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Carolina Panthers

For DeShawn Williams, a long journey brought him home

DeShawn Williams

SPARTANBURG — DeShawn Williams grew up on the Panthers, so he walked in the door familiar with the history. The mythology of the team was part of his growing up.

So Keep Pounding wasn't just a slogan or something stitched inside the collar of a jersey; it became a way of life for him, from Calgary to Carolina, with a stop in a Colorado Amazon warehouse in between. For the native of Central, S.C., to come back to his boyhood team and then to have his high school team practicing on the same fields in Tuesday's unified practice with Daniel High, that's going to represent a full-circle moment for Williams.

And when the Daniel Lions show up next to the Panthers on Tuesday, they'll be able to point to one of their own and see what it means to work for something and achieve it.

The veteran defensive lineman was one of the team's first signings in March, as they tried to build a new defense. But they also bought someone who can establish the kind of work ethic they want all their players to have because he's seen actual long workdays that go beyond a hot and humid two-hour practice in training camp.

"I just tell people, man, just literally, you know, Keep Pounding," Williams said as he described his journey home. "You know, it fits. It fits me. Keep Pounding is not just football but life. You know, you might be going through some hard times, but just keep going."

Just cataloging his transactions can be exhausting — before you even get to the long hours spent loading boxes into trucks in a Denver warehouse.

Cut 10 times — including once by Frank Reich in Indianapolis — and six times by the Broncos. Never stopping, even when it appeared his football journey might have ended during the pandemic, when he was signed by the Calgary Stampeders but released when the 2020 CFL season was canceled because of COVID-19.

To make ends meet, he worked in an Amazon warehouse, waiting for another chance – one which came in 2020 when the Broncos brought him back for a third time. He was still getting up at 7 a.m. to work out, would then pull shifts of real work (the doubles would last from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m.) with at least a 35-minute commute each way if there was no traffic, before doing it again every day. Just waiting for that phone to ring.

"They had me doing the heavy lifting, pallets, warehouse stuff, putting stuff on trucks, so I got to work out," he laughed when he recalled those days when he never knew if another team would give him another chance. "Just not knowing when you're going to get that call. I'm at work checking my phone. Did it vibrate? This (is) my call. And I'm just like pressing, just pressing, trying to make some happiness, but it was out of my control.

"And I think I learned, if it's not in your control, then don't sweat over it for all those hours, man."

DeShawn Williams

By that time, Williams had learned what it was like to be on the outside looking in.

After his standout career at Clemson, he went to camp with the Bengals in 2015. Cut, and spent the year on the practice squad. Came back in 2016, made the active roster, appearing in four games. The following year, he was cut again after training camp and went back to the practice squad.

Prior to the 2018 season, he went to Denver but was released again in final cuts. He spent some time on the Dolphins practice squad and eventually made his way to the Colts practice squad in December of 2018, when he met Reich for the first time. By that time, he had established that he was a worker and that he had no intention of stopping. But he's an unconventional defensive end. At 6-foot-1 and 295 pounds, he's not the usual size for his job description, but he's incredibly strong and strong-willed. The NFL can be a numbers game though, and when you aren't the right size or shape, it's easy to get overlooked.

So the next spring, when the Colts were going to let him go, he had his first meeting in Reich's office.

"I just remember it was one of the harder cuts that I've ever had to make, and it just got very emotional," Reich said. "I mean, it's always a little bit emotional to me; it's never easy. But it was just hard, you know. I knew this guy had a heart of gold, and he was a good player.

"We made that move and, you know, it was the wrong move because he turned out to be a great player."

DeShawn Williams

So for Williams to walk back into Reich's office again in March, the emotions came flooding back.

To get there, you walk down a hall that includes a picture of the Panthers' 10th Anniversary team. Williams knows every name from growing up here and can talk at length about not just Julius Peppers, but Mike Rucker and Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner, and all the rest.

So to see those faces he knew so well and then to sit down again with Reich, this whole journey has been emotional for Williams.

"It really made me cherish the little things, like just walking in the facility," Williams said. "You know, it was a journey, man, and I'm very appreciative."

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Williams isn't just a feel-good story, though it's hard not to root for someone who was working in a warehouse when he got what appeared to be a final chance when former Broncos line coach Bill Kollar called him in 2020.

"The thing that I told coach Reich was that every time that I got cut, nobody ever said I couldn't play," Williams said. "It was just one of those numbers games. Nobody ever told me I couldn't play. So I was like, I just need an opportunity. And then Bill Kollar gave me the opportunity, and I took it and ran with it and haven't looked back since."

A strange thing happened during that 2020 season — among the many strange things in a COVID year — Williams became a player.

"I tell people all the time, the COVID season was a blessing or a curse for a lot of people," Williams said. "For me, it was a blessing because that was the year I got my I got my opportunity."

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He started 11 games for the Broncos and started making plays. That included an interception off then-Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, but there were enough plays to justify his spot. He proved he could do it, and started 15 games for them in 2022, with Ejiro Evero and Dom Capers finding ways to use his strength and leverage. At 30 years old, he had what amounts to a breakout season, with 4.5 sacks.

So when Evero and Capers got to Carolina this offseason and knew they needed to build a 3-4 front from a solid foundation, they moved quickly to advocate for Williams. They knew he could help, but they also realized he could be an important part of shaping a culture here.

"Obviously, I know the defense, but they told me you're not here to be in a mentor role," Williams said. " They're like, 'Are you ready to go?' I'm like, 'Let's play, let's do this.'"

And with that, every day is a chance to add to the story.

For Williams, growing up in the Upstate, the name Stephen Davis was legendary from his Spartanburg High days. So to be able to wear the same uniform as someone who grew up in the same area is special. For a guy who cheered when he watched Steve Smith go to the house in double overtime in St. Louis during the Super Bowl XXXVIII run, to see Smith walk past at practice seems surreal.

Now this week, the kids from his hometown will be there next to him, and they can see all those things too, and see Williams, and be inspired.

View photos from the Panthers' ninth practice of training camp in Spartanburg.

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