Roland Williams: Inside the Rams 98 Super Bowl Win & The Playbook That Got Him There
Sports fans, this episode is for you! This week on The Motivational Intelligence Podcast, Sean Johnson and Dave Naylor interview Roland Williams, legendary NFL star, Super Bowl champion and philanthropist. Roland grew up in Rochester, New York and is a graduate of East High. He also attended Syracuse University, where he was one of the nation’s top student athletes. He then went on to play for the St. Louis Rams, the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Roland has won the St. Louis Rams “Rookie of the Year” award and the NFL “Unsung Hero” award. He is also a two time winner of The Oakland Raiders “Man of the Year” award, the American Football Conference Championship with The Raiders, and last but not certainly not least, Super Bowl 34 with the St. Louis Rams, which has been referred to as one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time.
Roland has also been a sports analyst with ESPN, CBS, and NBC Sports. His professional development firm works with Fortune 500 companies, including Viacom, The US Army, Northwestern Mutual, Merrill Lynch, and Coca Cola. In addition to all of these accomplishments, he has done work in philanthropy through his Rochester-based Champion Academy, which has helped more than a thousand at-risk middle and high school students overcome barriers and maximize their potential. Roland is a truly inspiring person with unlimited amounts of motivation and potential. “My new “Super Bowls” are to be the best father I can be for my three sons and help them live a life minus the trauma and pain that I’ve been through,” he says. Interested in hearing more? Be sure to check out Episode 35 and be sure to follow us on social media!
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Roland Williams: Inside the Rams 98 Super Bowl Win & The Playbook That Got Him There
Sean Johnson: All right, welcome back, everybody, to The Motivational Intelligence Podcast. We have a special format with a very special guest today. So, if you’ve been listening to this podcast before, you know that Dave Naylor of 2logical is an Executive Vice President of Global Learning. Today we’re hanging with Rochester native, NFL Super Bowl Champion and teamwork and performance expert Roland Williams.
So, a little bit about Roland: he’s a graduate of East High in Rochester, New York and Syracuse University, where he was one of the nation’s top student athletes. He’s won the St. Louis Rams “Rookie of the Year” award, the NFL “Unsung Hero” award, two time winner of The Oakland Raiders “Man of the Year” award, the American Football Conference Championship with The Raiders, and of course Super Bowl 34 with the Rams, which has been called one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. He’s been a sports analyst with ESPN, CBS, and NBC sports, and his professional development firm works with fortune 500 companies, including Viacom, The US Army, Northwestern Mutual, Merrill Lynch, and Coca Cola. He’s got a secret project that he’s working on that maybe we’ll try draw out in our conversation. Perhaps most impressively of all is his work in philanthropy through his Champion Academy where he’s helped more than a thousand at-risk, middle and high school students overcome barriers and maximize their potential. So, that’s quite a resume. Roland, thanks for hanging with us today. We’re really excited.
Roland Williams: Well, thank you for reading that entire intro. Your check is in the mail.
Sean Johnson: All right, perfect. It works. There you go. I wanted to start actually, in maybe a unique spot. You were on an MTV show called “Made” in 2008. Could you tell that story?
Roland Williams: That’s so awesome that you remember that. Well, you know, life after football, we try to keep ourselves busy and the producers of the show “Made” knew that I did work with teenagers and said, “Would you help us transform a young kid who’s strong in academics, but a little low on social skills and sports?” For months, I worked with a kid named Sidhant Misra.He’s a great kid. I actually had dinner with him and his fiancé a couple of months ago. It was about transformation and I think that the best thing that sports have taught me throughout my life is that you don’t have to stay where you are. Through hard work, commitment and consistency and the power of teamwork, you can grow exponentially in a short amount of time. He did and it was a hilarious episode.
Sean Johnson: Yeah, it was a funny one. I think there was a quote, because you took him a long way. I think I remember a quote from it. You said, “If I actually transform this good, I need to win an Emmy.”
Roland Williams: Exactly.
Sean Johnson: So, for you working with Sid, what was your coaching philosophy? You started out, where he started was not anywhere close to being able to be near competitive on a football field.
