College Football

Josh Allen's road from city to small town, then back, preps him for NFL draft

Troy McCarthy / NBC Sports Bay Area

Josh Allen's road from city to small town, then back, preps him for NFL draft

Editor's note: The Choice is a four-part series that dives deep into four of the 2019 NFL Draft's top prospects, detailing how their early lives and decisions prepared them for this moment. Last in the series: Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen.

When you take a walk down Kirkland Street, it is as if you have been transported back in time.

Both sides of the one-block stretch just off Alabama State Route 10 are lined with vintage advertising signs for such vestiges as Buster Brown Shoes, Mother Penn Motor Oil and Rexall Drugs — just to name a few.

At Huggin’ Molly’s restaurant, located next door to the blue Philco marker, a visitor is greeted with a warm smile and a place to sit at the soda fountain. On the menu is a “1950s Old-Fashioned Grilled Cheese Sandwich.”

A visitor asks how the identifying decade makes the sandwich different than the standard grilled cheese.

“It’s just a grilled-cheese sandwich,” the waitress answers.

Almost everything in Abbeville, Ala., seems perfectly fitted for the descriptor “1950s old-fashioned.”

Abbeville is situated just minutes from the Georgia border, so close to the line separating the Eastern and Central time zones that it can create a sense of uncertainty about the accurate hour. But, also, it’s not as if anyone really cares. The pace here is slow and unhurried.

It is where edge rusher Josh Allen, one of the top five prospects in this week’s NFL draft, went to reset after eighth grade when he started to see things going awry around him in New Jersey.

Downtown Abbeville, Ala., will make visitors feel as if they've stepped back in time, with its old-time signage (Photo by Matt Maiocco / NBC Sports Bay Area)

Allen spent his first three years of high school in Abbeville while living with his aunt and uncle. It is where he discovered football and began developing into the player who became the nation’s top defender as a senior at the University of Kentucky.

“Everybody knows each other,” Allen said of Abbeville. “It’s a small town. Everybody is good people. It’s just home. It was real homey, Southern, not a lot of traffic. Manners are at an all-time high there. It’s just comfortable.”

Today, it is difficult to observe Allen and picture a time when he was not comfortable. He radiates pride as he hauls his 15-month-old son atop his shoulders. He has an easy smile and an unforced charm.

Allen transformed himself into one of the top prospects in the land after deciding to return for his senior year of college. He weighed 262 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times and ran 4.63 seconds in the 40-yard dash. His athleticism serves him well, whether he is turning and running with tight ends down the field or blowing past flat-footed offensive tackles en route to another hit on the quarterback.

He is expected to hear his name called early Thursday night at the NFL draft in Nashville.

But long before his strength caught up to his height and he became the nation’s leading sack artist while playing in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference, Allen exhibited the work ethic for which he is known just to be able to fit in socially.

Sweet (new) home Alabama

Allen did not have it easy during his early years in New Jersey.

He stuttered as a youngster and was placed in special-education classes during elementary school. It was not until he attended college that he was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“I went to the same classes every day,” Allen said of his youth. “I had to go to speech class twice a week. I really didn’t think anything of it because I was so young, and I didn’t know any better. Now, I look back and think I really did get left out of a bunch of things, a lot of opportunities.

“Everybody gets bullied. Everybody gets made fun of. For me, I tried to have jokes right back to the person. That’s how I am today. I’m goofy. If somebody makes fun of me, I make fun of them right back.”

Josh grew up with four sisters and twin brother, Isaiah, in a four-bedroom apartment in Montclair, N.J. After completing eighth grade, he decided to move to the South to live with his aunt and uncle, Jill and James Barber, in Alabama. His aunt is the principal at Abbeville Elementary School.

“I was good with it because I knew he was with my sister, and I knew she would take care of him just like I would have,” said Kim Allen, Josh’s mother. “He didn’t miss a beat, I didn’t, and she didn’t.”

Even on the surface, Abbeville is a unique place, with a small downtown area resplendent with the business signs that harken to a bygone era and a simpler time.

“It might remind you of Mayberry or something,” Abbeville mayor Billy Helms said.

Certain things about Abbeville are, well, uniquely Abbeville. Take the name of the town’s top-rated restaurant, for instance.

There’s the legend of Huggin’ Molly. For generations, parents have told stories to their young children of a phantom or witch-like figure who appears out of nowhere, then screams and hugs kids who disobey orders and wander off after dark.

“That’s what parents told their kids. If they didn’t behave and do right, Huggin’ Molly would come out,” the mayor said. “I’m 70 years old, and I’ve heard that all my life.”

It doesn't take visitors to Abbeville, Ala., long to learn about the legend of Huggin' Molly, since it's right on the welcome sign (Photo courtesy of the city of Abbeville)

Of course, Allen was well beyond the age designed for that scare tactic when he moved to Abbeville. Those who spent the most time around him say he was always the model of comportment. Even from the time he was young, he did not require any ultimatums to act a certain way. In Abbeville, he was living with one of the most influential and respected women in town.

“She is a stern lady,” said Brandon Buck, an assistant football coach at Abbeville High and a gym teacher at the elementary school where Jill Barber is the top administrator. “She stayed on him, but Josh wasn’t really the kind of kid that you had to stay on.

