It started with a casual conversation, little more than small talk in a car between strangers just getting to know one another.
It turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime for Jordan Williams.
The former East Carolina linebacker was simply hoping to extend his playing career by finding a spot on a Canadian Football League roster when he caught the eye of then-Ottawa RedBlacks coach Rick Campbell at free agent combine in Indianapolis last year.
Anxious to learn more about him, the team flew Williams to Canada for what amounted to a job interview. As luck would have it, the most important question was asked on the ride from the airport to the team’s headquarters.
“They asked me, ‘Where are you from? Where’s your mom from?’ just trying to get some background information so they know who they’re bringing in,” Williams said on a Zoom conference last week. “I told them that my mom was born in Toronto. And the driver was like ‘hmmm,’ because he probably knew.”
What the driver knew that Williams didn’t at the time is that even though the player was born in Baltimore and attended Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, he qualified for dual citizenship because of his mother’s Canadian origin.
And that made him a much more valuable commodity in a league that emphasizes “homegrown” talent.
So instead of signing a free agent contract to play for the RedBlacks, Williams sat out the 2019 season while filing the paperwork that would make him eligible for the following year’s CFL Draft, which is open only to “nationals.”
The decision paid off on April 30 when the BC Lions selected him as the No. 1 overall pick, ensuring him of a much more lucrative contract than he ever would have received had he entered the league classified as an “international.”
“I just wanted job security,” Williams said of his decision to wait on the draft rather than signing to play right away. “I wanted football not to be a hobby but be a career. So I went the national route and that’s why I’m here today.”
The fact that he’s with the Lions has a lot to do with Campbell. The coach Williams impressed so much by his performance at the CFL combine — a 4.48 40-yard dash, bench pressing 20 reps and recording a 39-inch vertical jump — was hired by BC in December.
Campbell was so excited about the possibility of Williams playing for him that BC traded up with Calgary for the first overall pick only minutes before the draft began to make sure that nobody else could get their hands on the athletic 25-year-old linebacker.
It’s a move Williams said took him by surprise.
“I first found out from my agent,” Williams said. “He was like, ‘Oh my goodness, BC just traded up.” I was like, ‘Who are they going to trade up for?’ I thought they were going to get this D-end they liked, and the next thing you know, here’s Rick Campbell (calling): ‘Hey Jordan, how you doing?’ It’s hard to put into words it’s so awesome.”
Williams’ rise to the top of the CFL Draft board completes an unlikely football journey that saw him start his college career at Shaw before transferring to ECU as a preferred walk-on. He eventually earned a scholarship and went on to start 25 games for the Pirates, finishing his career with 252 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. He had 11 games of 10 or more tackles over his final two seasons.
He went to training camp with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent last season but didn’t make the team before turning his attention north of the border.
Although the rules are different in Canada, with a longer field and fewer downs per possession, Lions GM Ed Hervey thinks Williams has what it takes to make a smooth transition.
“I think we have the luxury of our head coach getting to know him in Ottawa as an American player,” Lions general manager Ed Hervey told the website CFL.ca. “His film speaks for itself. His film shows he can play football and we believe athletically his game will translate to the Canadian game.”
As excited as Williams is to get started, it appears he’ll have to wait a little longer before getting to play his first game as a Canadien citizen.
In testimony before a House of Commons committee last week, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrose said that the CFL’s 2020 season will likely be canceled and that the future of the league is “very much in jeopardy” because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Training camps have already been postponed. The CFL’s 18-game schedule is set to begin on June 11.