Roland Williams: Well, I think similar to the work that I do with the Champion Academy, where we take students with zero point and 1.0 grade point averages and struggling with some social and emotional challenges, that change starts in your mind, right? The first thing we had to do was to get him to have what we call a stronger unbreakable belief muscle, to believe that he could be successful despite his tragic sports past. So, a lot of it was about changing his belief system and then being honest about what the strategy would be to get him to develop and that’s something that, in his instance, he took this rigorous training session and he tried to attack it. It’s the same thing with life, right? Once you believe that you can be successful, the next thing is, what is the literal strategy that gets you to the next level? Do you have the courage to take those steps?
Sean Johnson: Yeah, absolutely.
Dave Naylor: So, Roland, it’s such an interesting question because teen years are such a fragile time for kids anyways. Their hormones are going crazy, they’re wracked with self-doubts. So, how did you go about kind of attacking that flawed belief system and really begin to build on that?
Roland Williams: Well, I think that too often people sort of forget the fact that we were all teenagers. I think that when we go through that journey, it’s, what things made us feel more encouraged? To me, it is authenticity, being relatable and sharing sort of your tough times, the things you went through and chilling where you are today. So, I think it comes with letting them see the future of what their lives can be if they just take certain steps and what I told Sidhant in that episode is it’s not about you trying to become Tom Brady or becoming at that time, Joe Montana, or maybe it was whoever the quarterbacks were at that time, Kurt Warner, and it’s just about him becoming a better version of himself. I think that when we shifted the mentality of saying it’s not Sid versus the starting quarterback of your high school. It Sid versus Sid. I think that that concept is one that everybody can buy into is saying that I can improve 1% from yesterday, right? I can do better incrementally. Then, I think if you convince them to stay focused in that space, they’ll bump their head on their best version of themselves, down the road, right?
Dave Naylor: That’s such a great insight. It’s interesting how often we talk to folks and they say something along those lines. I think that so often people compare themselves to other people, which isn’t really a fair comparison, in that regard, because so often you’ll come out on the losing end of the things because other people may be more successful in some aspect of life than you are, or they may be smarter than you are in certain subjects and those kinds of things, or better musicians or whatever it may be. So, it really is a recipe for feeling bad about yourself. But to your point, Roland, if we look at it as how do we become a better version of ourselves and how do we become 1% better tomorrow, then we start feeling good about who we are rather than bad about what we’re not.
Roland Williams: Absolutely. I’m here now. It’s crazy guys. I have three sons now. My oldest is 16, my middle son is 13 and 9, and I’m still trying to sell them. It doesn’t matter about what I did in the past, incremental growth still applies, and so now I’m trying to grow as a man, as an individual, as a father on a season by season basis still. With that comes highs and lows, with that comes successes and failures. But, hopefully they see the consistency of me trying to become the best version of myself and that’s something that those universal strategies, that evergreen principle that applies to everything you do, right?
Sean Johnson: So, Roland, let me ask you, a lot of people, they go through a successful NFL career, they win a Super Bowl, they become at the time the highest paid tight ends in the NFL. But the people that do that, a lot of times, you see them kind of rest on their laurels after all that, they hang up their cleats or whatever it is, they’ve achieved a certain level of success and they kind of get complacent with where they are. How do you stay motivated? You’re somebody who’s a living embodiment of continuing to strive after you’ve achieved so much. How do you continue to stay motivated, to continue to be better?
Roland Williams: What an interesting question that is. First off, I’ll tell you that every successful person is human. So, anybody out there thinking that it’s completely easy to transition from one thing of greatness and instantaneously jump to another one, that’s not the case. It’s not easy. What you have to do is think about the principles of what do you want your life to be, right? I think there’s a larger conversation. See, when I was growing up off Genesee Street and looking to escape a world of trauma, of poverty, of drugs, gangs, looking to avoid that world, my desire was to… I thought making money, going to the NFL, anything along that lines was like the end all be all and what my biggest takeaway was when I finished and accomplished and got to the mountaintop of that world, I realized that wasn’t a mountain top of life at all, right? There had to be a recalibration and asking myself those questions, what do you want? What do you really want out of life and have larger conversations and then what do I have to do to get there? So I think that it’s hitting the reset button is really the technical answer to that question. It’s after you accomplish what you have put all your focus in after you’ve gotten in one, your Super Bowl, what’s next? If you’re in the same occupation, it could be another Super Bowl if it was football, but if it’s not football, there’s still the Super Bowl equivalent that you can apply for other phases of your life. So, now I have “Super Bowls” of wanting to create and expand the most comprehensive mentoring program for at risk teens in poverty in the world. I have a desire to make more money and help more people than I did during my football days through my business activities, you know? So, I’ve redefined it. My new “Super Bowls” are to be the best father I can be for my three sons and help them live a life minus the trauma and pain that I’ve been through. So, I really think the big answer is to reset your clock, to choose your new “Super Bowls” and then get to work. Yeah. Well, in Roland, you too. You mean you had
Dave Naylor: Well and Roland, you had the benefit in that reset of knowing what it was that took you to your first Super Bowl; what you had to learn through that journey, the dues that you had to pay, the pain and the effort that it all went to. I think where a lot of people struggle is they don’t even know how to get to their first Super Bowl, let alone be able to reset.
