FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — At the end of last season, Leonard Williams said his goal was to become a team leader for the New York Jets. He shared that sentiment with his girlfriend’s father, who played a little football in his day. He suggested to Williams that he enroll in a leadership program, just as he did early in his own career.
Williams did, and Hailey Lott’s dad — the great Ronnie Lott — approved.
“I applaud him,” the Pro Football Hall of Famer told ESPN on Tuesday. “Most athletes are consumed by themselves, not consumed by trying to help others. He wants to get excited about trying to find ways to make the team better, not just himself.”
Williams signed up for five weekend seminars at the Ascension Leadership Academy in San Diego, where he’s learning personal development with an emphasis on leadership. He’ll head back to San Diego at the end of the month to complete the curriculum.
More than ever, the Jets need a few good leaders. They stripped down their roster this offseason, jettisoning veterans such as David Harris, Eric Decker, Nick Mangold, Brandon Marshall and Darrelle Revis. There’s a leadership void in the locker room, and they’re counting on Williams to become the face of the defense, a unit still reeling from Harris’ abrupt release.
“Even before David was gone, I was ready to step into a leadership role and give back to the team as much as possible,” Williams said Tuesday at minicamp. “I want to bring up some of the younger guys and show more involvement as a leader.”
Williams is the best player on the team, and he still hasn’t celebrated his 23rd birthday. (That happens June 23.) Right now, he’s a one-man foundation, looking to get better on and off the field at ALA.
“I’ve learned that it’s all a mindset,” he said. “I kind of already knew that, but they harp on it a lot. Anything you think is possible, you can make possible.”
When Lott sensed Williams was serious about this leadership thing, he suggested that he go all-in. Lott, who finished his career with the Jets in 1994, was a respected leader on four Super Bowl championship teams with the San Francisco 49ers. He was a star at USC, as was Williams. They met through their Trojans connections and developed a strong friendship.
Just recently, Lott, Williams and USC legend Marcus Allen — another Hall of Famer — had a three-way phone conversation. Williams is one lucky dude; what player wouldn’t love to have Hall of Fame advisers a phone call away?
“Marcus told him, ‘We don’t expect you to be good, we expect you to be the best that ever played,'” Lott said.
Lott believes Williams has unlimited potential.
“You want to have a player where, every time he lines up, the opponent is afraid of him and fears him,” Lott said. “You want that guy. I think he has the capability of being like a J.J. Watt or Jadeveon Clowney. For him, I just hope he gets to a point where he thinks he’s the best in the league.”
It’s a credit to Williams that he wants to be a well-rounded player, not a diva absorbed with his own greatness. That’s why he signed up for personal enrichment.
“When you’re there, it’s not just athletes,” he said. “It’s everyday people, business people. You really learn a lot from each other and learn about your past and what holds you back. It’s really cool.
“It helps me go to work every day with a purpose. Sometimes when you’re in camp, you do the same thing every day and you feel like you’re going through the motions. This helps me wake up in the morning with set intentions every day.”
His popularity soared 11 days ago, when a video posted on Twitter showed him forcibly removing teammate Darron Lee from an apparent dispute with a woman at a music festival in New York. Both players declined to discuss the incident, which is being investigated by the NFL. His silence notwithstanding, Williams showed a take-charge attitude.
The Jets need that, especially without Harris.
“He passed down a lot of stuff to me,” Williams said, “and I’m going to try to pass it down to the younger guys as well.”