“By him being with her, her being a principal of the school and demanding that respect, and him being here in Abbeville staying with the principal, he knew he always had eyes on him. But he’s the type of kid that you didn’t have to worry about having eyes on him.”

Perhaps things might have turned out differently had he remained in New Jersey. Allen said he did not move to Abbeville to escape the bullying but because he started to witness a troubling turn within his immediate sphere.

“I moved to Abbeville for other reasons, to get out of town,” he said. “It was starting to go downhill. I really didn’t like the environment. I loved my family, but I wanted to try something new. I wanted to push myself in another environment. And I did.”

Allen said he wanted to get away from an atmosphere in which he had friends who stopped going to school.

“I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he said.

Hello, goodbye

Josh Allen will enter the NFL as an edge rusher, but he was a first-team All-State wide receiver as a junior in Abbeville, Ala. (Photo courtesy of Suzanne Bush / Abbeville High School)

The textile plant in Abbeville was in operation for more than 50 years. At its peak in the 1990s, Abbeville had more than 3,100 residents, and the town’s WestPoint Pepperell headquarters employed approximately 1,300 until its closure in 2008.

Years later, as the population dropped by more than 400 residents, the town’s middle school closed. Abbeville High was converted to educate six grade levels, seventh through 12th. That meant a lot of desks, furniture and supplies had to be moved across town.

Josh was volunteered to participate in some of the heavy lifting before the start of the new school year. That is where he first met one of the men who introduced him to his eventual livelihood.

“He wasn’t big, but he was tall,” said then-Abbeville High football coach Alphus Shipman. “The summer before his ninth-grade year, Miss Barber made him work with us. I was with a group of boys, moving furniture from one school to the other. He outworked everybody.

“I begged him to play football. He said, ‘Coach, I’ll play football if I can play receiver.’ I said, ‘You can you play receiver, all right, but here you have to play both ways.’ ”

The new kid in school went out for football and immediately began getting roughed up — to the point that he nearly quit the team on at least one occasion. Each year he remained on the team, he got a little bigger, a little stronger, a little more well-rounded and knowledgeable as a player.

Allen came from a basketball family. His uncle, Gregory Hines, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Golden State Warriors in 1983 after a Hall of Fame college career at Hampton University. Hines played professionally for more than a decade in the U.S. and abroad.

Josh has three older sisters who played college basketball, including Myisha Hines-Allen, a star forward at Louisville who now plays for the Washington Mystics of the WNBA.

The Abbeville High football team had no problems finding ways to deploy Allen’s basketball size -- 6-foot-4, 198 pounds -- and the family skills of boxing out under the boards to get the ball.

“Anytime we got into the red zone, the first play from maybe 25 [yards] and in was, ‘Jump ball to Josh,’ ” Shipman said. “He probably came down with it 85 to 90 percent of the time. Playing basketball for so long, going up for rebounds, he could high-point the ball with the best of them.”

As a junior, Allen was named a first-team All-State 3A wide receiver. He also played defensive end. He was a great athlete, and he was popular among students and faculty. The kid from the North fit in like he never had before.

But shortly before the start of Allen’s senior year, those in Abbeville found out he would return to New Jersey to complete high school.

Said Allen: “Everyone in my family graduated from Montclair High, and I didn’t want to break tradition.”

The sudden news caught a lot of people in Abbeville by surprise, and it remains a difficult topic for some there to discuss.

“It was horrible. It was horrible,” said Abbeville assistant coach Joshua Blalock, who works with Buck at the elementary school. “It was gut-wrenching to watch him leave -- not just because he was a good athlete but just because we’d been around him all the time.

“Even when we weren’t at the football field, he was right here at the school with us because Miss Barber is his aunt. He was here all the time. We saw him every day. So when he decided to go back to New Jersey with his mom, it sucked.”

In retrospect, it might have been the best thing for Allen to finish his high-school career at the biggest level of public schools in New Jersey.

“I didn’t want him to leave, because I knew he was a great athlete and a great kid,” said Buck, his defensive line coach. “But him going back home, do I think he would’ve gotten to Kentucky being here? I have a feeling he probably would not have.

“It’s hard for small towns like Abbeville to get kids on that level.”

Even with six grades at Abbeville High, the enrollment was approximately 375. With his move back to Montclair, he entered a four-year high school with more than 2,000 students.

Immediate impact

Allen had not spent much time in New Jersey over the previous three years, but his sisters were well-known athletes in the area. Montclair’s football coach, John Fiore, felt secure enough to do a little boasting to those in the coaching fraternity before Allen even stepped on the field as a senior.

"Wait ‘til you see this kid who just moved in," Fiore told Jim Matsakis, the head coach of nearby West Orange High School.

Matsakis responded, “Whatever. You say that every year."

Throughout the season, Matsakis had seen Allen on film. And when the rivals met later in the season, Matsakis received harsh confirmation that Fiore’s preseason words were not hyperbole.

“The kid lined up at wide receiver -- and we were pretty good -- and the first play he scores an 80-yard TD and outruns everybody,” Matsakis said. “Then, he turns around, and the first 12 plays, he probably had three sacks on defense as a defensive end.”