Roland Williams: Right. I think that the principles of getting there, that’s what I’ve tried to consolidate and teach to our teens that I work with at the Champion Academy to my sons, even to my corporate and business clients. I liken this process, to building our physical bodies, being a bodybuilder. When you see a bodybuilder, they are physically strong, and it’s very apparent by looking at them aesthetically, right? You see their muscles and their strength, and although success in a physical activity isn’t guaranteed there, they have the highest probability to get it done based on what you see, their strength they use their muscles to accomplish their goals. Well, I believe that when it comes to accomplishing our larger dreams in our lives, there’s mental muscles and by building up these mental muscles as strong as they possibly can be, we’re not guaranteed to accomplish anything, but we have a much better probability to accomplish more than the average mind or no different than the average body.
Does that make sense? So, the five mental muscles are as follows: the first one is called the unbreakable belief muscle. It’s how strong can we get our mind to believe that we can be successful in something extraordinary despite our past and despite what’s around us. The second mental muscle is called the ultimate truth muscle? How strong is our mind? Our ability to be honest about where we are today? The good and bad? Be honest about where we really want to go, that we really believe that we can have and then be honest about the steps it’s going to take on a day by day basis for us to get there. The third mental muscle is called the conscious courage muscle, our minds and do they have the ability to do the uncomfortable consistent items necessary to accomplish our goals despite fear, or danger, or uncertainty, right? The fourth mental muscle is called the intentional teamwork muscle. How strong is our ability to get people, places and things around us to help us move closer to our goal? How strong is our mental ability to get people away from us? Stay away from places and things that don’t help us? Last but not least, is our passionate perseverance muscle. How strong is our mental ability to have that same energy to keep fighting for our goals, even when it does not happen overnight?
As I tried to dissect what happened from me coming from poverty, the Super Bowl from our NFL Ram team going from worst place my first year to Super Bowl champions my second year, as I look at my entire life and a dashboard of people that I’ve seen and talked to, it all comes down to strengthening those muscles and then doing your best. Even with all those things, this is just the part I want to say, even with all those things, it still doesn’t guarantee success. Even doing everything perfect and everything right doesn’t guarantee success, right? It just gives you a higher probability to accomplish your goals. So, I think that when people look at life for what it is, there are no guarantees, right? It all comes down to us improving our probability for success based off our thoughts, words and actions, and then letting go and letting sort of the our higher power make that choice, right?
Sean Johnson: Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree, that’s very well put, especially the part at the end where you’re talking about even if we do everything right, at the end of the day, some of these things are out of our control. You see that philosophy a lot in a lot of football coaches like Bill Belichick and Nick Saban are big on “do your job and focus on the process” and at each play, just doing the best that you can. If you do that, it doesn’t guarantee anything, but you’re putting yourself in a much higher probability situation to win the game or win the Super Bowl.
Roland Williams: That’s exactly right.
Sean Johnson: So, Roland, you touched before, on kind of where you came from and you talked about authenticity as part of how you can help encourage people to go from where they are to where they want to be by talking about where you came from and some of the struggles and obstacles that you overcame. So, you touched a little bit on your childhood. Can you tell us more about that?
