When a teenage Williams first visited Western on a recruiting trip — all the way from Halifax — it did not take long for Mustangs football coach Larry Haylor to realize he had something very special on his hands. However, it was on a basketball court rather than a football field where Williams made a great first impression on his future head coach.
Though it was 18 years ago, Haylor can still vividly recall Williams’s performance in an exhibition basketball game with the Mustangs football team. Flying all over the court, the lanky Williams unleashed his superior athleticism, dunking the basketball over his soon-to-be teammates.
In 1988, Williams transferred his talents to the football field and began his career as a wide receiver for the Western Mustangs. Williams’ impact was immediately felt, and after four seasons he owned the Mustangs’ career records for most receptions and most receiving yards, records which stood for nearly two decades until current Western star Andy Fantuz surpassed them.
Williams, four-time Ontario allstar and two-time Canadian all-star in university, was an impact player who showed up when the Mustangs needed him the most. In 1991 he helped lead Western to victory in Canada’s university championship — the Vanier Cup. On the national stage against his toughest competition, Williams was dominant, racking up 157 yards and a score while hauling in the Ted Morris Award as the game’s most outstanding player.
“Tyrone was our go-to guy,” says Haylor. “We threw at him when we needed it. He was the guy we took the ball to when we had to make a play.”
Williams was head and shoulders above his competition and the professional scouts noticed, including those representing the National Football League. Scouts flocked to London to get a glimpse of the Canadian superstar, and in 1992 Williams was drafted in the ninth round of the NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
Williams headed south, but his NFL career did not start off smoothly. Williams’s work visa did not arrive until two weeks into Cardinals training camp, and after falling behind the competition in Arizona, he was cut.
Fortunately for Williams, he was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys, though the receiver never dressed for a game. Instead, he waited in the wings on the practice squad. And while Williams watched, the Cowboys rolled to a Super Bowl championship.
The following year, it looked as though Williams might get a better chance to make an impact in the NFL, as he dressed for the last five games of the season with the Cowboys. But a twist of fate robbed him of the chance to dress in the single biggest game in professional sports.
“I was supposed to [play in the Super Bowl],” says Williams, 34, from his Mississauga home. “I had dressed near the end of the year, but then Emmitt [Smith] got hurt.”
As a result, the Cowboys dressed an additional running back as insurance for Smith, and Williams was relegated to the inactive list as the Cowboys captured their second consecutive world championship. When he speaks of it, there is no bitterness in his voice, with Williams simply claiming, “That’s the way the ball bounces.”
Good luck would continue to elude Williams throughout the rest of his brief NFL career. In 1994 he joined the Chicago Bears, but was released during the team’s final cuts. Williams attempted to resurrect his NFL career one last time to no avail.
“After I left Dallas, Chicago picked me up but I didn’t make it there,” Williams recalls. “I sat out a year and went to Buffalo’s training camp the next year and didn’t make it there, so I said ‘OK, it’s time to go back to the CFL and play some.’”
Williams did just that, joining the Calgary Stampeders for the second half of the 1995 CFL season as the team marched to the Grey Cup. The wideout was virtually a non-factor in Calgary, and was traded to the Toronto Argonauts in the off-season. It was a move that Williams welcomed, and in Toronto his professional career seemed like it would finally get on track.
In 1996, Williams helped the Doug Flutie-led Argonauts to a Grey Cup championship, playing in every game of the season and catching 60 passes, racking up nearly 900 yards, and reaching the end zone eight times. With the Grey Cup victory, he capped off his championship triple crown and his career was beginning to reach the lofty expectations he had earned at Western.
But then his story took a bizarre twist. In the middle of his athletic prime, after persevering through years of frustrations, bouncing back and forth between different clubs and leagues and finally blossoming into the star he was expected to be, Williams did the unthinkable. He quit.
The reasoning behind his sudden departure is cloudy and to this day Williams doesn’t wish to discuss the details of his early exit, though he notes many factors played a part in his retirement.
Haylor can only speculate as to why Williams decided to walk away from the game when things were finally starting to gel for the former Mustang, noting that Williams had suffered injury problems, especially with concussions, which was an issue that Williams and the medical staff had to consider.
Haylor also cites the adjustment it must have been for Williams when he made the transition from the NFL to the CFL, a move that Haylor suggests many would unfairly consider as a step backwards.
“I think probably it must be a little difficult to come from the world champions and kind of come down [from the NFL] — though maybe ‘down’ is not a fair word — and not have the same kind of experiences he had in the NFL,” Haylor says, though he points out that he can only guess as to what Williams’s motivations were.
While outside observers might question Williams’s strangely sudden retirement, he doesn’t seem to doubt his decision. His past seems firmly entrenched behind him.
“It’s not difficult coming to terms with it at all. I decided to step away from the game earlier than I needed to,” Williams says. “I could have kept playing if I wanted.
“That first year away, once in awhile I second-guessed [retirement]. But I came to terms with it and there was no looking back.”
Though Williams may be willing to distance himself from the past, there is no doubt he left his mark. To this day, Haylor contends that Williams belongs in the upper echelon of great players who have come under his tutelage — a great compliment from a man who has coached hundreds of talented athletes.
Perhaps most importantly, Williams says that even if he could go back in time, he wouldn’t change any of the decisions he made during his career.
“It’s the facts of life and you deal with it,” Williams claims. “[But] if I did it again, I’d probably do the same thing. Here we are, and I don’t really have regrets.”