnson, Rob Johnson. You would always see those guys on the highlights, but if you looked to see who was making the plays, it was Number 5."

And here it's Number 51. And slowly but surely, people are starting to notice.

"It's good to have this positive press," Williams says. "It's flattering. But this is the fifth week of the season. We have 11 games to go."

Which gives Williams plenty more opportunities to make a name for himself. Just don't expect him to solicit any attention off the gridiron like, say, one of his college teammates.

"Keyshawn is flamboyant, he wants attention and that's fine," Williams says. "We're two different people. You'll never hear me telling anyone to give me the damn ball."

Nope. But odds are Brian Williams will hunt down whoever has it.

Editor's Note:A Dallas native, Williams grew up a Cowboys fan, but now is happy to have worked himself into position to start at linebacker for the defending Super Bowl champions. After a washout rookie season in 1995, he blossomed into one of the Packers1 top defenders last year.

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