Roland Williams: Absolutely. Well, my mom and dad had me when they were both seniors in high school at Monroe High School. My mom was a six foot two and a half basketball player, a volleyball girl and cheerleader. My dad was the star of the football team. They became best friends plus more and they never got married, but they remained good friends over the years. But, it was tough because when you don’t live in a house with both your parents, there lies a lot more opportunity for a host of toxic role models, mentors, influences that probably aren’t optimal for success. Growing up in the 19th Ward, you run into a lot and there’s a lot of detours that you could take any given moment. I’m grateful for a lot of people that were in my life, mentors, a lot of grace, my dad, at different times showing me another world and helping me navigate through some of the pitfalls. My father actually worked for 38 years for Monroe County Children’s Center in St. Joseph’s Village, Juvenile Correctional Facilities. So, I grew up firsthand being around the environment of what happens when you make poor decisions and the lifelong punishment that sometimes comes with those decisions. So, to go along with that, my family didn’t always make the best decisions and choices with their own personal lives and relationships and as a result, I was around a lot of traumatic experiences from a lot of abuse, a lot of pain, physical and emotional. Obviously, when you don’t have a lot of finances, it puts you in an environment that not only challenges your economic reality, but also can challenge your mental reality. So, in my childhood, I went through a lot and I was grateful for things like sports, for giving me a positive outlet.
Things were pretty good from there, it looked pretty good from there. But, I’m the first one in my immediate family to go to a four year college. I have a family members who I’m really deeply proud of, a few bright spots here and there, but for the most part, it started with me and so going to Syracuse was a great experience.
They told me I go to class for free, free classes. I said, “Really?” and they said “Yeah, you can go to as many as you want.” So, I was grateful to go there and get an undergrad degree, with a minor in management from Whitman’s School of Management. I went to graduate school at SI Newhouse and even when I retired I actually went to The Wharton School, to continue my educational process.
So, it’s been a great journey, man. I’ve overcome a lot and now I’m excited to try to pass it on to everybody else so they can accomplish their goals and overcome.
Dave Naylor: So, Roland, you talked about the influence of sports and kind of how that helped you to avoid some of those bad influences. So, did you start playing football at a very young age? You mentioned your dad was a star football player, but how did you come into football?
Roland Williams: Well, first off, when you grow up in Rochester you start playing street ball. So, I played ball in the street. You play in the street and when the car comes, you yell “Car!” You get off the street and you go play inside. You learn toughness and grit because you don’t want to get tackled on the street, seeing as that really hurts, you don’t want to get tackled. The worst spot is like on the curb and between the cement and the grass, it really hurts. So, you know, you start playing there. I played a couple of years of youth football. We played, in the summertime, a game called “Shoot ’em Up, Bust ‘em Up”, which is another old school game that builds toughness. You throw the ball in the air, and then all the guys sort of tackle each other, it’s a pretty weird game in retrospect. Then my high school career, people don’t know, but it wasn’t that luxurious. My freshman year, I was not that talented, big kid with a good attitude. I played old line and D line. My sophomore year, the head coach of varsity saw something in me and told me to come off of varsity my sophomore year. I asked him “Why?” He said, “Because I want you to.” I said, “What position?” He said “Tight end.” I said, “What’s the tight end?”
He was like, “Like Mark Bavaro from the Giants, you big dope.” I said, “Oh yeah, I like Mark Bavaro. He’s the man.” That’s how I became tight end. So, literally, that journey of sitting on the bench my sophomore year, my junior year, I actually started and was ready to have a great year. The first game of the season I broke my foot and I literally missed the entire junior season. So, going back to saying, I know that it’s more than just athletic ability or talent to get you to the top, and that’s anything in life. It’s more than just natural talent, much more to get you to the top of anything you’re trying to pursue, right? It takes you to have the temperament, right? To go through the paces, to pay the price, and I think that’s where mental muscles come in. Strong mental muscles leads the Super Bowls, and I’m living testimony.
Sean Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. Well and at that point you said, one game into the, your junior year, you broke your foot. What was your mentality at that point? That’s got to be really tough where you’re coming in, you’re all excited about the season, you’ve finally got the starting spot. What was your mentality like at that point? Was that some time where you kind of had to figure out how to flex those mental muscles?
Roland Williams: Yeah. Well, I think that might’ve been a time in my life where actually I started building them for the first time because after I broke my foot and then I was broken, I was sad. I was depressed. I had never had much high school success as you can tell, or you probably can remember in high school, you’re not that kind. So, some of the things that my teammates had to say about me and I didn’t have the cool football status, didn’t have the girlfriend.