But something else about the talented young man impressed the coach on the opposite sideline.

“There was never a chance that he was arrogant or cocky,” Matsakis said. “He was always respectful. You can’t find one kid on my team when we played them that would come off and say, ‘That kid’s a scumbag. That kid runs his mouth.’

“He just played, and he kept his mouth shut. He does everything you wish all your kids would do, and he just does it a lot faster.”

That was a part of Abbeville that Allen packed along with his belongings and brought back with him to Montclair, a township of nearly 40,000 residents located approximately 10 miles from Times Square. Allen said the way he acted upon returning to New Jersey stood out to some people with whom he came in contact.

“That was a big change because in Jersey, you don’t get taught manners, ‘Yes, sir; no, ma’am,’ ” Allen said. “When I went back, it was, ‘You have great manners.’ I learned that from Abbeville. I learned how to calm my emotions and be a better person.”

Despite being closer to the bright lights of the big city, Allen somehow managed to slide under the radar of major-college recruiters. He still played wide receiver at Montclair, catching 23 passes for 425 yards and four touchdowns. And he emerged as the state leader with 20 sacks.

Allen was the best player on the New Jersey state champion, yet he was tabbed a two-star recruit. He appeared destined for a small-college program before he received some unexpected help from the coach at Montclair’s rival.

Matakis asked Fiore at an end-of-season meeting where Allen would be going to college. There was little interest, Fiore answered. Matsakis was dumbfounded.

Matsakis coached small-college football at Emporia State and Wagner. He has three brothers coaching in the college ranks, so he had plenty of connections. He decided to make some calls on Allen’s behalf.

He spoke to a friend, Darrin Hicks, the offensive coordinator at Robert Morris University in suburban Pittsburgh. Hicks liked Allen as a wide receiver but told Matsakis the school’s defensive staff was not high on him.

“I reached out to Mike Leach at Washington State and Oklahoma,” Matsakis said. “Most schools were apprehensive just because it was like nobody else was on him but Monmouth.”

Allen verbally committed to attend nearby Monmouth University. But two days before signing day in 2015, and after a string of decommitments, Kentucky followed up on Matsakis’ recommendation.

Matsakis’ brother, Louie, was on the Kentucky staff. The high school coach also was close with then-defensive coordinator D.J. Elliott, whom Matsakis asked to watch film of Allen.

“He loved him,” Matsakis said of Elliott.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops got on board, and it did not take much convincing for Allen to accept the Wildcats’ offer to continue his football career in the SEC.

Fatherhood and the future

When Allen enrolled at Kentucky and began workouts, he weighed just 205 pounds, but he continued to improve as a player upon concentrating full time on defense. He worked to put on weight, fine-tuned his technique and began unlocking his vast potential.

“He was a two-star recruit coming in,” Kentucky teammate Josh Paschal said. “He came in about 200 pounds soaking wet and put on all this weight and he kept his speed. He worked as hard as he can. He just focused on the right things.”

“Josh is a self-made man. A ton of people are going to take credit,” said Matsakis, the man responsible for getting Kentucky to look at Allen. “But that kid, he’s transformed his whole body.”

After back-to-back seasons with seven sacks in his sophomore and junior seasons at Kentucky, Allen faced a difficult decision about his future. He could have declared for the NFL draft or returned to college for his senior season. Moreover, he received news before the school year that he was not ready to hear. He was going to be a father — long before he had anticipated.

The birth of his son, Wesley DeVon Allen, on Jan. 3, 2018, meant his decision took on much greater significance. Allen strongly considered leaving school in order to begin accumulating the means to support his son.

“Coach Stoops said, ‘Do you want to make money — good money? Or do you want to make life money — generational money?’ That always stuck with me,” Allen said. “I went home and thought about it. I looked at my son and said, ‘Yeah, I want to make life money.’ I want him to be financially secure for the rest of his life, and for his kids as well.”

So Allen opted to return for his senior year. His work ethic, which never before had been questioned, elevated to an entirely different level. His daily motivation was providing for his family, including fiancée Kaitlyn Morrison.

“I had to be great,” Allen said. “My son was here.”

“At that point, the light bulb definitely changed,” Stoops said. “He’s an extremely determined person, and he makes a lot of sacrifices. When kids are going on spring break, he’s staying here and working out. In the summer, he doesn’t leave. He stays here and works on his craft. He’s really monitoring what he’s eating, and working hard and playing with a purpose. That’s the way he lives his life.”

Josh Allen's life changed with the birth of his son, Wesley, and the pair shared some time together at Kentucky pro day last month (Photo by Matt Maiocco / NBC Sports Bay Area)

When Allen lists the adversity he faced to reach this point in his life, he mentions how he initially viewed his impending fatherhood as the biggest hurdle, yet.

“Just having him while still in college, going into my junior year when she told me,” he said. “I was still focused on school. I wasn’t focused on having a child at the time, but now it’s one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever had.”

His mother, Kim, says Josh is influenced by the positive men — his father, Robert Allen Jr., along with his grandfather and uncles — around whom he has been surrounded on both sides of the family.

