For as long as he can remember, there was only one thing Washington Redskins left tackle Trent Williams wanted to do with his life.
"Football is a huge deal down in Texas and I always knew it was what I wanted to do," he said.
Of course, anyone who has ever spent any length of time in Longview, Texas knows that they take their football very seriously.
"Football is like a religion down there," Williams said with a laugh. "The turnout for our high school games looked like what you'd see other places for college games. People take a lot of pride in their football there. We'd have at least 5,000 or 6,000 people at our games, easy."
Because Williams was so in love with the game, he wanted to begin playing as quickly as possible. Usually, children had to wait until they were in the third grade to begin playing football in Longview, but because Williams was bigger than most kids his age, he was able to start a year earlier.
He might have been the youngest kid out there, but he was big, strong and had plenty of speed for a kid that size, so it made perfect sense that his first football coach wanted to build an offense around Williams as a running back.
There was just one problem.
"I wasn't very good," he admitted. "I had a little bit of speed to me, so I could get away from people. But I couldn't hold onto the ball. I definitely had some ball security issues, so I guess running back wasn't my calling."
Fortunately for Williams, there are plenty of positions on a football team that don't require a player to handle the ball. His coaches moved him to linebacker and Williams did a much better job once carrying the football was no longer involved.
Through middle school he was still relatively close in height and weight to the other kids he was playing against, but by high school, Williams hit a growth spurt most kids can only dream of. By the time he got to ninth grade, Williams stood an imposing 6-foot-3 and 270 lbs. and there simply aren't many possible positions for a kid that big to play.
So Williams, for better or for worse, was an offensive lineman. For some, that requires some adjustment because there's nothing glamorous about life in the trenches. An offensive lineman can lock down a defensive end for 50-straight plays, but one mistake and that's all anyone wants to talk about.
"We don't play a glorified position," Williams said. "I mean, we get a little more notice nowadays, but no one wants to be the guy who has to stay back and block. It was always the most dreadful position on the team because no one wanted to play on the O-line. And honestly, people really can't tell if you're a good offensive or defensive lineman until much later in high school or even college. But a lot of people still give out scholarships on sheer potential."
Which was the case for Williams, despite the fact that he hadn't played the position very long. His sheer size and potential enticed his fair share of big-name college programs.
"I was pretty raw, but I was athletic," he said. "And I had a mean streak that caught a lot of college recruiters' eyes. I always wanted to finish my blocks and I was always getting out and blocking guys in space -- taking on linebackers and defensive backs and showing that I had the athletic ability to keep up with most everyone out there on the field. I admit it though, I was very raw. I didn't have much technique, but I was coached well by my high school coaches."
When it became time to choose a college, Williams had plenty of options (and scholarships) to choose from. But because several other players from East Texas, including Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and former Redskins receiver Malcolm Kelly were already at the University of Oklahoma, and because of a lack of depth on the offensive line, Williams felt the Sooners were the best fit.
During his first two years at Oklahoma, Williams made six starts each season at right tackle. During his junior year, Williams started all 14 games (playing both left and right tackle) on one of the premiere offensive lines in the country -- a unit that surrendered just 11 sacks all season long. During his senior season, Williams was named an All-American and was considered one of the best left tackles in the country.
And yet, none of that immediately comes to mind when the 24-year-old thinks back to his college career.
"I love the camaraderie that a college football program has," he said. "You're around each other 24/7 and you kind of grow up and mature together. When you first get to college, you're still trying to figure out who you are as a person. I was just glad to go through that life-changing process with all of my friends and teammates.
"I don't know. I still kind of miss those days sometimes."
As you know by now, the Redskins selected Williams with the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. The 6-5, 325-pound standout became Mike's Shanahan's first selection after he came to Washington, and Williams was immediately viewed as a franchise cornerstone.
"When I was a rookie, I feel like there were games when I played damn good, but it was a matter of putting it together week in and week out," he said. "It was a very long season and with the money and the fame, there comes a lot of distractions. The hardest part of this job is tuning it all out and becoming consistent."