It got to the point where I sort of had to deal with myself and said, “Well, I’ll only get one more year to play. I’m going to do my absolute best.” I’d rather just do my absolute best and never play again, but at least I can leave with my head held high. So, that was my big determination factor.
Then, my dad of all people, and my dad was working a lot of jobs and busy, he came to me and told me about the Syracuse University Football Camp, and he said he heard that if you go there and play while these football champs, they’ll consider you for scholarships. So, he signed me up. I didn’t have a suitcase. I literally carried all my stuff in a trash bag, the industrial size ones, the thicker ones. Yeah. So, on the back of the brochure it said like, two socks, two shorts. So, whatever said on the back of that brochure, I put it inside that industrial size trash bag, rolled it up and my dad took me to the Syracuse Football Camp. When I went there, again, it taught me to build mental muscles cause there was all the kids from Florida and Texas and all the big names and had all the stats and all the high school career for that date, and here I was the kid from Rochester with no stats, but by playing next to them, by being around them and seeing I was better than them in a whole lot of ways, it gave me that belief muscle that I believe that I could be phenomenal, even though maybe nobody else in Rochester knew it. When I left from that Syracuse football camp, I knew it. I knew I was one of the best players in the country, and I was determined to do my best to show it to everybody.
Sean Johnson: Well, that’s phenomenal. So, you had talked before, you mentioned that from where you came from in your childhood, it was a rough environment and there was a lot of times where people could have gone down the wrong path. There’s a lot of drugs and gangs and things like that. Well, you mentioned there were some people, some mentors that really helped you during that time to keep you on track.
I would imagine they, in part, deserve some credit to where you started building your own mental muscles. Who were some of those other mentors in your life and what did they do for you?
Roland Williams: That’s a great question, man. You know, the truth is that mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Obviously, my mother, my father, my grandparents provided some stability and had different nuggets and pieces that I took from, but there was a big part of my life that was basically by committee. I had amazing homeroom teachers, Mr. Rich and Ms. Murphy, who carried themselves with kindness and dignity every single day and used to talk to me when I was going through different challenges. I had a great high school counselor named Fred Medina, who actually forced us to take the PSAT and the SAT when none of us really knew what the heck that was. My dad had friends that used to show up, a great godfather, and he had another friend that carried themselves with dignity and always were clean cut and had a smile on their face and were positive and optimistic. People who didn’t even know, I noticed. They might’ve worked at a coffee shop or people that I saw that were security guards. Just by committee watching the world and watching goodness in people and watching greatness. Watching TV back in the day, my dad was a big Dallas Cowboys fan and we always watched Tony Dorsett and the boys and I’m watching them in the Showtime Lakers and Magic Johnson. I always liked how Magic was a cool dude. He was really good and a savage, but he always had a smile on his face. I was like, “Dude, Magic is the man.” So, all of these things, all combined together, like mixed up were all of my influences, right? Sometimes that television mentorship of the aspirational life you want to live.
I know Bill Cosby isn’t the most famous, he’s infamous now, but back in the day, his show was transformative for a lot of kids, to see this dynamic of a family unit of somebody that looked like them. So, all of these things were a part of my experience and kept me out of trouble. Far too many people to name, I think that’s one of the things I’m most excited about is that I’m community raised and that’s why I have so much loyalty for Rochester.
Sean Johnson: Yeah. That’s awesome. So, one thing that we hear a lot, and I think is pretty common vernacular is people talk about natural ability. When you were in high school, would you consider yourself a natural ability or was it something that you had to develop over time?
Roland Williams: I would say, the whole natural ability thing, I don’t really believe in it holistically. I believe that you start out with certain genetic coding that might give you a predisposition. A little different than Michael Phelps and his unique arms, wingspan of his arms and his body type might presuppose him to have more ability. I think you still have to cultivate it and work at it and be in an environment to develop your skillset. So, I think me being a big boy, not being a small fry, really helped me. I think that the natural habitat of growing up in the hood, and they can bet competitive nature of the hood, the unrelenting right desire and fighting for survival, I think gives you some abilities. Some skill sets to navigate and compete. I think that at the end of the night though, it comes down to what you do.
