I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one. -- Mark Twain
Tyrone Williams could see his opportunity all along, though few others did. Forget that he was a second-year cornerback on arguably the league's best secondary. Forget that he had missed each and every Packers mini-camp during the offseason. Williams entered training camp in the best shape of his life, with visions of a starting role.
"In training camp, I came out to battle for a starting position," Williams says. "I don't enjoy standing on the sidelines, watching other people play."
So he battled - enough to impress the coaches but not enough to wrest the left cornerback position away from incumbent Craig Newsome. Hence, there was Williams, in a familiar position, fidgeting about on the sidelines as the Packers opened defense of their Super Bowl crown against the Chicago Bears. After one play, he ceased fidgeting.
Often times, opportunity knocks at the oddest hour. Newsome made a routine cut, but his knee did not cooperate. One play into his season, Newsome was done for the season. Into the fire stepped a slightly prophetic Williams.
"I envisioned it over the summer, that I would be starting, and it just came through," Williams says, shaking his head. "Wow."
The season has now reached its midpoint and Williams hasn't relinquished that role. He has 43 tackles and is tied for the team lead with six pass break-ups, despite routinely matching up against some of the league's top receivers.
"I feel that I'm playing pretty well," Williams says. "I'm starting to feel really comfortable, reacting instead of thinking.
"Game experience is crucial and now I'm getting it."
Williams played in all 19 games last season, but was used primarily in 'nickel' and 'dime' situations last season. He nevertheless made an impact. His 22 tackles and six passes defensed were second on the squad among non-starters in the secondary. He made a pivotal interception in the NFC Championship Game against Carolina right before halftime that enabled the Packers to tack on a field goal heading into the locker room.
Not too shabby for a rookie. Plus, Williams had an off-the-field incident hanging over him the entire season. He was involved in a shooting incident in early 1994, while he was still attending the University of Nebraska. Nobody was injured and he pleaded no contest. Meanwhile, the judicial process dragged on. Williams finally was sentenced to 126 days in a work-release facility after the 1996 season.
He reported to the Husker athletic department each day before returning to the facility at night. Teammates dropped him a line often to voice their support.
"Other players called me a lot this summer to see how I was doing," Williams says. "The guys were really behind me. We're a tight knit group."
Williams reported to camp in terrific shape, thanks in part to his methodical regimen in Lincoln. He was third on the team in tackles in the preseason. When Newsome went down, Williams was more than ready to step in and contribute.
Williams does bring a different element to the line of scrimmage than the man he replaced. At 5-11, 190 pounds, Williams is not as big as Newsome, but he utilizes his speed (4.3 in the 40-yard dash) to counteract any perceived weakness at the snap.
"There is a certain degree of aggressiveness that dictates the difference in our play," Williams says. "Craig will get on him a little more at the line. I can bump, too, but I use my speed to get on a guy."
Not that Williams isn't aggressive. Once that ball is in the air, he hones in on it.
"My mentality is to disrupt the route and if the ball is thrown, to go get it," Williams says. "I'm always going to be aggressive and go after the ball."
Williams was tested often in his first start by Philadelphia quarterback Ty Detmer, who threw at him nine times. Dan Marino, NFC passing leader Brad Johnson and Drew Bledsoe have since tested him, as Williams has faced the likes of Jake Reed, Herman Moore and Terry Glenn. He may take his lumps now and then, but a little extra attention is not going to faze Williams.
"I am going to rely more on my instincts than anything else - knowing something is coming before it happens," he says. "Once you start thinking about getting beat, it will probably happen."
And Williams has developed a penchant for making big plays himself. He forced a fumble in a crucial division win over Tampa Bay and helped to force another deep in Packer territory last week at New England. Green Bay converted both turnovers into touchdowns. Then he broke up consecutive Bledsoe passes on third and fourth down from the Packer 1 last week, stops that initiated the longest touchdown drive in the league thus far this season.
But even after a whirlwind start to the 1997 campaign, Williams is not allowing his newfound opportunity to get to his head. His general goal remains the same - to improve week after week.
"I just want to keep moving forward," Williams says. "That's been my attitude since I was 8, 9 years old, when I would always dream about playing in the NFL. I played early in college, so I related back to that experience to help my development here."
And let's face it, even if Williams wasn't playing well, you might still want him around as a good luck charm. In the past three years, Williams has accumulated quite an assortment of hardware - two national championship rings and a Super Bowl ring. The Huskers' and Packers' combined record during that stint is 43-3.
"I just want to keep the streak going."
*Editor's Note:A quiet, focused player, Williams was a three-year starter for Nebraska before joining Green Bay last season as a third-round draft choice. He played in three straight national championship games for the Cornhuskers. *