For Willie Williams, the first step back toward major college football didn't come in a hallowed stadium jammed with tens of thousands of fans but in a junior college facility specked with only a few hundred.
Playing in his first game since transferring from the University of Miami, the West Los Angeles College linebacker blocked Moorpark's first punt Oct. 14, a rare highlight for the Oilers during a 28-0 defeat.
It was a small step, sure. But at least it was in the right direction.
Williams' college career seemed headed in a downward spiral from the moment his record of 11 arrests was revealed on the day he officially accepted a scholarship from Miami in February 2004. The blue-chip recruit sat out his first season after suffering a knee injury and was a part-time player as a redshirt freshman, prompting his search for a bigger role at a new school.
"I could have stayed at Miami and been a great linebacker, but I have a personal goal of winning the Butkus Award," Williams said, referring to the honor bestowed upon college football's top linebacker. "I feel like, if you're going to be good, why not be great at what you do?"
Williams, 6 feet 3 and 235 pounds, said he picked West L.A. because he "wanted to get away from that whole Miami scene" and was impressed by the credentials of Coach Craig Austin, who had called plays for current NFL stars Chad Johnson and Steve Smith as offensive coordinator at Santa Monica College.
So Williams and his stepfather, Leonard Pressley, moved into an apartment near the West L.A. campus in August and Pressley found work as a security guard. But Williams had to sit out the Oilers' first five games while waiting for school officials to verify his Miami transcripts, a delay made all the more agonizing by the team's 0-5 start.
"We would make eye contact sometimes and I would shake my head and he would shake his head back at me," Austin said. "We were just telling ourselves we knew he would have made that play. That's all we could do."
Williams had 13 tackles and two sacks in addition to the blocked punt against Moorpark, but that wasn't enough to overcome six Oilers turnovers. However, he was instrumental Saturday in West L.A.'s first victory, 23-20, over L.A. Southwest, in which he forced a fumble and made 10 tackles.
Williams said he hoped to transfer back to a major Division I program next season. He said he had been a guest of UCLA for a game at the Rose Bowl, and the interest appears to be mutual.
Austin, a longtime L.A. County deputy sheriff, said Williams regularly attends classes and predicted that he would benefit a major-college program.
It's possible Williams is on his best behavior because he realizes this is his last chance. He knows wherever he goes, mentions of his arrest record will follow.
"It's kind of more motivation to me," he said. "That's the past, and if you're going to keep bringing that up, it kind of motivates me to show you that I will be a success in life."