That’s the true pain. It’s like you still have to put in the work whether you know you’re putting in the work or not, if that makes sense. I didn’t realize I was gaining all these competitive skillsets and traits growing up and navigating in a tough neighborhood I grew up in, but in retrospect, I was. I didn’t realize I was developing this fixed game and this temperament and this courage, going through some of the things I went through in my childhood, but I was. I think it’s important to know that sometimes there’s those “karate kid” moments in your life where you’re gaining skill sets you don’t even know you’re gaining until they’re unveiled.
Dave Naylor: I think that makes so much sense. I think that concept of natural abilities is a crutch that so many people, they look at anybody who’s accomplished anything of magnitude and they just immediately default to, “That person’s got natural ability. They didn’t have to work for it. It came easy to them. Since I don’t have those natural abilities, then I can never get to those places.”
Roland Williams: I think that everyone has abilities. I think there are some natural abilities. Things like a will to survive, a desire for happiness and peace. I think there are some natural, holistic, human things, and I think the more that we tap into our human conditions, it’ll help us be better. For example, they say that our passions are in the middle of what we love versus what we hate. It’s when you think about what things you love, that bring you to an emotional tipping point of happiness and make you almost want to cry because you love them so much, what are those things? That’s human. That’s natural. What comes out when you say that naturally, what do you love with everything that you are? Then conversely, what do you hate with everything you are that really makes you upset? If you can intersect those things, a fusion between what you love and what you hate, I think everyone has that natural ability to get fired up about something. I think that’s a good starting point that can lead you down the road towards skill development and ultimate success.
Sean Johnson: Yeah. I’d never really thought of passion that way, but that’s such a unique and such a cool way to think about it. You could see how though that those combinations of love and hate would really put together an explosive fire in somebody, feeling though both of those things at the same time. I love that.
Roland Williams: It worked for me.
Sean Johnson: It definitely worked for you. So, Roland, I wanted to move towards your NFL career. So, in 1998, you were drafted by the Rams, and that year they were four and twelve, they were the worst team in the NFL. In 1999, you guys were thirteen and three and you won the Super Bowl, which, correct me if I’m wrong, I think that team was the only team to ever go from worst to best in the NFL in one year. Is that right?
Roland Williams: Correct. Yup.
Sean Johnson: So, can you talk about, what did that process look like where you’re drafted to the worst team in the NFL and literally the next year you’re winning the Super Bowl, how did that transformation happen?
Roland Williams: I sort of alluded to it earlier with the mental muscles, but I’ll tell you, coming into a team that’s the worst in the league…. first off, when you get an NFL, you’re so happy to be in the NFL. You don’t really care what team. Initially you’re like, “Who cares? I’m in the NFL, I’m so happy.” But after you start playing in the games and the season and you lose and lose and lose and lose, you quickly realize that just getting to the show is not enough. Just being in the arena, that’s not enough to satisfy your spirit. That’s not enough. At some point, just getting there is not enough. I believe that we all want to be successful and you probably wouldn’t be listened to this podcast if you didn’t want to be successful. I think it comes down to being honest and confrontational about what you really want. So, I think what our head coach did was a great job of helping us build mental muscles, He had the team meeting after my rookie season. I was “Rookie of The Year” though, that was a bright spot, that’s the best of the worst.
But he asked us, what do we want? He asked us, do we want to win a Super Bowl? Being honest, do we really want to win a Super Bowl? So, we had to really confront the truth. He then went into breaking down an autopsy of the last 10 years or 10 seasons of Super Bowl champions and what we had in common with those teams, he continued to ask us as individuals, okay, can we rise up to set standard and can we do the work necessary to accomplish “X” goal? One of the statistics I believe at the time was, every Super Bowl champion had at least 10 people, 10 positions that were the top five in their division or in the league, in their conference or in the league. So, when you start looking at position by position, you need to have people that get the job done.
So, he went position by position to ask the question, can you be in the top five of your conference? Is that possible for you to be in the top five in the league? It’s simple, right? So, he started building this buy in, this belief system, and we maybe had at the time, 18 people that said they could. Everybody’s ego. Well, all we’ve got to do is get 10 of 18. He built a case that was in essence, building our unbreakable belief muscle. When we left that team meeting before the season even started, we honestly believed for “X” amount of reasons why we were going to win the Super Bowl next year. We really believed that. It’s so funny because we had a press conference and we were talking to the media and I mean, they’re laughing at us. They’re literally thinking, “Whatever Coach V has you guys smoking, it’s hilarious. We love your optimism, but we don’t agree.” So, we really believed it. So, that’s the hilarious part about that unbreakable belief muscle. Once you start believing and you believe something’s going to happen, you don’t care what nobody has to say. They can laugh at you on the front end and you can laugh with them. But I still believe it. Then there’s nothing better than executing the rest of the blueprint to get that job done.
