SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Moments after Panthers practice ended Tuesday, tight end Brandon Williams headed over to the base of the stands at Gibbs Stadium and went down the line signing autographs.
Realistically, several of the fans getting his signature probably didn't know who he was.
In the moments between the end of practice and his impromptu autograph session, Williams worked toward changing that reality.
"I just put my faith in God and continue to work as hard as I can," said Williams, who went through his usual post-practice routine of catching extra passes before taking time out for the fans. "With my situation, I feel like I've got to work 10 times harder than everybody else."
In some ways, Williams' situation isn't that unique. Every year at training camp, a group of talented but unheralded players that are likely to lose out in the numbers game take their shot at defying the odds. Williams came to camp as one of those, but he's quickly emerging as one to watch.
While the situation isn't rare, every person in Williams' shoes has his own story to tell. And in the case of Williams, it's quite a story.
Williams is one of five players on the Panthers roster – along with punter Jordan Gay, defensive tackle Linden Gaydosh, defensive end Louis Nzegwu and cornerback Melvin White - to join the team after participating in one of nine NFL Regional Combines. The program, in its third year, gives players that may have otherwise slipped through the cracks a chance to show their stuff.
Sixty-nine players from this year's program went to training camp with NFL teams, but none followed the same path as Williams. Weeks before the Seattle combine that he participated in this past March, Williams was playing college basketball at Portland Bible College while holding down a job as a security guard. At the time, he didn't even know whether he was physically capable of playing football.
After playing football and basketball for two years at Joliet Junior College in his native Illinois, Williams transferred to the University of Oregon to play tight end. He saw spot duty his first season and was in line for a bigger role as a senior, but an injury in the spring of 2011 led to the discovery of stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that prompted him to stop playing football.
Williams wanted to play basketball for the Ducks, but the NCAA wouldn't grant him a waiver because a medical scholarship tied to the football program was now paying for his education. So Williams opted to work toward his sociology degree and in the summer of 2012, he landed a security job to help prepare him for a possible career in law enforcement. He also played summer league basketball, hoping against hope that he could somehow parlay that into a hoops career overseas.
A coach from across town rather than from across the pond took notice, and Williams got the chance to play basketball at Portland Bible College last season. Around that same time he decided to see if he could gain medical clearance to compete in the NFL Regional Combine, and the rest is history.
"I was just trying to do a lot of different things, trying to get myself as many opportunities as possible, whether it be basketball, football or a career," Williams said. "It feels so good to be out here, to even have this chance. It's not easy because I haven't played football in two years, but it's a great opportunity."
As if Williams didn't already face enough of an uphill battle after signing with the Panthers at the end of April, the challenge got steeper still when he missed organized team activities with a knee injury. But he worked his way back into shape for training camp and has now worked his way into the conversation at tight end, raising some eyebrows by hauling in a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback Jimmy Clausen at Fan Fest on Saturday.
"He's a great player," Clausen said. "He's obviously physically gifted and athletic, and he's learned the offense pretty fast."
Tuesday after practice, Williams' uniform obviously tipped fans off that he plays for the Panthers, even if they didn't know him by name or number. And given his strikingly chiseled physique, Williams might even get stopped on the street by a fan who assumes he must be a professional athlete of some sort.
But someday, seemingly against all odds, Williams might be much more recognizable.
"Brandon continues to make great strides, big strides," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We think he has a chance."