Johnny Williams’ faith led him back to football.
“God was my coach,” he said.
Donovan Varner returned to the game when he realized how much he missed it.
“I just found a passion for it again,” he said.
A year removed from the end of their Duke football careers and graduation, both players received a second chance. The duo was among seven Blue Devils working out in front of 21 NFL scouts at Duke football’s Pro Day Monday.
“I didn’t want them to come in here and not be in shape, but it was very evident that they worked hard,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They wanted another shot and neither was as healthy as they needed to be in their senior workouts, so it gives them a chance to show their stuff.”
Williams had been working on his graphic design career in Atlanta, a venture he began at Duke with former Blue Devil and current St. Louis Ram defensive back Matt Daniels called “Middle Child,” saying the middle child is often overlooked and doesn’t get a lot of attention. Williams originally focused on creating designs and caricatures for friends and a handful of NFL players, and in the past year expanded to doing commercial graphic design. His most recent client was Bankers Life and Casualty, designing a mural for their branch in Mobile, Ala., Williams’ hometown.
But when he returned home a few months ago it was also to begin training for another chance at playing professional football. Williams began his career at Duke as a wide receiver, starting 15 games in his first two seasons before transitioning to the defensive side of the ball as an upperclassman. He started eight games at defensive back as a senior but missed three of the team’s contests with a leg injury.
In Mobile, he began conducting two-a-day workouts, one by himself and one with Darrell “Lectron” Williams, an All-SEC freshman running back in 1989 whose career was derailed by injures. With Lectron, Johnny Williams stuck with his instincts and decided to train as a wide receiver.
“[Wide receiver] is my love, and it’s what God told me I needed to do,” he said.
Johnny Williams also worked at “QB Country,” a camp in Mobile run by David Morris, a former Ole Miss quarterback under Cutcliffe, who was the head coach for the Rebels from 1998-2004. Williams had the opportunity to both train and coach there, saying he learned from his mistakes by working with high school and college athletes at the facility.
Williams worked with Lectron on speed and physical training while Morris was able to prepare him more in the field, teaching him the routes he would have to run in front of scouts on Pro Day.
Williams’ intangibles, however, are what set him apart, Morris said.
“The quality that gets most overlooked is heart. Most guys who play at the Division I level have the athletic ability, but it’s the guys who have the biggest heart and want-to that end up excelling,” Morris said. “He has the heart right now, the will-to, want-to and the work ethic. Physically he’s good enough to play somewhere. It’s just a matter of where.”
Williams was ultimately pleased with the attention he received after auditioning for scouts Monday.
“My agent [Stan Gay] called, and he said a lot of scouts called him and said, ‘Johnny Williams, who is he?’” Williams said.
Like Williams, Varner wasn’t fully healthy at least year’s Pro Day. The 5-foot-9 wide receiver finished his Duke career with the program’s record for receptions, only to have it broken by his high school and college teammate Conner Vernon.
Discouraged after not getting selected in last year’s NFL Draft and not receiving a training camp invite, Varner returned home to Miami.
“I got down and out about that,” he said. “I gave up on football.”
While at home he returned to his high school, Gulliver Prep, where he began coaching the wide receivers. There he rediscovered his passion for the game and started training once again in December.
He kept close tabs on Vernon and the team throughout the season, saying he called Vernon before every game and was thrilled to see the team reach the Belk Bowl, the Blue Devils’ first bowl appearance since the 1994 season.
After months of training, Varner said he was happy with his performance at Pro Day. Although official times were not available, he said the times on his 40-yard dash were between 4.43 and 4.49 seconds, which are above average for a wide receiver.
Varner said he was thankful for the opportunity to showcase his talents again, stating a willingness to play professionally anywhere, whether it’s in the NFL or elsewhere.
“They didn’t have to give me the chance to come back out here,” Varner said. “It’s a touching moment and a blessing.”
Neither Varner nor Williams has a guarantee of playing professional football. And after a year removed from the game, it appears to be more of a long shot.
But their careers at Duke and decision to give it one more go spoke volumes about their character to Cutcliffe.
“Whether they make it in pro football or not—I hope they do, I hope they have chance or shot at it—they’re going to be successful because of the hard work they’ve done here academically and the type of young men they’ve become,” Cutcliffe said.