For Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Josh Williams, an HBCU origin is a 'badge of honor'
Graduates of historically Black colleges and universities account for an outsized number of NFL Hall of Famers. The Chiefs’ backup corner from Fayetteville State University has dreams of joining their ranks.
Even when he entered the NFL as a rookie, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Josh Williams felt a special bond, built-in, with certain other players in the league because of where he played college football.
“Some of those guys are my friends,” said Williams, a fourth-round draft pick in 2022 from little-known Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. He was the NFL’s highest selection that year from historically Black colleges and universities.
“You build a little friendship with them because you guys come from a similar place,” Williams said.
HBCU players represent only a small portion of the total football population, according to the NFL’s website, yet they make up nearly 10% of the players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“You kind of got to wear, like, a badge of honor,” Williams said, down the stretch in the regular season. “Not a lot of guys are in the NFL from HBCUs. So, the few guys that do make it, you feel special.”
Lanier, who played linebacker for the Chiefs from 1967 to ‘77, went to Morgan State College, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame website. Defensive lineman Buchanon, a product of Grambling State University, was the first player taken in the 1963 American Football League Draft. And Thomas, who went undrafted from Bishop College, played for the Chiefs for 13 seasons before retiring after the 1978 season as the team’s all-time leading interceptor.
The Chiefs have kept up that tradition on this year’s Super Bowl team with Williams.
In each of his first two seasons as a backup, Williams has played in all of the Chiefs playoff games. His first career interception came during his rookie season against — who else? — the San Francisco 49ers.
'Who is that guy?'
Chiefs Senior Director of Player Personnel Mike Bradway was the second Chiefs scout to see Williams play. Bradway made the trip down to Fayetteville, to see the 6-foot-3 defensive back first-hand.
“First time you go on the field, you know, he’s the first guy you notice — ‘Who is that guy?’” Bradway remembered. “He moves around great and afterwards you get to spend time with him. (I) spent an hour with him after practice.”
“And he was awesome,” Bradway said.
The Chiefs kept track of Williams all the way through the 2022 NFL Draft at the Caesars Forum on the Las Vegas Strip. The announcement was read by former Director of the German Football Association Oliver Bierhoff, over a garbled video connection from Munich.
Starting cornerback L’Jarius Sneed has seen Williams step up to the pro level since joining the team.
“He came a long way,” said Sneed. “I see him every day. I see his growth from when he was a rookie, when he first came in, to now. He’s grown a lot.”
Sneed, arguably one of the best corners in the NFL, is in the last year of his contract with the Chiefs, and it’s conceivable Williams could step in as a starter if Sneed leaves.
He likes the long-term prospects for Williams.
“He soaks everything in,” said Sneed. “He’s still learning. That’s what I love about him. He just don’t get comfortable and he’s just still going.”
Two seasons, two Super Bowls
The San Francisco 49ers also have an HBCU player, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave from South Carolina State.
Hargrave said it was the only school to offer him a scholarship out of high school because his first love was basketball.
“Once I seen my first 7-footer, I knew I wasn’t going to make it into the NBA. I definitely made the switch quick,” said Hargrave. “My parents basically told me I had no choice because they had to pay all them years for me to play football.”
Now, the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Hargrave is in his eighth year — and in his second straight Super Bowl. He played for the Philadelphia Eagles last year, and lost to the Chiefs.
“You think about it all the time,” said Hargrave about the loss. “How that was one of the worst days. So, I’ve not really gotten over (it), but I just don’t want to feel it again.”
Though Williams and Hargrave have never met, they know about each other through their HBCU ties.
Williams also has a deep appreciation for Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Lanier.
“Him just being a legend and kind of setting a precedent back in the day for that, it was just a blessing to be around him,” said Williams.
After last year’s Super Bowl win, Williams received an honorary key to the city of Fayetteville, North Carolina. By the time he reported to Chiefs training camp in July, he knew right away the Chiefs wouldn’t be complacent.
“Coach Reid is always saying, ‘Edge, edge, edge,’ as one of our mottos,” he said in St. Joseph.
Now that Williams and the rest of the Chiefs have worked back to this point, he knows he can become a part of that long NFL — and HBCU — history.