Wesley is the center of Allen’s universe. Allen lights up when talking about him. He is a doting father, and wants to be around his son every waking hour. He even sleeps with him.

“I could just see the focus after that,” Paschal said of his teammate.

Allen sees the big picture. He is a passionate dad and a devoted friend.

“He always said, ‘I’m doing this for somebody else now.’ It’s not just him,” Paschal said. “He’d say, ‘I’m doing it for my son.’ You can see the focus. He was being relentless and doing what he needed to do.”

Paschal, a defensive lineman, knows Allen’s compassion firsthand. Paschal was diagnosed with malignant melanoma on the bottom of his foot in August, and Allen was instrumental in helping keep his teammate’s spirits up through his journey to return to football last season.

No senior-itis ... just hard work

Once Allen decided to return to Kentucky for his senior year, he wanted to know how he could get better.

Brad White, who spent the previous six years as an assistant with the Indianapolis Colts, joined the Kentucky staff a year ago as defensive coordinator. White went through every one of Allen’s plays from the previous season and provided a breakdown of how he would be evaluated through the prism of NFL coaches and executives.

Not only did Allen have a list of his goals for his senior season, but he had a plan of attack on how to get there. Maybe he had to do extra footwork drills three days per week, or spend additional time working his hands twice per week, or devote extra time for stretching to increase his flexibility.

“I pulled out his goal sheet I set for him and you go down and he tick-marked every single goal that we’d set, coming out of spring and into summer and the fall,” White said. “We had a game plan for him. The results speak for themselves.”

Former Seattle Seahawks scout Jim Nagy, now the executive director of the Senior Bowl, called Allen the most-improved player in college football in 2018. Allen sent his draft stock soaring from a likely third-round draft pick to an expected top-five selection. The 49ers own the No. 2 choice and the Raiders sit at No. 4. Allen’s decision to remain in school is likely to amount to a financial gain of approximately $20 million on his first NFL contract.

With his renewed focus, Allen led the nation with 17 sacks and swept the nation’s list of defensive player of the year honors during his senior season. He was SEC Defensive Player of the Year, along with winning the Bronko Nagurski Award, Chuck Bednarik Award, the Jack Lambert Award, and the Ronnie Lott IMPACT Trophy, which combines on-field performance and leadership with off-field excellence.

Allen played no small role in Kentucky’s remapping of its football image. UK football takes a backseat — always has — to the university’s storied, eight-time national championship basketball program. And Kentucky generally has been an afterthought in the loaded SEC football landscape.

But the Wildcats broke out last season, winning 10 games for the first time since 1977. Allen could have sat out the bowl game to protect his well-earned status as a high draft pick, as some top players now do. Instead, he went out in style. He registered three sacks in a 27-24 Citrus Bowl win over Penn State on New Year’s Day.

Josh Allen's Citrus Bowl domination of the Penn State offensive line sealed his status as a top-five NFL draft prospect (Photo by USA TODAY Sports Images)

“Whoever takes that shot and wants to invest in him with a high pick, I believe, they’re going to get a fantastic football player and a great person that represents their organization the right way,” Stoops said. “Because if you like what you see on the football field, you’re going to absolutely love him in the locker room and in your community.”

White has gotten to know Allen well while working so closely to help him fine-tune his game over the past year. White recognizes Allen's motivation to be great is multi-layered and is not self-centered. Allen came to realize he has a platform to affect change and help others after going through adversity in his life.

“He never brings that up or talks about the struggles he had, and the stuttering,” White said. “He’s just let that fuel him. The only time it comes up when we’re talking, he beams when he talks about, ‘Hey, Coach, a family reached out and said my story helped them.' "

Allen said he is prescribed Adderall to manage his ADHD. He has no discernible traces of the stutter that plagued him earlier in life, though he always is quick to reveal he still struggles with speech. But he certainly does not shy away from engagements, such as one last spring at a Lexington elementary school, during which he was a guest speaker in a special needs awareness program.

“I like to tell my story and how I did it, so I can help others,” Allen said. “When others hear that story and how I progressed and how I am in life, it’s wonderful to think that somebody out there is looking up on me and saying, ‘Well, Josh did it, so I can do it.’

“It’s an unbelievable feeling. It makes me feel good. That’s the wonderful thing about sports. You can touch lives off the field. That’s one of the best parts about playing this sport.”

Catch up on the other three stories in "The Choice"
Nick Bosa I Rashan Gary I Quinnen Williams

NFL mock draft 2019: All signs point to one player for 49ers at pick No. 2

NFL mock draft 2019: All signs point to one player for 49ers at pick No. 2

The day is finally here. The 2019 NFL Draft is upon us.

After months of pouring over every piece of information about every draft-eligible prospect, all 32 NFL teams will convene in Nashville, Tenn. on Thursday for the first round of the draft.

As is often the case, the closer we get to the first pick, the more rumors circulate. There's plenty of talk about which prospects will go high, which might slide, and which teams are in position to shake up the draft.

