MISSOULA — Eric Williams sat alone on a bench along the sideline at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. He hunched forward and buried his face in his hands.
The Montana senior punter, wearing his maroon jersey and white pants, had emotions swirling around inside his head on that sunny Nov. 17 day. The feelings were far from those of elation and excitement that he had experienced earlier in the day when he ran out of the Topel Tunnel for the final time on senior day.
The Griz had just lost in heartbreaking fashion to in-state rival Montana State, fumbling on the goal line in the closing seconds of what became an instant classic in the 118-year history of the series.
“It was a lot of compounding emotion,” Williams said. “The feeling of being a literal step away from getting to play the next week, almost certainly, and having another opportunity to practice and play, and going from that in a matter of a second to knowing you’ll never play another down of football, it’s a big swing.
“And there’s a lot on top of that. Losing the rivalry game is hard on anyone, regardless of it’s the last game or not.”
The fact that Williams was even on the sideline playing for the Griz as a key special teams weapon was something he didn’t think was possible five years earlier when he was a high school senior with no Division I offers.
The Missoula native, Loyola Sacred Heart grad and Division III transfer bet on himself and came out on top because of a driven approach that helped him become a state champion in football, earn a Division I scholarship and get a prestigious internship at Goldman Sachs.
“I certainly never thought that I would play Division I football,” Williams said. “Obviously, I didn’t have the opportunity to do that right away. It was more of a dream than something I had as a serious goal.”
Finding his footing
The Griz held a special place to Williams long before he got to play for them. Three generations of his family attended the school, and his family held season tickets, so he regularly went to home games until he started playing high school sports and had to miss some games.
Williams played Little Grizzly Football from fifth through eighth grade, but when he went to Loyola, he decided to play soccer in the fall. He spent two years on the soccer team but chose to challenge himself by going out for the football team as a junior.
“The soccer program at the time was still relatively developmental, didn’t win a lot of games, wasn’t as competitive as what I wanted for my sports experience,” Williams said. “The football team was quite the contrary. It was very competitive, won a lot of games and made the playoffs. I wanted to be a part of something that was a little bit more serious, more competitive and had a winning culture around it.”
Williams served as the Rams’ punter and kicker on back-to-back state championship teams in 2012 and 2013. He hadn’t considered a college playing career when he joined but got more serious about it as a senior. He went to kicking camps and high school showcases and received offers from Division III schools, which don’t offer athletic scholarships, and a preferred walk-on spot at Montana State.
He chose to attend Carleton, a Division III school in Northfield, Minnesota, because of the high-quality academics. He played through a knee injury as a true freshman and was second or tied for second in the conference in three statistical categories.
Williams liked the tiny classes and challenging courses, but the small school size and remote location never grew on him. He also felt things on the field were coming too easy. He wanted to prove to himself that he could play at a higher level.
“It wasn’t as competitive as I had hoped it would be,” Williams said. “Part of me wanted a little bit more of a challenge in that realm.”
Earning a spot
After his freshman year, Williams sent his film to Division I schools to see if anyone had interest in him as a transfer. He didn’t get any offers, so he came home, enrolled at Montana and helped coach special teams at Loyola since he’d have to sit out a year anyway as a transfer.
Williams went out for winter conditioning at Montana with no promise of making the team. He earned a walk-on invite to 2016 spring camp, where he got reps as a punter, kicker and wide receiver.
“A lot of punters and kickers have dreams that they’re maybe better athletes than they are,” Williams said of playing wide receiver. “For the spring, that allowed me to be probably in a position that was suited for better athletes than myself, but it was really fun to play wide receiver for the spring.”
At first, he became a viral sensation for kicking a ball across the field and into a trash can on the other sideline. But Williams stuck as a punter and became a starter in his first year following the graduation of placekicker Daniel Sullivan and punter Chris Lider.
In 2016, he averaged 40.5 yards per punt, playing in all 11 games and doing kickoffs in the rivalry game against Montana State, one of his top three memories with the Griz.
“Being able to come in and prove that I belong on the team and immediately come into a role where I get pretty good amounts of playing time, it was really exciting,” Williams said.
Earning a scholarship going into his second year, Williams upped his number of punts of 50-plus yards and more than doubled the number of punts he placed inside the 20-yard line while also handling kickoff duties. He focused on punting in 2018, tallying career highs in average yards per punt (42.1), punts inside the 20-yard line (22) and longest punt (61 yards).
The biggest adjustment, aside from dealing with faster players trying to block his punts, was handling the unique nature of playing for his hometown team.
“You have to remove the nostalgia that previously existed with your relationship with the team and make sure that it’s now more of a business-like relationship,” Williams said. “Now, it’ll be fun because I can be a fan again and hopefully left a positive mark during my time as a player and will get to watch other people take the same steps.”
When Williams went to Carleton, it was the continuation of his academically oriented childhood to get into a prestigious school. His transfer in order to find a better football opportunity didn’t end up derailing his plan to build his finance and business resume since he took the initiative in the real world like he had before on the field.
First, he did an internship in Missoula at SGL Investment Advisors. The big one came this past summer, when he got a 10-week internship at Goldman Sachs in Salt Lake City.
The oldest of three brothers, he thought he’d go into law and be an attorney like his father, grandfather and great grandfather. He didn’t initially enjoy math, essential in finance, but came to find his calling in that field.
“As I went through school, specifically college,” Williams said, “I realized that I liked numbers and I liked the way that they moved the world.”
When he was rehabbing from having his appendix removed during winter of his freshman year at Carleton, he created his own college basketball algorithm to project a team’s ability to beat any other team.
This past season, he made an algorithm to rank the efficiency of punters across all of Division I football. The ‘punter score,’ as he calls it, uses stats like gross punt average, punts placed inside the 20-yard line and much more.
He didn’t want to share too much but offered that UC Davis sophomore punter Daniel Whelan “is better than people give him credit for.” Whelan didn’t make any of the All-Big Sky top three teams, instead earning an honorable mention.
Unlike Whelan, Williams is now out of college eligibility. He graduated this past spring, was a two-time academic All-Big Sky honoree and made the Dean’s List every semester.
Williams is training for Pro Day in the spring and a shot at professional football. He also got an offer to return to Goldman Sachs and is keeping his options open.
If he’s played his last snap, his football days ended on a sour note, finishing with an 0-3 mark against Montana State. In the days after he sat in disbelief on the sideline at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, he reflected on his path to this point but was already preparing for his next move.
“You start to think about how blessed you were to be in a position that you got to play for your hometown team that you grew up appreciating and loving and that you got to actually play and see the field and play in a rivalry game like we have,” Williams said. “Then you move onto the future and appreciate all the things that college sports gave you and know that it all comes to an end eventually.”