D.J. Williams isn’t looking for a transition into Hollywood when his NFL career ends. But he already has played, literally and figuratively, a significant part in a movie about a piece of high school history that may never be equaled or perhaps even approached.
The high school is De La Salle in Concord, Calif., and the history is the winning streak of 151 consecutive games, a run stretching over more than 12 straight undefeated seasons from 1992-2004, and more than twice the previous prep record of 72 straight.
The story of De La Salle, where Williams starred from 1996-1999, is chronicled in the book “When the Game Stands Tall” by former Chicago Sun-Times writer Neil Hayes and now in a major motion picture by the same name.
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“I’m not a movie critic,” said Bears coach Marc Trestman, “but I thought the messages that football teaches you were good ones, good for young people to see, too. I thought there was some very good messages.”
The film is set to open on Friday, Aug. 22 and features James Caveziel as De La Salle coaching legend Bob Ladouceur and Laura Dern as his wife Bev. Ladouceur compiled a record of 399-25-3 and in a final values statement, retired rather than stay another year just to reach win No. 400.
Williams has his own lofty spot in De La Salle lore, no small distinction in a program that has sent 57 players to the pros, including running back Maurice Jones-Drew, safety T.J. Ward and wide receiver Amani Toomer. Williams set a California prep mark with 42 touchdowns – 33 rushing, five receiving, three punt returns and one kickoff return – and was also the USA Today Defensive Player of the Year as a senior.
D.J. Williams pictured at practice with De La Salle in 1999 (photo credit: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY).
“When D.J. was a senior in high school, he would not have looked physically out of place in an NFL locker room,” said Hayes, who covered the team in 2002 and was involved in the movie production and screenplay. “That's how developed he was. He was not only the most sought-after player in De La Salle history but one of the highest-profile recruits to ever come out of California.”
That had its downside. Williams was so besieged by recruiters and prep reporters during his recruiting process that he shrank from the limelight and wouldn't talk to anybody for a long time, Hayes said.
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But it was a special time in Williams’ life, one that produced life-long friendships and a willingness to work with teammates to build something together.
“It wasn’t about just good players,” Williams recalled. “It was about where everybody really bought in.
“You’ll hear a lot about teams policing themselves and control by peer pressure. It wasn’t the coaches making us do things. We worked out year-round. We would have a meeting at the beginning of summer and you would plan family vacations around our working out. That’s how serious we were. In the offseason you would wake up a 5 a.m. and work out four days a week, non-stop.”
As the book and film detail, those workouts were at a level that Williams said were beyond what NFL players could do.
“I couldn’t do those workouts now,” Williams said, laughing. “Harder than the NFL. In the NFL, guys are older, can’t take a lot of pounding. But you can put that kind of pounding on a 15-, 17-year-old body. You can’t put that on a 35-year-old man.”
Williams appears during the film credits talking about part of what made De La Salle and Ladouceur all work the way it all did.
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“I had to sign off on a waiver so they were going to be showing old, real clips, maybe at the end.” Williams said. “The focus is on more when the streak was broken.
“I remember [when De La Salle finally lost]. I got a lot of stuff from friends and teammates about it. But my feeling was, ‘yeah, we lost a game, but we still won it all [state championship] at the end.’ A 12-2 year was a horrible year for us but a great year for anybody else.”
One of the first things Williams had to learn to deal with when he arrived in the NFL was losing. He didn’t have much experience with it. When the Denver Broncos went 10-6 in Williams rookie season (2006), that was more losses in one season than Wilson had experienced combined in his life to that point: one loss in Pee Wee football, four losses while at the University of Miami.
And zero in his years at De La Salle.
“So I didn’t comprehend what it was like to lose,” Williams said, shaking his head. “I still stay in touch with friends from the team: Benjamin Tucker, Jones-Drew, [former Washington running back] Kevin Simon. Those were the core guys.
“It was fun. A fun time.”