[RELATED: Why Cards' rumored cooling on Kyler could be a smokescreen]

With only hours to go until the 49ers are scheduled to make their first-round pick, here's an updated selection of various NFL mock drafts highlighting the player(s) being associated with San Francisco and the No. 2 overall pick:

NBC Sports Bay Area: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "A year ago, the 49ers’ top edge rushers in their nickel package were Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair. Now, it’s Dee Ford and Bosa. That’s a significant upgrade. The 49ers have turned a weakness into a strength, and every level of the defense will experience the benefits." Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "The Niners can't go wrong with Bosa or Quinnen Williams here, but I think Bosa is a better fit." Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "The Niners have done all the requisite work on Nick Bosa ... I also know that they have pretty extensive background on how he’ll fit coordinator Robert Salah’s defense. Remember, Nick’s older brother Joey plays for Salah’s old boss/mentor, Chargers DC Gus Bradley. The affection here for Bosa has been no secret, and he’d amp up an already formidable front." Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "Barring a huge offer that nets multiple high picks, the 49ers are likely to stay put and go for the player they believe can be a difference-maker at a premium position from Day 1. Putting Bosa with Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and the rest of San Francisco's pass-rushers should give the Niners a chance to turn some of the 11 one-possession losses they've suffered the past two seasons into victories."

CBS Sports: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "If the Cardinals take Bosa No. 1, the 49ers would likely jump on Quinnen Williams here or see if they can get a decent haul from a team looking to trade up for a QB."

SB Nation: Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
What they said: "For several years the 49ers have had issues with edge rushers. The combination of Bosa and Dee Ford solve that problem."

NFL draft prospect Quinnen Williams leans on family, football after great loss

Troy McCarthy / NBC Sports Bay Area

NFL draft prospect Quinnen Williams leans on family, football after great loss

Editor's note: The Choice is a four-part series that dives deep into four of the 2019 NFL Draft's top prospects, detailing how their early lives and decisions prepared them for this moment. Third in the series: Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams.

Wenonah High School’s football team watches game film on Sundays at 3 p.m. sharp, a vital fixture of coach Ronald Cheatham’s in-season routine.

Quinnen Williams knows the schedule well after countless Sundays spent reviewing old results while preparing for the future. He fondly recalls those formative days in the old Dragons field house, even after years spoiled by the University of Alabama’s posh training complex.

Cheatham’s film sessions perfectly line up with a rare down point in the Crimson Tide schedule, so Williams decided to pop in. College football’s best interior defensive lineman made the 1-hour drive from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, Ala., the morning after a game day, took his grandmother to church and headed to Wenonah at 3 o'clock sharp.

“I snuck in," Williams said, "and sat in the back."

Williams showed up with his hood on, lest his star power distract from Cheatham’s lesson plan. He wasn’t there to shake hands or sign autographs. He wasn’t there to discuss the now-virtual certainty that he’ll be a top-five NFL draft pick, or the real chance he’ll be the first or second player selected. Williams came to watch and observe, and then educate.

“Those guys were breaking it down to a high school level, so I thought, ‘What if I knew in high school what I know now?’ ” Williams said. “I got up there, and Coach Cheatham introduced me and said, ‘He was basically observing you guys.’ He said I would teach them how to watch film on a college level, and identify the tendencies you can watch for and use in a game. It was such a great experience for me and, I hope, for them.”

It wasn’t a one-time thing. Williams kept coming back, even as his celebrity grew with every dominant performance. Sometimes, he helped break down film. He was a motivational speaker at others, preaching the importance of hard work and good grades. Once, he stopped by so the kids could see his Alabama national championship ring.

There was one goal in all those efforts: To be a point of pride for an underserved, somewhat underprivileged part of Birmingham, living proof that dreams do come true.

“There’s character involved in that, to be that guy setting an example for kids without someone in the home to look up to,” Cheatham said. “They see him playing on Saturday. If you play at this school, and then you go on to play somewhere like Alabama, the kids know what you’re doing. They know how you played. It does make a huge difference when he’s walking in the hallway.

“He’ll walk around and just hug people. I have teachers at the middle school telling me Quinnen came back and lifted everybody up. You know how much that means around here, to see someone do so well and want to come back and say thank you? That’s priceless.”

Williams is trying to give back one kilowatt smile at a time, offering reminders that, no matter how high he’s drafted Thursday night, how far away he moves from Birmingham or how big the paycheck gets, he’s proud to call this place home.

That’s what his mother would want. She was a nurturer. Lifting people up is what she’d often do.

Strength in numbers

Marquischa Henderson Williams’ smile could light up a room just like her second son’s, with a magnetic personality and sunny outlook to boot.

It’s not the only similarity -- not even close -- between kindred spirits torn apart too soon. Those are too many to count.

Yvarta Henderson can see her daughter in Quinnen just as clear as day, in both appearance and personality. She comes to life whenever Quinnen returns to this warm, inviting home in Birmingham’s West Brownville neighborhood, bringing 300 pounds of energy, optimism and that unmistakable shared smile through grandma’s door.

“I don’t care what happened in life. Good or bad, she would still be smiling,” Henderson said. “Quinnen does the same thing. You can’t read him sometimes because he’s always smiling. He’s always happy. That’s just him. He’s always like that.”

No one smiled through the summer of 2010, when Marquischa Williams checked herself into a Birmingham hospital on the Fourth of July with complications of breast cancer. She had beaten it once, but the cancer had returned with vengeance.

