Cut that meat! Cutthat meat!
Alas, PeytonManning isn't here to reprise his commercial catchphrase, but how cool would itbe if the Indianapolis Colts All-Pro quarterback were with us now: dining on apleasant summer night with a man being paid millions to get in Manning's grill.Clogging arteries, Brazilian style, with Mario Williams at Fogo de Ch√£o, atrendy Houston churrascaria. Watching in gluttonous wonderment as chefs inwhite linen descend with sharp knives and giant sides of alcatra (top sirloin),fraldinha (bottom sirloin), costela de porco (pork ribs), frango (chicken) andcordeiro (leg of lamb). It's this last dish, hot and fresh, sliced off thebone, that inspires Williams, the 21-year-old quarterback terrorizer whom theHouston Texans made the No. 1 pick of the 2006 NFL draft, to yield to therestaurant's all-you-can-eat temptations, over and over.
So yes, in morepolite terms, Williams keeps telling the cordeiro-toting chef to cut that meat,filling his 6'7", 294-pound frame like a guy who just got voted offSurvivor. And though Manning isn't there to appreciate the feast, his presenceis felt. For he, if you break it down, is the reason we're here. That Williams,a virtual unknown coming off his junior year at North Carolina State, is nowproperty of the Texans--rather than Reggie Bush, Vince Young or Matt Leinart,the Holy Trinity of draft-eligible college superstars--is largely because ofManning's domination of his AFC South rivals. In their inglorious history theTexans have never defeated Indy, losing eight games by an average margin of15.5 points.
"If all I wasinterested in was selling tickets, the first pick would have been VinceYoung," Texans owner Bob McNair says of the Houston native whoquarterbacked the Texas Longhorns to the 2005 national title. "And our fanswould've been thrilled with Reggie Bush. But here's how I look at it: For us toget to the playoffs, we've got to beat Indy. The only way to beat Indy is toput pressure on Manning. If not, he's going to make you chopped liver. Well,Mario will put pressure on Peyton. Ask yourself, with Reggie Bush, would ouroffense be better than [the Colts'] offense? I'd say no, which means we've gotto figure out how to get after Manning defensively."
If McNair andothers in his organization seem a bit defensive, they have good reason. Seldom,if ever, has a decision on a No. 1 overall NFL pick been so disparaged. Andwe're not referring just to talking heads with dorky hairdos or agents with astake in the outcome. As Houston announced its selection on April 29, both NewYork City's Radio City Music Hall, where Williams strode to the podium to bethe first to shake hands with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and ReliantStadium, where hundreds of Texans fans gathered on the club level to watch theproceedings, echoed with boos. At draft headquarters in Manhattan, the initialjeers were followed by chants of "overrated"--surreal from Williams'sperspective, considering that six months earlier he'd been a frustrated playeron an underachieving team who didn't even consider himself a prospective No.1.
"I'd havelaughed if you'd told me I'd go first," Williams says as he gestures formore lamb. "Even at the end it was a shock. I know there's been a lot oftalk that it was the wrong move, and I use it all as motivation. I think aboutthat stuff all the time."
On his first dayof work, Williams, like anybody thrust into an unfamiliar situation, madeconversation by talking about the weather. Only this new employee, having justcompleted his first training camp practice at the Texans' facility across fromReliant Stadium last Friday, was discussing the stifling Houston heat andhumidity with a horde of reporters more than 20 strong. Beads of sweat pouringoff his forehead, a small blade of grass resting just below his left eye,Williams sounded like a man who'd grown up at the North Pole rather than inNorth Carolina. On a cloudy, 90° day with 59% humidity, Williams put up somestaggering numbers: 12 mentions of the temperature in the first 13 questions."And," he conceded at one point, "it's not even as hot as it'sprobably going to be."
