When Tramon Williams left the Green Bay Packers for Cleveland in free agency in 2015, it looked like he was at the end of a common career arc in the NFL.
He’d already had a nice, long career, eight years with the Packers, and they let him walk without putting up a fight. He was 32, which is old for a cornerback. He’d done well to last that long, and history suggested he’d probably squeeze one more season out of his body before the league would retire him.
Yet three years later, Williams is back with the Packers and looking like he’ll probably be one of their top three cornerbacks at age 35. This is rare territory for a player at his age and position.
“I feel like I’m 20-some,” Williams said after training-camp practice Tuesday. “Some days you feel a little different, but if I want to do it until I’m 40, I feel like I wouldn’t have a problem.”
Forty? That would be rare indeed.
According to Pro Football Reference, only one cornerback has played in the NFL at age 40 or beyond, Pro Football Hall of Famer Darrell Green, who as a 42-year old played in 16 games (four starts) for Washington. Terence Newman is looking to become the second this year. If he makes the Minnesota Vikings’ roster and plays in the regular-season opener, he’ll have just turned 40.
But even making it to 35 will put Williams in a relatively small club. Again according to Pro Football Reference, 41 cornerbacks have played in at least a game at age 35 or older in NFL history.
Tighten up the parameters, and the list shrinks. For cornerbacks who played in at least 10 games at age 35 or beyond, the number is 27.
And if you narrow it to the last 10 years, with it harder than ever to play cornerback because of rules’ changes that keep favoring the passing game, only six cornerbacks have played at least 10 games at age 35 or older: Newman, Ronde Barber, Nick Harper, Al Harris, Antoine Winfield and Charles Woodson.
Even Mike Pettine, the Packers’ new defensive coordinator and Williams’ head coach in Cleveland in ‘15, didn’t foresee Williams still in the league at age 35.
“No, because it’s rare that you see a corner play for as long as he’s played,” Pettine said. “I was just watching film last year, got to see the (Williams with the Arizona) Cardinals a bunch, it was like, ‘Wow, he’s still playing at a high level.’”
So how has Williams lasted? A combination of great genes and work ethic. Neither by itself could have gotten him this far.
Though Williams has a relatively slight build — he’s 5-11 and listed at 191 pounds — he’s an uncommonly springy athlete and has been remarkably durable for a player with such a wiry build.
As an athlete, he brings to mind Donald Driver, who also was as wiry and as springy as they come.
Driver was a national-caliber high jumper in college at Alcorn State and had a reported 39-inch vertical at his pro day back in 1999. He played receiver with the Packers until he was 37.
Williams didn’t compete in track until his senior year of high school but finished second in the state’s largest classification in the long jump and triple jump, and third in the high jump. After Williams finished his college career at Louisiana Tech, NFL Draft Scout listed his pro-day vertical at 37½ inches, though Williams insists that at another workout for NFL teams he jumped 42½ inches.
“I’ve always been naturally flexible, that’s one,” Williams said. “I’ve always been a natural jumper. I’ve always had springiness to me. I hear springy guys last in this league. I don’t know how true it is, but I read that.”
Williams also has become more committed to longevity as he has gotten older. In his first four or five years in the league, he wasn’t a fast-food eater but didn’t monitor his diet. He learned from veterans such as Harris and Woodson to be more careful about what he eats, and added massages, pilates and yoga to his regimen.
In his workouts he emphasizes long sprints — lots of 200- and 400-meter runs — and working with resistance bands.
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“I actually just finished some band work in the weight room,” he said. “Just make sure my explosion and speed are still there.”
His good health is as big a reason as any for his longevity. Staying healthy in the NFL is a physical gift, but it’s not luck. There’s just something about how some athletes are built that they rarely get hurt. And players who don’t get hurt last longer. Julius Peppers and Brett Favre are ultimate examples there.
Williams has missed only nine of a possible 176 games in his 11 NFL seasons and never had the kind of major injury that often shortens a player’s career, even if it doesn’t end it at the time. Six of his missed games came in the last two seasons, including four (knee, shoulder) in 2016.
“I’ve never been (badly) injured and my recovery was off the charts,” he said. “I’ve always recovered fast.”
We all know Father Time is undefeated, and if you’ve paid attention to this league long enough, you know that age catches up with an NFL player just like the old saying about how someone went bankrupt — very slowly, then all at once.
Williams could hit the wall sometime this season. You never know. If he starts having injury issues, for instance, that could be the sign.
But he has been working as a starter for the first two weeks of training camp, and the smart money says that when the Packers open the season, he’ll at minimum be one of their top three cornerbacks, which would mean he’d play at least 80 percent of their defensive snaps. If I had to bet, the rest of the top three will be Kevin King and, if not in the opener then soon thereafter, first-round pick Jaire Alexander.
No matter who else is out there, it’s hard not to appreciate what Williams is on the cusp of accomplishing. To make it as an old, small guy at a young man’s position and in young man’s game, that’s no small thing.