That recurrence was diagnosed two months prior, but Marquischa chose to deal with this setback alone, to keep added stress off her family. She beat cancer five years before, and she'd surely do it again.

The family was devastated by the news but remained confident in her long-term health. The cancer had spread this time, gained control and never let go.

Initial optimism waned with time and, before long, Quincy Williams Sr. started preparing his four children for the unthinkable: Their mother might not make it home.

Finality came fast. Marquischa Henderson Williams died on Aug. 10, 2010, roughly five weeks after her silent struggle became known. She was just 37 years old.

Quincy Jr. was just 14 at the time. Quinnen was 12, Giovanni was 11 and Ciele was only 9. Losing a mother is devastating at any age, especially for young children unversed in cruel ways of the world.

“It was very hard at first,” Quincy Sr. said. “Losing a spouse and a mother is extremely difficult.”

Marquischa was the center of their universe, and her death left a void that remains nearly nine years later. The wound won’t fully heal, but the family has learned to carry on by leaning on each other.

“We bonded close, as close as you can get, because we had to,” Quincy Sr. said. “We had to get each other to through the hard times, through the difficult times.

“We had to keep everything normal. We had to keep the kids busy with sports, basketball, soccer, baseball cheerleading camps, church plays and speeches. We stayed as busy as possible, always working to do the right thing, to prevent the mind from drifting off toward bad influences. We stayed busy, and we stayed close.

“We talked all the time. We texted. We kept an open family communication together. We had extended family always providing a positive influence in teaching and [helping bring up the kids]. It was a collective effort. Everybody pitched in and did a part. … So many people deserve credit in getting us where we are today.”

Yvarta Henderson (middle) with five of her 12 grandchildren, including NFL draft prospect Quinnen Williams (far right) (Photo courtesy of Ciele Williams)

The Williams siblings are in an amazing place.

Quinnen dominated during his last season at Alabama, won the Outland Trophy and will be a top NFL draft pick. Quincy Jr. just graduated from Murray State, and the inside linebacker should be either a late draft pick or an undrafted free agent with a real chance to carve out an NFL career. Giovanni attends Lawson State Community College following a solid high school football career. Ciele will graduate from Wenonah High in May and start classes at Alabama State in the fall, following in her family's footsteps studying elementary education. They have been able to thrive by keeping each other on the right path. 

“You can’t close yourself off from everything when your family member passes, especially when it’s a mom or dad,” Quincy Jr. said. “You have to still keep pushing and do what they would want you to do. You have to act like they’re still there and think about the positives and not the negatives.

“That’s the biggest thing we tell each other. We let everybody know that this is the reason why we’re doing things, to make our mom proud. There’s a bigger picture, other than just us doing it and living life.”

Busy lives have diverged in recent years, so getting everyone under the same roof is tricky these days. 

Technology keeps the four siblings in constant communication, though, with a group text chain that extends for miles. Quincy Jr. is the alpha there, but they all share locations and keep tabs. They motivate each other after athletic events or before big life moments -- the brothers always make sure Ciele's taken care of -- offering a line of support forged after Marquischa’s death and that never shuts down.

“It’s something they’re still dealing with, something they’ll deal with the rest of their lives,” Henderson said. “They were young when it happened, which was really hard on them. I think that, over time, it made their bond stronger.

“Honestly, they were kept so busy that they didn’t have idle time. They just threw themselves in sports and all of their activities, but even now, they still miss their momma.”

An important lesson learned

(From left to right) Quinnen, Giovanni, Ciele and Quincy Jr. after a Wenonah High School football game. (Photo courtesy of Ciele Williams)

Quinnen Williams came running toward Cheatham with tears streaming down his face, and the Wenonah coach immediately thought the worst. One of his star players must've been hurt, in the last regular-season game before the 2015 playoffs no less. Bad news, bad luck.

“I’m on the sideline wondering what the heck had happened,” Cheatham said. “I thought he broke something.”

Nope. His older brother had let him have it.

Quincy Jr. was Wenonah’s leader and star linebacker, and he demanded far better from his defense during an important game that was slipping away. He especially was hard on Quinnen that night, knowing younger brother’s vast potential wasn’t being realized right then.

Quinnen welled up, and then bolted for the sideline.

Cheatham told Quinnen that no one, not even his own blood, should rattle him during a game. Quinnen listened, learned and, after that, grew thicker skin.

Quinnen knew he had to grow up, and said so directly the next summer in Cheatham’s office.

“He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Coach, you’ll never see that again,’ ” Cheatham said. “He turned and walked out of the office, and his football took off.

"Now that sounds like a TV movie or something, but it’s not. It’s absolutely true. When he made the decision to be more mature, his game took off to the point that several SEC schools offered him by the end of the year.”

It wasn’t the first or last time that Quincy Jr. helped set Quinnen straight. Quincy Jr. always has accepted added responsibility as the older sibling, but really pushed to be a positive influence after his mother passed.

“I wasn’t a replacement in any way, but I tried to take what she taught us and keep instilling it and make sure nobody fell off the path,” Quincy Jr. said. “That was the biggest thing for me, and she prepared me for it, too.”