Williams'schallenge is to take the heat off the Texans' brass and attempt to justify hisunlikely status. All he has to do is be very good, very quickly--and, perhapsequally important, be better than Bush, who went No. 2 overall to the NewOrleans Saints. Before being sidelined in June after surgery to remove thesmashed nails on both big toes (he had recurring infections from being steppedon), Williams made his presence felt during Houston's off-season workouts andminicamps, routinely showing up at 5:30 a.m. and logging eight-hour days. Onthe practice field he impressed teammates and coaches with his instincts,ferocity and versatility. He'll have to do much more than that, starting now:The Texans, who are switching to a 4--3 defense, are loaded with speed andpotential on the line; they view Williams as the player who can spur thetransformation of a defense that ranked 31st in the NFL last season and blewsix second-half leads. "He was knocking some guys into the backfield,"said new Texans coach Gary Kubiak after watching Williams last Friday. "Ifyou run the ball his way, there is a lot of havoc going on over there, a lot ofguys going backwards, and that's what he's here for."
This being the21st century, plenty of self-proclaimed experts have already decreed thatWilliams won't be up to the task, that he'll be the NFL's version of Sam Bowie,the player taken just before Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft. The skepticscontend that Williams is a workout warrior who disappears for long stretches.They offer this criticism, of course, from the security of their cubicles andPDAs. "Nobody says anything to my face," notes Williams, spreading hismassive arms, as if to add, Who'd want to mess with these? "Everyone I seeis like, 'Congratulations.'"
This wasespecially true once the city of Houston's collective guilt kicked in. It beganin early June at a fan-appreciation gathering in Reliant Stadium, whereWilliams got a 30-second standing ovation from thousands of season-ticketholders and sponsors after being introduced by Kubiak. Two nights later nearly400 local business and community leaders, including Houston mayor Bill White,attended a reception at which Williams was presented with a white Stetson hatand a gavel. "I already see the sentiment changing," McNair saidshortly after the reception. "We've had five people--five, not fivethousand--who actually canceled their season tickets after the draft. I telleveryone else, 'When you see Mario play, you'll understand.'"
That formalityhasn't stopped two traditionally active groups of supporters--distant relativesand prospective romantic interests--from jumping on the bandwagon (or gravytrain, depending upon one's perspective). "I knew the family tree,"says Williams's mother, Mary, "but now it's like, Who did you say youwere?" As for his growing legion of female admirers, Mario says he can nolonger navigate smoothly through the online social networks MySpace andFacebook without receiving offers of "like everything, whatever, wherever.It's crazy."
Odds are Williamswill make a woman very happy someday, what with the clean-freak sensibilitiesfirst noticed by his mother. "I'd come home from work and he'd be vacuumingthe house," she says. "That probably started when he was eight."Last year Williams was housemates with N.C. State defensive tackle JohnMcCargo, selected 26th overall by the Buffalo Bills. "Mario wantseverything spotless," McCargo says. "If there was an unwashed dish inthe sink or a piece of paper on the floor, he'd be crying like a little girl.It got so bad at one point that he wouldn't use the kitchen; he startedthrowing away dishes that had been in the sink for too long."
In March 2003Williams considered discarding his football dreams. Two months after he'darrived in Raleigh--having graduated a semester early from Richlands (N.C.)High--Williams was called into coach Chuck Amato's office after spring practicefor some awful news: Williams's brother-in-law, Marine Sgt. Nicolas Hodson, hadbeen killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq four days into the war. Mario's oldersister, Michelon Hodson, was left widowed with a 15-month-old son, Marius; shewas five months pregnant with a second son, whom she would name Nicolas.
On the two-hourdrive back to rural Richlands (pop. 928), the college freshman whose childhoodnickname was Buddha thought hard about the tragedy. When he got to hisgrandmother's house he told his grieving sister that he would quit football andget a job to help support her and the children; she told him to stay in schooland that she'd find a way to make it work.
Williams returnedto N.C. State and thrived. He earned a starting defensive-end job as a freshmanand was named All-ACC as a sophomore. Midway through his junior season,however, he and his team were foundering. He had just one sack and was not inthe starting lineup for an Oct. 22 game against Wake Forest. Williams respondedby coming off the bench to make three sacks and 3 1/2 tackles for loss againstthe Demon Deacons. He finished the '05 season with 14 sacks and 27 1/2 tacklesfor loss. Though Williams insists he "played the same way all year,"Kubiak concedes that "there were people who said he didn't play at the samespeed all the time. It's our job as coaches to make sure he does."