Sean Johnson: Well, it sounds like what he did a great job of is, I think a lot of times, when people set lofty goals, like winning a Super Bowl, as you’re sitting with the worst record in the NFL, winning a super bowl seems like such an audacious, unrealistic goal. But, it sounds like what he did is really just break that down into smaller parts that felt much more achievable even just on the individual level.
Roland Williams: Absolutely, isn’t that life? I’m trying to lose 20 pounds, isn’t that life? It’s all a series of steps. All the great coaches, everything you want to accomplish in life, that’s major, is all broken into steps, so we can break down little steps too.
He could have said our goal is to make the playoffs this year. But he didn’t. He could’ve said, our goal was just to win a division. But, he didn’t because he didn’t just want us to have a winning season. So, I think the audaciousness comes with the individual making a decision that they can have greatness and not allowing some of their own personal issues or allow the past to dictate their future. We can have all the abundance that we seek. We can have the million dollar companies next year. We can accomplish the amazing, as long as we understand the clear steps to make that a reality.
Sean Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. So, you mentioned, Dick Vermeil was your coach at that time, could you describe Dick Vermeilas a leader? What was he like?
Roland Williams: To me, it was like playing for your grandfather. He was so emotional, loving and kind, a very kind leader. I mean, he yelled and went crazy. But it was always covered with or included a whole lot of love before it.
So, he really did a good job of building up his emotional bank account with his players to feel as close as he could, although we weren’t obviously real family. He made you feel like we were a football family. In the off season before the season starts, he invited every guy to their home. He cooked dinner by position for every player on the team. His wife serving up the meat or whatever. It was great. He really talked about you, wanting to get to know you as a person and be a genuine person. Be authentic. So, you knew that he wanted to win, but you also knew he loves you and wanted you to have your best life. I think it was that combination of both that got guys to really listen. He really tried to reason with us. Does that make sense? He didn’t dictate it. He’s tried to reason to help us understand, that way we would take ownership.
Dave Naylor: That’s great and you see that in business as well, Roland, that the authenticity of the best leaders, the fact that they genuinely show their people that they care about them, that they care about their goals and their aspirations. You buy a level of loyalty and commitment when you do that, that you just can’t get any other way. Obviously it showed in what you guys did and when you won the Super Bowl.
Sean Johnson: I think players always play harder for coaches like that too.
Roland Williams: Absolutely and players play harder when they know and love their teammates like that. I think that’s the overarching one, is not only did our head coach do a great job, but as a team collectively, we were proactive in the process of bringing ourselves together. So, we play for ourselves and our coach.
Dave Naylor: I think that’s a great point, Roland, because you can see a team when they’re struggling, they start picking at one another and you didn’t do your job there and because you did this, this happened to me. So, you can see the finger pointing and the blame and all of that starting when a team is struggling. So, how did you guys really go from that struggling phase to pulling together as a tight, cohesive unit where you loved your teammates, you supported your teammates, you believed in your teammates, and thus you guys were able to lift the team?
Roland Williams: I really go back and think about it outside of us building a core strong mental muscles, individual muscles, we also had a strong spiritual bond of the team. Although, everyone on our team wasn’t Christian, a large majority of them were, everyone had some kind of spiritual practice. I think that we all connected on a desire to love each other as teammates. There was a spiritual connection of genuinely loving each other and understanding that we all wanted better for our lives and for our careers. So, that accountability right there was a sense of a real brotherhood. It wasn’t paycheck based or it wasn’t go to the bar based. It was, “I love you” based. “I really want you to succeed in your life and I want us to succeed as a team.” We’re tired of losing, at the collective, like spiritually, we’re tired of it. I think that when every human being gets sick and tired of something, when you get sick and tired again, sick and tired. Watch out because action soon follows.
Sean Johnson: So, were there players that were kind of leaders in instilling that culture on the team?