Quincy Jr. and Quinnen are tight. They’re less than two years apart in age, and have bonded over football. Both should be in NFL training camps this summer. They have trained together in Tuscaloosa this offseason. And, as you'd expected, they're extremely competitive. They can get serious when the mood strikes and aren't afraid to be frank.

All four kids were devastated by Marquischa’s death, but it was common knowledge that she and Quinnen were closest. They did everything together, from cooking to shopping. He’d even help when she graded homework from her elementary-school students. Quincy Jr. was always quick to pick up signs, especially with Quinnen got uncharacteristically quiet. And at times, he felt Quinnen pulling away.

Quinnen would sometimes start to drift into his own thoughts, isolating himself in grief. It wasn’t always easy or immediately effective, but Quincy Jr. did what he could to bring Quinnen back to the group.

“It hit Quinnen really hard. I mean, we called him momma’s boy,” Quincy Jr. said. “I had to make sure he was still good and things like that, because he closed himself off a lot. I had to talk to him a few times [then] and we still talk about it now. That’s especially true right now when he’s off by himself (during the pre-draft process), to say, ‘Mom’s proud of you,’ and things like that.

“It’s true. Our mom is proud.”

School's never out in this family

Quinnen Williams showed great athleticism at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, helping cement his status as a top NFL draft prospect. (Photo by USA TODAY Sports Images)

Quinnen Williams called his grandmother in mid-January with some exciting news: He was declaring himself eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft. He would be a top pick after an excellent 2018 season in which he moved from defensive end to nose guard for the Crimson Tide, and then became a household name.

Financial security was on its way for everyone, with Quinnen ever so close to realizing his NFL dreams.

Henderson didn’t jump for joy. Here’s what she heard, translated through an educator’s ears.

“Mrs. Henderson, I just dropped out of school.”

That was unacceptable to someone who spent a career teaching Birmingham’s youth and her own grandkids. Henderson had Quincy Jr. in her first-grade class. All four kids went to school where she worked. She took them to class in elementary school, and helped them with homework at all stages of their academic lives.

Grades before football. That’s a standard Marquischa set long ago, a hard stance meant to enforce the importance of quality education. That applied way back when. It applied that day. 

“My grandmother, my mom, my aunties, they’re all teachers,” Quinnen said. “They make sure I stay on the right path.

“My grandmother didn’t know what declaring early meant. I told her I was leaving college, and she took that like I was dropping out. She couldn’t believe it because, to her, football is secondary. I had to tell her about the process of going back to school, and then she got behind it. I’m definitely going back.”

Williams can pick up where he left off at Alabama when the time is right. He will graduate. He will earn his degree. His mother would've accepted nothing less.

“That’s something I want to do for myself, but I know she would want me to do that,” Quinnen Williams said. “She would also recognize the opportunity is a needle in a haystack for someone where I’m from. I have to take this chance and run with it.”

Opportunity knocks, and there's an answer

Da’Ron Payne blazed Quinnen Williams’ career path. The dominant nose tackle left Alabama early for last year’s NFL draft, a decision rewarded when Washington took him No. 13 overall.

Payne’s departure left a rare void on Alabama’s defense without a clear successor, and Quinnen Williams applied for the job. It didn’t matter that Williams played a different position and was 40 pounds too light for a new role.

He wanted to start. He wanted to play significant snaps. He wanted to take this chance and run with it.

Coaches approved the position switch inside from defensive end, and gave him proper tools for rapid weight gain. Williams increased size and strength over last spring and summer but somehow didn’t lose the natural traits that made him a good edge rusher.

“Quinnen was always athletic, and had really good quickness,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think sometimes he was a little undersized, and maybe that limited his role, but as he got bigger and stronger, he kept that quickness, and he became a dominant player.

“He has always played with great attitude, lots of tenacity. He’s a hard worker who tries to do everything right, and he’s a smart player as well. That combination of things helped him rise very quickly.”

”Skyrocket” is used too often in NFL draft parlance, but the term applies perfectly here. Williams was a relative unknown before the position switch, a backup end patiently waiting behind talented upperclassmen. Anonymity extended to the NFL scouting community, which didn’t give him credence as a draft prospect.

That changed after evaluators saw Williams play inside. He was dominant against both the run and the pass, big enough to move piles yet elusive enough to slip into the backfield. He did all that often, totaling 71 tackles, including eight sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last season.

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah has watched Williams extensively, and says he pops off the game film more consistently than any prospect in this draft, regardless of position.

Scouts also saw that. Williams shot up draft boards and stayed there with an excellent combine showing that included a shockingly fast 40-yard dash -- 4.83 seconds -- for someone so big.

Then came the combine meetings, individual team dinners and pre-draft visits, where his unshakable confidence and easy-going personality shine. Teams often move him to the whiteboard, which can stress the unprepared.

That’s a comfort zone for Williams, where he can break down all the film he’s studied and information absorbed quickly and effortlessly. He has plenty of experience working on film, dating to those Wenonah High study sessions. He honed the crafted at Alabama, and used it as a survival tactic during his position switch.

