May 30, 2023

Football is a calling for Roughriders defensive back Deontai Williams

Deontai Williams, who made a key interception for the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Saturday, once had a noteworthy pick of a different description. 

Following the 2017 football season, he was presented with a choice between two universities — Central Florida and Nebraska. 

The complexity of the decision was such that he was essentially on the clock around 2 a.m., after receiving an early-morning phone call from his father. 

That would be former NFL defensive back Roosevelt Williams, who had been in touch with representatives of both NCAA programs. Once the options were fully outlined, it was up to his son to make the final call. 

“I had a choice of (a flight at) 6 o’clock in the morning to go to UCF or 9 o’clock in the morning to go to Nebraska,” the 26-year-old Williams recalled after Tuesday’s workout at Coors Light Riders Training Camp. “I just prayed over it and I’d see what I chose. 

“I fell in love with Nebraska.” 

It was, in a way, a sneak preview of Saskatchewan. 

The University of Nebraska Cornhuskers are based in Lincoln, which has a population exceeding 290,000. 

Saskatoon, the site of training camp, has roughly 275,000 residents. Regina is in the 230,000 range. 

“I heard that people love football here, just like in Nebraska,” Williams said. “I can’t wait to get to know the fans and enjoy the community.” 

He was introduced to Regina on Saturday, when the Roughriders defeated the B.C. Lions 30-27 in CFL pre-season action at Mosaic Stadium. 

In the third quarter, Williams intercepted Lions quarterback Dominique Davis to give Saskatchewan a first down on the visitors’ 50-yard line. Six plays later, the Roughriders were in the end zone, courtesy of a 22-yard scoring strike from Shea Patterson to Keith Corbin III. 

Williams’ interception enabled the Roughriders’ coaches to put yet another check mark beside his name. 

“Good football player,” Head Coach Craig Dickenson said. “First of all, he’s tough. That’s what we like about him. 

“One of our first days in camp, I sat down and ate a meal with him. He said, ‘Coach, our DB coach at Nebraska ran us all the time. I can run all day,’ and he has been true to his word. 

“He made a good impression from the start and he has kept it up.” 

As a result, Williams is in the running to make the team heading into the final audition — Friday’s pre-season game in Winnipeg against the Blue Bombers. 

“When I told (Dickenson) I could run all day, it was just because, when I was training at Nebraska, all the starters had to practise the whole practice, with no subs,” Williams said. 

“It was just like a boxing match, honestly.” 

The sessions were gruelling, but the overall experience was rewarding — especially when the Cornhuskers played before 90,000 devotees at famed Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. 

“They treat you like a celebrity,” Williams said. “Everybody knows who you are. You can’t just sit at a restaurant and eat without a fan knowing who you are, talking to you, and trying to get your autograph. 

“I heard that it’s the same as here, so I’m going to enjoy it.” 

Over four seasons at Nebraska, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound safety registered six interceptions, 15 pass knockdowns, 122 defensive tackles (including 6½ for a loss), three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries (one of which he returned for a touchdown). 

He received honourable-mention All-Big Ten honours following the 2020 and 2021 seasons. In the latter year, he had four interceptions in eight games. 

The Seattle Seahawks took notice, signing Williams as an undrafted free agent in April of 2022. He had seven defensive tackles over three NFL pre-season games. 

The Roughriders announced the signing of Williams on Jan. 7. Now he is making the most of the latest opportunity and enjoying the new surroundings. 

“My whole life, I’ve always been on the move,” said Williams, who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. 

“When I was in high school, I stayed with my youth football coach. I didn’t get the grades to go to college (directly out of high school), so I had to go all the way to Mississippi to play junior college football. 

“I had never heard about Nebraska until that phone call, so I went to Nebraska … and now I’m in Saskatchewan. 

“So football has brought me everywhere — and it has connected me with a lot of great people, too.”