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A Nashville Story: Joejuan Williams blazed a new path to the NFL

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A Nashville Story: Joejuan Williams blazed a new path to the NFL

Photo via Vanderbilt Athletics

Photo via Vanderbilt Athletics

Photo via Vanderbilt Athletics

Photo via Vanderbilt Athletics

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

There was a time that NFL talent didn’t come out of Nashville or the state of Tennessee.

There was a time that Tennessee’s best high school players didn’t even give Vanderbilt a thought in the recruiting process.

There was a time that it was unthinkable for Nashville to host events like the NFL Draft.

However, that time is long gone, as Nashville and Vanderbilt’s very own Cornerback Joejuan Williams was picked 45th overall by the New England Patriots in the 2019 NFL Draft held at the foot of Broadway.

Consider it a new era for Vanderbilt, Nashville and the state of Tennessee.

“The 615 is on the come-up,” Williams said. “The players that are going to come out of Vanderbilt soon, the players that are going to come out of Nashville soon, are definitely people you’ve got to watch out for. A lot of people overlook Tennessee recruits, a lot of people overlook Nashville players. But we’re definitely on the come-up.”

Photo via Vanderbilt Athletics

Even though he didn’t attend the draft downtown for the first night, he was invited to sit in the green room for the second night. That meant he got to put on the Patriots hat and walk across the stage overlooking over 100,000 fans packed into Broadway. It was a surreal moment for the Nashville kid, and one he’ll want to document forever.

“Man, that was a beautiful sight,” he said. “That was such a beautiful sight. I have to find some pictures of it, because it was so beautiful. I’m from here, and seeing Broadway and not having to go far, it was exciting.”

In many ways, Williams has been a trailblazer and beaten the odds to get to the draft stage on Broadway. He was raised by his mother under tough circumstances in the public housing projects of Nashville just a few miles from where the draft took place. As a talented football prospect, he attended the prestigious Father Ryan High School. When it came to choosing a college, he decided to stay close to home and attend Vanderbilt, despite getting recruited hard by blue bloods such as LSU and Georgia.

And now, he’s going to be playing in the NFL for the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Even though he’ll be off to bigger and better things, he certainly won’t forget where he came from.

“Growing up, it was just me, my mom and my brother,” he said. “My granny, my uncle were great crutches for us, but we grew up project home to project home, and that’s something I look back on and pride myself on. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it. My mom made a lot of sacrifices. My mom is my superhero, she was the first one that I hugged when I heard my name called. It was definitely tough growing up, but again, that made me the person I am today. From growing up in that neighborhood, breaking that cycle, going to Vanderbilt, getting three classes away from my degree. At the end of the day, it’s definitely been special.”

Photo via Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt has started to bring in more in-state talent such as wide receiver Cam Johnson from Brentwood Academy and star running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn from Pearl-Cohn High School, but Williams committed to Vanderbilt when the Commodores weren’t on many Tennessee kids’ radar. Vanderbilt wasn’t seen as an intriguing or even a viable option for some of the best prospects.

As Williams has shown, though, talented Tennessee prospects can make it into the pros, and they don’t even have to go far from home to do it. One of his former high school coaches, Corey Burton, attributes Williams’ decision to blaze that path at Vanderbilt to his very ambitious and independent personality.

“I think he wanted to be a pioneer, that’s kind of the feel that I got,” Burton said. “Georgia was high on him, LSU was hard after him, and they were tough to turn down talking to them during that whole process. Those were two schools that were really leading with Vanderbilt, but I think he just felt that pull of trying to stay home and really just being one of the first to say hey, you all come to Vanderbilt, let’s do something here in Nashville. Let’s build the brand here and let’s put Nashville on the map with HS football.”

Much of the growth in Vanderbilt’s local clout has to do with Head Coach Derek Mason and his efforts to gain a footprint in Nashville’s football scene. As well as Vanderbilt recruited under former Head Coach James Franklin, he didn’t bring in the local talent that Mason has been able to bring to West End.

Williams said Mason meant a lot to him in his growth as a football player and as a person.

“Coach Mason has been everything to me as a coach,” he said. “He’s helped me out off the field, on the field, gave me tips and tools, whatever I needed to make sure my hips are fluid, make sure my stance was correct, make sure my eyes are in the right spot. He definitely helped me at this level to get to this spot right here.”

As the 45th pick in this year’s draft, Williams becomes the seventh Vanderbilt product to get picked in the first two rounds. He spoke with many of those same players throughout his draft process, as they are some of the only ones that can understand what being a “Vanderbilt Man” in the NFL means.

“Vanderbilt means the world to me,” Williams said. “It helped me become the man I am today. Again, there’s going to be a lot of Vanderbilt guys in these next years coming into the spotlight here. Just from this whole process talking to Jordan Matthews, Andre Hal, Casey Hayward week in and week out, that’s like my big brother to me. Adam Butler, Zach Cunningham, Oren Burks, all of those guys who are in the NFL now reached out to me multiple times throughout this process just to help out. It’s a fraternity. It’s a brotherhood. Again, there’s going to be a lot more on the way.”

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About the Writer
Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

Cutler Klein ('19) is the Sports Editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He previously served as Assistant Sports Editor. He is majoring in Communication Studies...

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