SAN DIEGO — It took a while for Phil Williams to find a sport that matched his body, but the results certainly have been impressive.
Last year, as a junior at Point Loma Nazarene College, Williams was an NAIA All-American hurdler. And he is expected to earn All-American honors again at the NAIA National Championships May 21-23 in Russelville, Ark.
But Williams has been competing in track only since his senior in high school. Before that, he was a 5-foot 11-inch, 140-pound center on the football team at Marshall Fundamental High School in Pasadena.
A 140-pound center ?
Opposing nose guards must have been counting up the quarterback sacks before the national anthem.
"I was small, but always aggressive," Williams said. "It shocked me when our coach used me at center. The nose guard on the other team was shocked too. He saw some skinny guy snapping the ball and underestimated me. After the first play, he was on his rear end. I held my own, which surprised me and everyone else."
Williams played center until the team's regular center returned from an injury. He was a wide receiver and defensive end for the remainder of the season.
But the guys across the line of scrimmage weren't the only ones marveling at the spider-like figure squatting over the football. Bob Pruitt, the Marshall track coach, took one look at Williams' long legs and persuaded him to come out for track.
So, in the spring of his senior season, Williams found his niche.
"The first time I tried (the hurdles), I guess I was a natural," Williams said. "I took right to it. I went out for track mainly because it was the last sport before school was out. Your senior year, you do all you can to get recognition."
Williams managed to grab a measure of attention, too, finishing second to a teammate in the Alpha League's 110-yard high hurdles.
The next year, he was running and jumping at Pasadena City College. Williams may have been a "natural" in high school, but he was just another hurdler when he stepped up to the community college level.
The hurdles were 42 inches high, three inches higher than in high school. And the competition was on a higher plane.
"In high school, you do it because it's fun and you get attention," Williams said. "It's a little more serious in junior college."
In his sophomore year, he finished eighth in the 110-meter high hurdles at the Southern California Finals.
At the time, Williams' sister, Leilani, was playing basketball at Point Loma Nazarene. She asked Jim Crakes, Point Loma Nazarene's track coach, to call her brother.
Crakes also was impressed by those long legs.
"He's still rather a novice at the game now," Crakes said. "This is only his fifth year, which isn't much when you're trying to be the best. Some people have a knack for things. The hurdles and (pole) vault are the two toughest things to learn unless you have the muscular intuition to pick it up and do well."
Williams caught on immediately at Point Loma Nazarene, earning All-American status as a junior. He finished third in the NAIA 110-meter high hurdles last year with a time of 14.01 seconds. The top six finishers automatically earn All-America status.
Last weekend, he qualified for the NAIA National Championships by finishing second in the District III Championships in 14.12 seconds.
Williams also won the District III Championships in the 200-meter hurdles with a time of 21.78, but he considers the 110-high hurdles his primary event, so he will concentrate on that race in the NAIA Championships.
"I just wanted to come down here and do well," said Williams, who is now 6-1 and 150 pounds. "I had no idea I would go to the nationals and be an All-American. I thought the nationals were for the big guys.
"I did what I did and realized I was one of the big guys."
"Big," in the figurative sense. He isn't planning to take a shot at pro football as a center . . . even though he has bulked up to 150.