The Wolfpack,after losing to Wake to fall to 2--4, won five of its final six games, the lasta 14--0 shutout of South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on New Year'sEve. The next day the Texans fell in overtime to the San Francisco 49ers,dropping to a league-worst 2--14 in a regular-season finale dubbed the BushBowl, so certain was the USC running back's status as the top overall pick.Young's heroics in the BCS title against USC made him a potential threat tousurp Bush, but even after Williams's impressive showing at the Februaryscouting combine (4.70 in the 40-yard dash, 35 reps of 225 pounds in the benchpress, a 40 1/2-inch vertical leap), few considered him a possible No. 1. Whenhe visited Houston on April 10, it was widely viewed as a ploy by the Texans toforce Bush's asking price down. The team later began discussing contract termswith agents for both players.
Then, two nightsbefore the draft, Williams was visiting a New York City children's hospitalwith Bush and other top prospects when his cellphone lit up with a message fromhis agent, Ben Dogra: We've got to talk. "I knew something was up,"Williams recalls. "It sounded like something really bad." It wasn't.Williams was about to join Bruce Smith (1985) and Courtney Brown (2000) as theonly defensive ends taken first overall in the last 30 years.
It's notcompletely clear what role, if any, finances played in the Texans' decision.According to two sources familiar with the negotiations, Bush's agent, JoelSegal, had agreed in principle to a six-year, $54 million total package but wasasking for $30 million as a signing bonus; Williams, by contrast, accepted asimilar overall deal with $26.5 million in guaranteed money. There was also thelate-breaking report by Yahoo Sports that Bush's family had lived in a homeowned by a man with ties to a sports-marketing company. Charley Casserly, whoresigned as the Texans' general manager shortly after the draft, insists thatthe team's choice of Williams was strictly a football decision. "In anormal year, if only one of them was there, it wouldn't have even been adecision--either guy would have been an obvious Number 1," Casserly says."There was no question in my mind we could have signed Reggie Bush if we'dchosen to draft him. But with the switch to the 4--3, Gary Kubiak and I bothdecided Mario was the best fit for our team."
For all thepressure Williams faces by virtue of his draft position--no matter how good heis, will Bush or Young be better?--his mandate is a blessedly simple one: Getto the quarterback. If he does that, everything will fall into place. Or, as aman who approaches his table at Fogo de Ch√£o puts it, "I hope you get lotsof sacks, and I hope you kick butt this year." After asking Williams topose for a photo, the balding fan with the gray goatee adds, "I know youwill. Congratulations, and welcome to the Texans."
Having finallyshooed away the last of the meat-slicing chefs, Williams stares at a dessertmenu with accompanying drink selections. The Louis XIII cognac stops him, andhe summons the waiter and asks, "Two hundred and thirty dollars? Is thatfor the whole bottle?" No, the waiter answers, that's the price of a singleshot. Williams shakes his head in wonderment. The waiter, who by now hasfigured out he has a celebrity in the house, asks Williams if he'd like a"little taste." Williams nods eagerly, and a minute later he is broughta shot glass filled nearly to the top. Williams smiles. So this is how the gameis played.
He finishes thedrink in two sips and gives a thumbs-up. But wait--the play is under review.Williams's eyes begin to water, and he has trouble getting his words out."Man," he says, gasping, "it's like there's a fire inside me.Whoo-hooo, I need to go home and lay down."
Sure thing, butfor the record, it was good, right? "Yeah," he whispers, stillstruggling for air. "But at that price, it better be."
A whole lot ofTexans fans know exactly how he feels.
For more from Michael Silver, including his weekly Open Mike column andpostcards from training camp, go to SI.com/nfl.
"Nobody says anything to my face," Williamssays, spreading his arms as if to add, Who'd want to MESS WITH THESE?
Photograph by Bob Rosato
MISSIONSTATEMENT - For their $54 million, the Texans want Williams to pump up adefense that ranked second to last in 2005 and blew six second-halfleads.
SUPERMARIO? - Kubiak says the 6'7" Williams is a rare force on D.
SCOTT K. BROWN (LEFT)
WHOLOVES YA? - Mom (in red) and his family have always backed Mario, but Texansfans were less supportive when the team drafted him.
BILL BAPTIST/GETTY IMAGES
CAMPFIRE - The knock on Williams was that he took plays off in college, but so farthe Texans love his effort and work ethic.