That's a familiar refrain for Williams, who is one of the most driven players in the Redskins locker room. He wants to be the best in the world at what he does, and he understands that getting there isn't going to be easy.
"It takes a great deal of consistency," Williams said. "You have to pay attention to detail. You have to watch film and really study your opponent, and you have to know your weaknesses. Not only do you have to know what you're good at, but you have to also know what you're not good at because everybody else is watching film and can see what you struggle with. They'll see what you do well and try to exploit what you struggle with, so it takes a lot of commitment and a lot of hard work to prepare for that."
With that in mind, the third-year pro has become a student of the game -- happily spending countless hours each week looking for any possible advantage he can get against that week's opponent.
"I study film like never before," said Williams. "I have a notepad that I basically fill up every page throughout the season with notes on practice and on the game plan. I break down and diagnose the defender in my own words -- not just what the coach says, but I also study them myself. I'm trying to get a grasp of everything possible. I want to know the whole game of football -- not just what I do.
"My first year here, I didn't think that you had to do all of that to be successful," he continued. "But ever since I started doing it, it's helped me a lot."
Williams also continues to play with that same mean streak that first caught the eye of scouts back at Longview High School.
"I want to be the best at absolutely everything I do and I want to be dominant," Williams said. "When I'm out there, I just feel like I have to earn my respect. So I'm willing to let that other guy know that I'm going to go that extra step, that extra mile to show that I'm here to have a physically dominant presence.
"When guys leave the field, I want them to remember that they went up against me. I don't want to be feared by my opponents, but I want to be respected."
Before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season prematurely in Week 2, Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo was the player who most often lined up against Williams one-on-one in practice. It's because of those battles that Orakpo is convinced Williams is among the best in the NFL at his respective position.
"Just his footwork and his ability," said Orakpo. "He is very athletic and he is very strong. If you're thinking about running around the edge on him, it is impossible. You have to work something else with Trent because he is very athletic and very strong."
Regardless of who lines up against him this year, Shanahan believes Williams is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season and is one of the main reasons the Redskins offense has fared so well this season.
"I think he's an excellent athlete, number one," Shanahan said. "I think that helps him because it's really hard to play in this league if you can't pass protect. It's nearly impossible because at some point, you're going to drop back and throw the ball. Then, of course, his athletic ability allows him to be a good run blocker.
"I think it all runs parallel. Then, there's getting comfortable with the scheme and the guys you're playing with and then it all kind of starts to go. I think that's what you've got going on there in Washington."
With everything going so well on the field, it seems there's only one person truly capable of stopping the talented left tackle – Williams, himself.
That's because Williams was suspended for the final four games of the 2011 season after he failed multiple drug tests. Now, if he fails another drug test during his NFL career, Williams could face a yearlong suspension.
"I learned a lot about myself and about how I respond to adversity," he said. "I made it that way for myself, but you know what -- if I could do it all over again, I would keep everything the same because I appreciate the lesson learned. All in all, it's a mistake that happened. I'm not proud of it, but I have grown from it. And it's a mistake that won't happen again."
Since returning from his suspension, Williams has returned more driven and focused than ever. He's also gone out of his way to show his teammates he's learned from his mistakes and has assumed a more vocal leadership role.
"It would be easy for me to go out every day, get my job done and go home, but to me, that would be selfish," Williams said. "I don't want to just be the best. I want to help my teammates' progress as well. That's why I'm out there giving guys encouragement and leading by example on and off the field.
"It's not about who can say the best pre-game speech. It's about who is going to be there with you when you need someone to lean on. I try to be that guy."
Things haven't always been perfect for Williams or for the Redskins, but both appear to be hitting their stride at the perfect time. Washington is playing meaningful games in December for the first time in recent history and Williams continues to excel in one of the most important positions in the game.
"I might not be a household name, but I feel like when you put the tape on, you see I can compete with anyone in this league," he said.
And for the first time in a long time, the same can be said about the Redskins.