It was only Jamie Williams’ second year in the NFL when his coach decided to feature him against Lawrence Taylor.
Then a tight end for the Houston Oilers, Williams would face Taylor, a multi-year pro linebacker for the New York Giants. Older players on Williams’ team were brutally honest about what Williams was up against.
“Man, you’re going to get killed,” they said.
But Williams’ coach reminded him of his past successes and the young tight end used what he today calls “cognitive competence.”
Williams talked a lot about cognitive competence and the value of adversity when he spoke Monday at Midland University as part of its Black History Month celebration.
At least 100 people, mostly students, filled the university’s private dining room to hear Williams’ “Warrior Through Adversity” talk.
Williams, who lives in Lincoln, played for the Huskers under Coach Tom Osborne, then 12 seasons in the NFL, mostly for the Houston Oilers and San Francisco 49ers.
Today, he is a founding adviser of the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center and has a doctorate of education in organizational leadership from the University of San Francisco.
He serves as faculty for Varna Free University Masters in Entrepreneurship in Bulgaria.
At Midland, Williams seasoned his talk with quotes ranging from philosopher Aristotle to comic book champion, Conan the Barbarian, and Star Wars hero Yoda.
Williams quoted Aristotle who described men as social and political animals.
But Williams sees things differently, instead viewing students as being warriors on a hero’s journey.
Referring to literature, Williams used examples of characters with less-than-illustrious beginnings, who set out on a hero’s trek.
“Harry Potter came out of a closet. Frodo was a little hobbit. He came out of a shire, but look where they ended up. Many of the guys I played with back in the day had journeys like that. I had a journey like that,” he said.
He pointed to Jerry Rice, who came from a small town in Mississippi and went on to become one of the best wide receivers in NFL history.
Williams grew up in Davenport, Iowa, where he said kids went sledding, watched butterflies and traded comic books, dreaming of becoming heroes.
“That’s why we won state, city and conference championships, because we were willing to dream and be like the warriors we read about,” he said.
Williams carried that superhero mentality into the national athletic arena.
A Sports Illustrated magazine photographer captured a shot of Williams reading a “Conan the Barbarian” comic book during halftime of the Super Bowl game when the 49ers won the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos.
Even before going into a game, Williams’ fellow athletes had him recite a quote from Conan. In part, the quote talked about Conan who had “gigantic melancholies” or very low points in life and “gigantic mirth,” times of happiness.
Williams has pondered this statement and made a decision.
“I’m going to have gigantic melancholies, but I want to work my way to gigantic mirth,” he said.
During his talk, Williams stressed the skills students need to be like Conan, which include:
- He described System 1 thinking — which involves intuition and emotion, what people see immediately. System 2 thinking involves using cognitive skills, bringing in all the information before making a decision.
“That’s what the best athletes do,” he said, describing former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana as “cerebral” and a “System 2 thinker” with his strategies.
When asked by a student, Williams provided his own experience of putting cognitive competence to work — which occurred when he was set to face the formidable Lawrence Taylor.
Before that game, Williams watched films of Taylor, noticing how other players had failed against him.
Williams soaked in advice, taking notes, from pro linebackers and stayed after practice, working on certain steps. He ate right and went to bed early.
During the second half of the game, Williams noticed that if he was on one side, the Giants’ coaches put Taylor on the opposite side.
“We lost the game, but I got the game ball, because I neutralized him – because I met the challenge and I didn’t do it with just brawn, I did it with cognitive skills,” Williams said. “I out-thought him. I did all kinds of little games on him. I’d make him think I was going out for a pass and I’d hit him right in the chest … I’d do all these cerebral things on him to get his mind discombobulated to the point where the coaches had to take him off me.”
In his comments, Williams also stressed the importance of a liberal arts education, telling students that every class helps them to become a System 2 thinker.
- Williams quoted Jedi Master Yoda in Star Wars as saying: “Adversity is the best teacher.” Williams pointed out that guys will learn more from the adversity of missing the free throws, than those who win a game. “You need that in your life,” he said.
Williams stressed other things students should do which include:
Embrace your humanities classes.
- “That’s what’s going to increase your ethical foundation and emotional intelligence,” he said.
Do things with the common good in mind.
- College campuses exist to help students search for truth and to promote the common good to intellectuals, he said.
Know what’s taken place in the past.
- “You guys are the future and you need to know your history,” Williams said.
Learn about different cultures.
- People today live in a Global Village. He provided an example of him talking on the phone to people in Bulgaria. He also noted that while Americans shake their heads up and down to indicate a “yes” and from side to side to indicate a “no” answer – people in Bulgaria do just the opposite. Someone from a small Nebraska town might not know that if they didn’t learn about such cultural differences.
After his talk, Williams told the Tribune that he hoped students realize “they must take on the future with vigor, cognitive strength and a healthy dose of imagination and adversity.
“They’ve got to understand that getting knocked down and getting scar tissue is part of building strength.”
Williams wants athletes to embrace the opportunity to challenge themselves like ancient warriors.
He also said: “Everybody should celebrate Black History Month — because the journey of African Americans from bondage to their current place today is a realization of the ideas set forth by the Founding Fathers. It shows that the things that are ‘self-evident’ can and do happen, maybe over a long process, but it does happen.”