ORCHARD PARK, NY — D’haquille (Duke) Williams is forever grateful to the CFL and Edmonton Eskimos.
The six-foot-three, 225-pound receiver will make his second NFL start Sunday when Buffalo (4-1) hosts the Miami Dolphins (0-5). After opening the season on the practice roster, Williams replaced Zay Jones in the starting lineup in Buffalo’s last game and his seven-yard TD grab in the fourth quarter earned the visiting Bills a 14-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 6.
That’s helped make Williams a favourite among Buffalo fans, affectionately dubbed Bills Mafia. The thousands of Bills fans who made the trip to Nashville could be heard yelling "Duuuuuke" after Williams hauled in the TD pass from Josh Allen.
But the 26-year-old Los Angeles native said he wouldn’t be in the NFL if not for the Eskimos and CFL.
"I lost my game in 2016, I didn’t really want to play anymore," Williams said following Wednesday’s practice. "Without those two years (2017-18 with Eskimos), I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at today.
"It actually helped me find myself, love the game again and taught me a lot about myself in terms of character. I made brothers (in Edmonton). Those are memories and memories last a long time."
Williams was regarded as a potential NFL first-round pick before being dismissed from Auburn during his senior year in 2015 for breaking a teammate’s jaw during a bar fight. After going undrafted, Williams joined the Los Angeles Rams but was eventually released.
"I went to camp because they (Rams) invited me," Williams said. "I didn’t want to be there.
"Once I got cut I wasn’t even mad. I was just like, ‘Man, I’m going home. I don’t want to play anymore."
But Williams said that all changed after accepting a tryout offer from Edmonton. He led the CFL in receiving last season — 88 catches, 1,579 yards, 11 TDs — then signed in January with Buffalo.
Williams wasn’t upset to start the year on the practice roster.
"There was nothing to get mad about because at the end of the day I still had a job," he said. "I just looked at it as, ‘Let me go out here and do what I can to help our team.’
"I came to practice every day as if I was playing and tried to my best to get a defensive look, to get a scout-team or special-teams look. That was my job and I was going to do it 100 per cent."
Bills offensive co-ordinator Brian Daboll, a native of Welland, Ont., said Williams earned his promotion to the active roster.
"He came out and worked every day when he was on the practice squad," Daboll said. "He got bettter, he knew the game-plan and those are always the guys that you bring in-house to give an opportunity to when they earn it."
Daboll said Williams’ story makes it easy for people to root for him.
"He’s come up the hard way I’d say," Daboll said. "He’s got a very good perspective, he’s a tough-minded individual.
"It was one game. He made a few nice plays for us. We’ve got a long way to go with him, but he’s a good part of our team."
Williams had four catches for 29 yards in his Buffalo debut. The Bills were so impressed they dealt Jones, a former second-round pick, to Oakland for a 2021 fifth-round selection last week.
Veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander can appreciate the path Williams has taken to Buffalo. The 36-year-old began his NFL career as an undrafted player with Carolina in 2005 and the Bills are the sixth team he’s played for professionally.
"The way Duke shows up to work every day, the way he works and pays attention to detail, it’s not surprising why he’s here," Alexander said. "He has been able to share his story and once you get into the mind of Duke and really understand how he’s built, it makes sense.
"Every day, whether it’s at practice, games, walkthrough, or even shooting hoops in here, he’s competitive. That’s what’s allowed him to rise up and seize this moment."
Williams certainly left his mark in Edmonton.
"He’s one of my favourite players I’ve coached," said Eskimos head coach Jason Maas. "We knew he had all the physical abilities in the world … it was just a matter of him accepting his role up here, working on his craft and becoming a professional.
"I couldn’t be more thrilled for Duke Williams. He plays the game the right way."
Toronto Argonauts receiver Derel Walker, a former teammate of Williams in Edmonton, said the NFL rookie’s story is inspiring.
"When you listen to the obstacles he went through just to get to where he is now, I’ve got nothing but love for him," Walker said. "We all have our own stories.
"The sky is the limit for him. I just want to see him do whatever it is he wants to do with his career and life."
The colourful Williams helped the CFL revise its TD celebration standard.
Last season, Williams was flagged for objectionable conduct after crawling through an advertising placard following a TD catch. The previous night, Winnipeg receiver Darvin Adams wasn’t penalized for taking a TV camera from a nearby cameraman and filming his teammates to celebrate a touchdown reception.
The CFL responded by allowing players to use props during celebrations so long as they weren’t hidden in the uniform or goal post, considered demeaning or discriminatory or meant to simulate the firing of a weapon. Under that standard, Williams wouldn’t have been penalized.
"There was never a dull moment," Walker said with a chuckle. "As you saw with (his) celebrations, he was always going to come up with some of the best.
"He’s a character. He’s going to bring that energy. He’s one of those guy who’s going to make that noise and come to play every week."
Williams was also a physical presence. In October 2018 against B.C., video of Williams steamrolling a Lions’ defensive back who dared challenge him at the line of scrimmage went viral.
Williams also credits the CFL for teaching him the nuances of pro football.
"The game isn’t fast to me right now," he said. "I played pro ball those two years and so I already know what to expect.
"I don’t have to think a lot, I don’t have to rush anything. I can just play my game."
Although he’s an NFL starter, Williams isn’t resting on his laurels.
"I’ve got a long way to go to prove to these coaches that I want to be here," he said. "I will continue to get better, watch film, critique myself on my game.
"By the time the playoffs hit, I should be at my best … and as long as I’m at my best I’ll be all right."