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Walt Powell Carries On Family Gift

Posted Jul 3, 2014

Years after brother has NFL stint, rookie receiver ready for his turn

Rookie receiver Walt Powell makes a catch during an OTA earlier this offseason.

Twice in eight years they sat together, staring at the television as the party danced around them.

It’s a reality of the NFL draft -- a player can be pegged for a certain round, but no one truly knows when his name will flash across that screen. So while most partygoers can remain quiet for 10 or 15 minutes, the commotion inevitably grows.

On April 29, 2006, Brandon Williams and Walt Powell took solace in their mother’s St. Louis bedroom, void of distractions as they waited for the life-altering announcement. It took seven hours from when the draft began, but finally Williams’ phone buzzed. San Francisco was selecting the wide receiver in the third round.

“Once I got the actual call, I didn’t really say anything,” Williams said. “I just walked out to the living room and stood next to the TV and waited for it to be announced. All my family was there and I wanted to see their reaction.”

Fourteen-year-old Powell could not play it so cool. He busted out of the house and into the street, yelling at the top of his lungs: “My brother’s in the NFL! He’s going to play for the 49ers!”

On May 10, 2014, it was Powell’s turn. This time, the half-brothers settled in at LockerDome, a social media company in St. Louis which has a slick office filled with flat-screen TVs. As a small-school receiver battling injury, Powell’s chances were perilous. But the Cardinals had shown interest leading up to the draft and nabbed him in the sixth round.

At that point, it became official: While the odds of one family member making it to the NFL are microscopic, Powell made it two for his family.

“I remember my mom started Googling the tandem brothers in the NFL,” Williams said. “When you look at St. Louis, there were maybe one or two before us. From a historical standpoint, we kind of made history.”

***

When Powell suits up for the first time, Williams has plans to commemorate the accomplishment. He has an artist friend who will take photos of both in their jerseys and fuse them into one drawing.

“We can talk about it with my kids and when he has kids someday, telling them your dad and uncle played in the NFL,” Williams said. “It’s something we can talk about the rest of our lives.”

But while both players had the rare privilege of getting drafted, this is the point they hope their paths diverge.

Williams took the more traditional route to the league. He starred at St. Louis Hazelwood East High School and played collegiately at Wisconsin. He led the Badgers in receptions (52) and receiving yards (663) as a true freshman and finished with a school-record 202 catches for 2,924 yards.

Powell, meanwhile, had to claw for his shot. Between the ages of 10 and 14, he made numerous six-hour car rides to watch his brother’s games in Madison and badly wanted to play for the Badgers, but the opportunity never materialized. Between academic concerns and a late-blooming high school career, Powell did not catch the eye of Division I schools.

“I loved Wisconsin, but I realized late in the recruiting process (it wouldn’t be the destination),” Powell said.

After considering junior colleges, Powell was approached by Division I-AA Murray State late in his senior year. He jumped on a scholarship offer. He started slowly, catching only three passes as a freshman with the Racers, but excelled over the final three seasons.

Powell became a first-team All-American as a junior and finished with 205 receptions, 2,634 yards and 28 touchdowns from 2011-13. He was also dynamic in the return game, returning three punts and a kickoff for touchdowns.

Powell would regularly send the game tape to his brother, and one day Williams made an admission: Powell was the superior receiver among the siblings.

“It was like, ‘Wow, for real?’” Powell said. “I really didn’t believe it at first, because of all the types of plays he made at Wisconsin. I was always following in his footsteps, and the day he told me I was a better receiver than him, it made me believe that I could play in the league.”

***

When Powell was drafted, he was an unknown to the most ardent of Cardinals fans, but Williams went to San Francisco with more hype. He had proven himself at a big-time college, and the pick the 49ers used on him came via trade for established receiver Brandon Lloyd. However, Williams lasted only three years in the NFL – two with San Francisco and one with St. Louis – and never caught a pass in the regular season.

Five years later, he’s still finding his place in the real world.

“For me, it’s been kind of a process,” Williams said. “I’m one of those guys who is a jack of all trades, master of none. I left the league at 25, 26 years old and I’m 30 now. It’s been a solid five years figuring it all out. It’s like that old Mike Tyson saying: ‘Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.’ That’s how it is for all the NFL guys.”

Powell was the second receiver the Cardinals took in the draft, and currently faces a logjam at the position. Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Ted Ginn and John Brown are locks to make the team, so if only five receivers are kept, Powell must beat out several others, including incumbents Jaron Brown and Brittan Golden.

It is a legitimate roadblock, and this is where Williams comes in. Young players in the NFL are constantly warned how careers can be fleeting, but it often falls on deaf ears. When Powell and Williams speak, the cautionary tale is omnipresent.

“It was never a question whether he would make it,” Williams said. “Now the challenge is seeing how long he can stay in. I spoke at the Rookie (Symposium) when they had it in L.A. I asked, ‘How many guys plan on playing seven years?’ Everybody raised their hand. ‘How many guys plan on playing 10 years?’ Everybody raised their hand. Well I said the same thing and only played for three. I have to keep him focused on that. Look, don’t worry about what’s going to happen down the road. Do everything you can do this year, not to try to build on two or three years from now. This league is unforgiving. It’s constantly trying to replace you.”

Powell calls Williams “one of my best friends, my mentor, my psychiatrist.” Lately, he’s added more roles. Williams tells Powell about the importance of eating right, about avoiding bad off-field situations. He tells him to stick close to the quarterbacks and to save his money.  Basically, the things no one explained to him as a rookie.

“I wish somebody would have told me on a day-to-day basis what I should be doing,” Williams said. “It’s about doing the small things to maximize your opportunity in the NFL when you first get there. If you can make it through the first two years, you can turn it into seven or eight with a snap of a finger. But if you can’t create value to the organization, it’s a lot harder.”

For years, all Powell wanted to do was follow the same path as his older brother. Now, it’s essential that he veer off course, and Williams is the loudest voice telling him to do so.

“All the advice just sticks to me,” Powell said. “Everything he says, I take it to heart, because I know he knows best.”

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