He was The Man.
Whether it was the fall or spring season, his teammates looked to him, trusted him, and counted on him, and Nigel Williams invariably delivered.
A 2020 Collegiate School graduate, Williams played varsity football for four years and varsity baseball for five, a feat not unprecedented but certainly rare.
He was tough, talented, competitive as they come, and possessed of a high sports IQ. Everyone knew that.
His multiple All-Prep League, All-VISAA, and All-Metro citations as well as a slew of post-season team honors attest to a career chock full of notable contributions that included roles in the Cougars’ state baseball and football championships in 2016.
Williams was also wise.
While he earned significant playing time in his early years, he also spent his days watching the older guys and listening, absorbing their advice, and heeding their guidance – sometimes spoken, often unspoken – about attending to details, discipline, and sportsmanship.
He was learning from the best, he surmised, and when his time came to lead, he’d be ready.
History tells us that he accomplished his goal.
As Williams grew with the program, he commanded respect for his bearing as much as for his ability. That’s why his teammates selected him a captain as a junior and senior. That’s why he attracted the attention of college recruiters. That’s why he's playing football at Northwestern as a 6-1, 192-pound cornerback. That’s why he’s projected to be a fifth defensive back when the Wildcats, who use a base 4-3 set, go into their nickel package. That’s why, as a redshirt freshman, his future is bright.
One afternoon recently, Williams sat outside the Kathy Watkinson Ivins Sports Performance Center at Collegiate’s Robins Campus and reflected upon his journey.
Covid took your final high school baseball season. How did you manage?
It was devastating. At the same time, it allowed me to get a little bit extra preparation in before heading to Northwestern in June. I focused on trying to get bigger because that’s one of the things our position coach (Matt McPherson) wanted me to do so I could be more versatile and play different positions.
What was it like when you arrived at Northwestern in the middle of the pandemic?
We went right into summer ball. Then, the Big Ten canceled the season. About three weeks later, they announced the season was back on, so everything sped up to make sure we’d have the proper preparation to play Maryland in week one.
How did you and your teammates deal with the roller coaster of emotions?
It was really tough, especially for the older guys. Some of them were looking at their last year. When they canceled the season, the coaches called the seniors first and told them the situation. I’d formed pretty good connections with some of the older guys, and seeing how devastated they were was tough because we were supposed to have a really good team. The older guys were great leaders. We were able to keep our heads where they needed to be. When everything was back on, everybody was excited even though we had a short period of time to get ready. When the season was back on, we were ready to roll.
Were you prepared for college football?
Collegiate has one of the best coaching staffs in Virginia. Almost every single person has college football experience, so they know what it’s going to be like. Coach (Mark) Palyo and Coach (Collin) McConaghy were instrumental in my recruiting process. They were able to give me a lot of advice because of their experience. So going into it, I knew it was going to be a grind. I knew it was going to be tough, but I felt mentally that I was ahead of some of the other guys because I knew what it was going to be like.
Speak about the transition from high school star to rookie?
At Collegiate, I was fortunate enough to learn from older guys like Will Allocca (baseball) and Jess Speight (football). I saw how they took care of their day-to-day business and prepared for games. My freshman year at Northwestern, I was doing the same thing. We had a first-round draft pick in Greg Newsome (21st overall, Cleveland Browns) who was actually my mentor. I watched how he prepared for practice and what he did to stay healthy like taking care of treatments and stretching. Fall camp is six days of football for two-and-a-half, three weeks so your body’s going to be pretty sore. I learned a lot from him and the other guys.
Does any one moment stand out?
The 2019 season was rough (for the Wildcats, who finished 3-9). When we were playing Ohio State (which had defeated Northwestern 52-3 in that down year), they were No. 2 or 3 in the country. We had them going into the fourth quarter and let it slip away (22-10 in the Big Ten championship game). The leadership of the captains showed. Even when things weren’t going our way, they stayed positive. The brotherhood we have at Northwestern is something really special. We leaned on each other and got better in 2020 (7-2, No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll).
Sounds like the camaraderie among your teammates is like what you felt in high school.
When people say Collegiate athletics is a special thing, that’s what they’re talking about. I played football with the same guys since I came to Collegiate in third grade and we were playing at recess . They had my back every Friday when we went out to play varsity football. That’s something I saw at Northwestern
Were you prepared academically?
All the writing we do at Collegiate prepared me. I was just miles ahead of a lot of people in my writing skills. I had a great year academically (3.4 GPA). I thought it would be advantageous to be a journalism major with the career path I want to follow.
Hopefully, I’ll have a shot at the NFL after my college career, but I’d love to be a sports analyst, especially on football games.
Sounds like you’ve navigated the challenges of your first year really well.
I cracked my tibia the week before we played Maryland. That was a seven-week recovery. With Covid, that was tough, but I stayed positive and was back for Illinois, Ohio State, and Auburn (Citrus Bowl). I’m all healed up now. I’m excited. I’m ready to go.