“People ask how I got so smart playing football. It’s from getting knocked around,” Williams said. “It wasn’t easy being 275 [pounds] playing nose guard in spring football against the Alabama offensive line, so I had to find something to beat those guys. I started looking more at film, watching tendencies. I would watch our offense’s practice every day, every single day. I just started finding clues I could use against them.

“When I got good at that, I started to see the way I play change. That gave me confidence that I could play well despite being smaller than usual at my position.”

Williams is a big guy now, toned over an intense training stretch following Alabama’s season that continues to this day. He’s now 302 pounds of muscle, with excellent individual test scores, dynamic game film and off-the-charts football smarts.

Williams might not be picked No. 1 overall, but many consider him the best overall player in this NFL draft. Sources believe there’s little chance he’ll make it past the Raiders at No. 4, but he might not be there, considering most draft experts consider him a rare can’t-miss prospect with tremendous upside.

Still home sweet home

Quinnen Williams is a bona fide celebrity now, and that carries juice across the country. Everywhere, however, except, his grandparents' home.

“When he walks in this house, he’s just Quinnen,” Henderson said. “He’s still the kid who used to jump on our bed and take over our kitchen. He likes coming home and just being himself.”

Yvarta and Charles Henderson have lived in the same place for more than for 20 years, just four blocks from where grandma grew up. This house, this neighborhood, is home base for all 12 of her grandkids, no matter where they live now. There’s comfort in that, especially with so much new swirling around Quinnen these days.

“They would come here every day after school,” Henderson said. “[Marquischa] was in school then, too, with her computer sitting at that table. She’d come and cook. The kids would do their homework, and I would help them, and she would do her thing.”

You almost can see the scene play out as Henderson describes it, with everyone doing their part to get through the evening routine. Marquischa was working on her master’s degree in early childhood development back then, and the table where she studied remains in the living room, with a kitchen adjacent to it.

Marquischa would typical prepare the meal, often with Quinnen by her side.

“He would be home cooking with her when everybody was out playing,” Henderson said. “They would watch the cooking channel and then make what they watched. ...

“There was a very strong attachment. They were just [so close].”

Quinnen can be a tough read to even his grandmother -- his smile can bring you in or keep you at bay -- but there's evidence he’s growing and carrying on, with Marquischa always by his side in spirit.

“He’ll come here and just start cooking,” Henderson said. “He loves pancakes for some reason. He hasn’t had it lately because he’s in training, but he still comes over and cooks. We’re not little people in this family, so he must be pretty good at it.”

Henderson loves those visits, because she can see firsthand that Quinnen is as grounded as ever. She’s worried about the celebrity changing him, that all the money and pats on the back will mark a personality shift. That’s highly unlikely, given Quinnen’s commitment to his family and his home, but grandmothers worry even about those raised properly.

“Family is first,” Henderson said. “[That phrase] is tattooed on Quincy Jr. No matter what happens, you can always depend on each other.”

The group rallied together after Marquischa died, from Quincy Sr. to her children, and on to the outer branches of this family tree.

“Everybody did their part,” Henderson said. “I did. Her sisters did. Their dad was there, too. Everything worked out as well as it could have. We were all devastated. I certainly was, but I had to keep going. It was a task, and it still is. But I can look at them and how well they’re all doing and see we must’ve been doing something right.”

Quinnen appreciates the unconditional support given to him during tough times, and welcomes the opportunity to pay it back.

“I do everything I’m doing right now for my family,” he said. “My older brother doesn’t have the same opportunity I have. My little brother doesn’t have it. My sister is just in high school. I feel like I’m setting the tone for everybody.

"I can take care of everybody with what I’m doing now. I don’t even mean financially. If they need a back to lean on, I’ve got them. I’m the anchor of the family. I’m blessed to be in this position, to be able to do that.”

His mother used to be the anchor. It’s only right that Quinnen works to take that place.

Ready for a bright future that honors the past

Quincy Williams Sr. has a busy week ahead. He’ll be in Nashville on Thursday night for the NFL draft, where Quinnen will hug the commissioner, sport a brand new hat and hold up his new team’s jersey.

Then he has to drive back to Birmingham on Friday for Wenonah High’s awards night, where Ciele will be honored at a big event leading up to graduation.

He’ll have the phone close Saturday in case Quincy Jr. ends up being an NFL draft pick. If not, he’ll be eager to hear where his oldest signs as a free agent.

Quincy Sr. hasn’t spent much time absorbing all the big things happening with his children these days -- there’s always so much to do -- but he’s proud they’ve found a way to persevere and thrive.

“We have a very close bond within our family,” Quincy Sr. said. “Since my wife passed, we’ve bonded closer because, as we said after she was gone, ‘We’re all we’ve got.’ That’s what makes the family bond so tight.”

They remain a family of six. Marquischa’s best qualities now exist in her children, who do everything possible to honor her beliefs, her spirit and her memory.

“I can see it every day. We actually live for her,” Quincy Sr. said. “… You can see her in all of them, through big and little things they do. She is with us every single day.”

On Thursday, in the final installment of "The Choice": Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen leaves New Jersey to live in small-town Alabama, then returns a new man humbly prepared for stardom.

Other stories in the series: Nick Bosa I Rashan Gary