Lions RB Jamaal Williams has a special connection to the women in his life

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Every Sunday evening, for the better part of 26 weeks, after Nicolle Thompson-Williams finished having dinner with her two kids, she would load them into the backseat of her Mercedes 190, drive 45 minutes to their teacher’s house and drop them off for five days while she studied at the Riverside County Sheriff Department’s police academy.

Thompson-Williams had recently gone through a divorce, and raising two children on her own — new Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams and his younger sister, Jaela — she did not want to live life with any regrets.

A sixth-grade math and science teacher, Thompson-Williams had long considered becoming a police officer, and at 35 years old was about to give her kids their first lesson in the power of hard work and pursuing your dreams.

Jamaal Williams and his mom Nicolle Thompson-Williams.
Jamaal Williams and his mom Nicolle Thompson-Williams.

When she graduated from the academy in December 2002, Thompson-Williams spent most of her time working graveyard shifts. She was new to the force and had to wait for more plum assignments, but working midnights gave her the chance to pick her kids up from school, take them to football and track practice, and bring them back to the security of that same teacher, Linda Davis, at night.

Occasionally, Thompson-Williams took naps in her car in the sheriff department’s parking lot, her colleagues sometimes waking her up just in time for the day’s briefing.

Williams, who signed a two-year deal with the Lions in March, couldn’t help but see his mom’s hard work and try to emulate that in his life.

He woke up early and went running before school. He kept good grades — even skipping third grade — and stayed out of trouble. And when it came time to pick a college, he opted for one of the most structured environments he could find, after players and coaches embraced his mother during a family recruiting trip to BYU.

“I’ve seen her do a lot from the police academy, from taking us to practice, from making sure me and my sister was always taken care of,” Williams told the Free Press. “It was just, I’ve seen how hard she works and I know what hard work and dedication is. And I know if she can do it and she go about life and things that she went through, I know I can get through it and I know I can do all my trials and everything I need to go through if I’m just dedicated to what I know and what I believe in.”

Williams was raised most of his life by a single mother, who had the help of a nest of other moms, and he was so grateful for every one of them that in college he tattooed their names in stars down the length of both arms.

Jamaal Williams arm tattoo.
Jamaal Williams arm tattoo.

Nicolle’s name is on his right shoulder. His sister’s is on his right bicep, just below his 92-year-old great grandmother, Alton Smith, who Jamaal and Jaela call, “Suga Mama.”

His grandmother, Elaine Thompson-Carothers, with whom Jamaal and Jaela spent long summers in East St. Louis, has a star on the same arm. And Davis, who Jamaal affectionately calls “Aunt Linda,” has her name on his left bicep.

An assortment of aunts, nieces and other family members fill the rest of the stars, and Williams isn’t done yet: He has to make room for at least one more star, for his 3-year-old daughter, Kalea, the purpose in his life.

Jamaal Williams’ mother, Nicolle Thompson-Williams,  Jamaal’s daughter, Kalea, his grandmother Elaine Thompson-Carothers and great grandmother Alton Smith.
Jamaal Williams’ mother, Nicolle Thompson-Williams, Jamaal’s daughter, Kalea, his grandmother Elaine Thompson-Carothers and great grandmother Alton Smith.

“They’re pretty much my way of just keeping them close with me,” Williams said. “I pretty much was raised by females ... and I’ve been with them my whole life. I see a lot of women day and night, so I know what they look like in the morning, when they go to sleep, when they’re at the house, when they’re going to go get dressed. So I know enough, and so I just want to make sure that I let them know I just love them and I do whatever I can for them and just trying to be just a Black man just out here just doing his best for Black women. This is my way of showing love for them.”

Of all the stars in his life, on Mother’s Day it is fitting that the one who shines brightest is Williams’ mom.

Thompson-Williams ran track at UCLA and passed her speed onto Williams, who competed nationally as a youth and briefly ran track at BYU.

Jamaal Williams with his mother Nicolle Thompson-Williams and his daughter Jaela.
Jamaal Williams with his mother Nicolle Thompson-Williams and his daughter Jaela.

In Pop Warner, Williams often would break free on long runs, leaving defenders in his dust while his mom, who doubled as Jaela’s cheerleading coach, sprinted alongside him down the sideline.

Williams was still in flag football when he asked his mother what he had to do to play in the NFL one day. Thompson-Williams told him work hard, get good grades and graduate from school; Williams never veered from that path, even staying for his final season at BYU to get his degree.

When Jamaal and Jaela qualified for track meets in other states, Thompson-Williams collected bottles and cans to help cover the expense. And when Thompson-Williams needed to stay fresh with her police training, Williams reciprocated by letting her practice her headlock, wrist lock and other moves on him and his friends.

“That’s like the biggest mommy’s baby that you can ever look at is Jamaal,” Davis said. “His mom could do no wrong in his eyes. Because of the way she raised him, he was really supportive. She kept him into sports, she kept him busy and everything, and where she was here, he was there (with her).”

Thompson-Williams said her son hasn’t changed much over the years.

A homebody as a youth, Williams still prefers the simple life off the field. He spends his downtime playing video games, watching anime and hanging with his daughter, who shares his quirky personality. And when he’s done playing football, Williams said he will be content to disappear.

Green Bay Packers running back Jamaal Williams rushes with the football during the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., Oct. 14, 2019.
Green Bay Packers running back Jamaal Williams rushes with the football during the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., Oct. 14, 2019.

“I’m grateful I’ve got what I’m doing now to help me build my simple life, cause I don’t need much,” he said. “As long as my daughter’s happy, as long as I got wi-fi, as long as I can play my game, as long as I can watch my animes, as long as I can take care of my family and my family’s good and they’re still growing things, me and my wife, having more kids, doing my daddy/husband shit, I’m Gucci. I’m Gucci. I’m just having fun. I’m just having fun at the moment and enjoying every minute of this.”

With the Lions, Williams is expected to play a key role in a new-look offense that will rely heavily on the running game.

He averaged about 500 yards rushing per season over four years with the Green Bay Packers and should be part of a backfield rotation that includes D’Andre Swift and rookie Jermar Jefferson this fall.

Williams, who channeled the anger of not having his father in his life as a youth into football, said he is flourishing now, and the love and lessons he learned from his mother are a big reason why.

“She’s All-Team Mom,” Williams said. “I think that’s one thing I can say about just mothers in general is they love their kids and they’d go to the world for them. And they do everything for them, especially when you get here, just the instinct. There’s a certain instinct for them to be selfless and do whatever they can for their kid.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions RB Jamaal Williams has star-studded bond with mom