Roland Williams: Yup. We had great guys. You’ve heard of Kurt Warner. He was our quarterback. In our team, we had like a Bible study every Wednesday at his house. His wife brought us donuts and stuff. We might’ve had 40 guys there out of a 53 man roster. Ray Agnew, another great guy. He’s now on the scouting department for the Rams. Isaac Bruce, a great receivers, I hope to God gets to the Hall of Fame soon. Just great leaders, good people, man. You know what I mean? Adam Zimmerman. We had so many veterans, great human beings on the team. The list goes on and on and we just enjoyed each other, right? I mean, it was still a locker room. We still fought like brothers and argued and did stupid stuff, but we always respected and loved each other.
Sean Johnson: So, whether its Kurt Warner or Isaac Bruce, what was special about those people that really helped instill that culture? What was different about them?
Roland Williams: I would say it’s faith, but I would say it’s faith as evidenced by your work, right? There’s many people that may say “I’m a believer, I’m a person of faith. I’m a person of spirituality.” They may say those things, but when you watch their daily actions, they don’t communicate that way. They don’t come off that way. They’re not kind, they’re not considerate. They’re not humane. So, to honor everyone’s religion, I don’t think it’s necessarily about scribing to religion other than a spirit of authenticity, of kindness, of togetherness, of unity, of purity, right? These universal principles, fairness, honesty, integrity, right? Its people who walk in it every day, it’s a lot easier for the team to get behind them and rally behind their actions.
Sean Johnson: Yeah, they lead by example. So, one other player that you played with, I would love to hear you talk about was, one of the all-time greats, Jerry Rice. What was it like playing with him?
Roland Williams: Oh, man. Whole different world. So, that was with the Rams when I played, we won our Super Bowl. So, I’m going to the Raiders an going through the Raiders, Tim Brown was a great legend that was there. But, then Jerry Rice came on the team. I was a big Jerry Rice fan growing up. So, to actually play with Jerry and be in a huddle with Jerry, it was just interesting to watch his work ethic. One of the things that Jerry Rice did that I thought was just so interesting was he took every second from the time he walked into the locker room to the time he left as serious as a heart attack. There was no wasted energy, wasted movement. He was always focused and locked in on the task at hand. We used to have a thing called Walker. We walked to our place. Jerry Rice would like, fully tape up his fingers and like literally do it like he was playing in a Super Bowl and walk through. He walked through his steps exactly, every route. He was so precise, so focused. This was at the end of his career, so I understand how he became the player that he is because of his attention to detail and his focus.
Sean Johnson: Yeah, you hear that about a lot of people who were the greats is, it was their practice habits. People say the same thing about, about Kobe and how intense he was in practice. But I think its, you practice the way you want to play and how you do the little things is how you do the big things.
Roland Williams: He was amazing player, man. I could talk about Jerry Rice all day, but just know that he does advertise and he loved the game more than anybody I know. Obviously, he played it for 20 years, which I thought that was amazing onto itself, right? He played pro ball for 20 years. Him and Tom Brady, you’ve got to get after those guys. 20 years is a long time.
Dave Naylor: Especially in a league where there’s so many injuries and to be able to stay healthy and have that longevity in your careers is truly an amazing thing. I actually just heard, I was listening to another podcast, I can’t recall what it was, but the athlete was talking about how they had had a 49er’s reunion from one of their Super Bowl years, and they kind of did a little pickup game as a result. They said that the only player who was still in the same kind of shape was Jerry Rice. He was the only one that wasn’t sore the next day.
Roland Williams: Oh, boy. Sounds like Jerry.
Sean Johnson: Roland, so, I want to talk quick about your work with, and we touched on it a little bit already, but the Champion Academy. Can you tell us more about that and what inspired you to start that?
Roland Williams: Well, if you’re someone that’s from or know about the Rochester, New York community, you probably know that there is a lot of challenges happening in our city. But I think people don’t know how bad it has gotten. Five years ago, I came back, I was getting an award for a nonprofit in the area and had a chance to be reacquainted with how bad things had gotten in our hometown and when I heard about the numbers, where we are with poverty, extreme poverty, HIV infections, murders, I mean, the list goes on and on. It broke my heart. Then, when I heard about us being top in the country in fatherless homes, how 90 of 100 students within our school district get suspended for social and emotional issues, I realized that we have an epidemic that needed true attention to intervention. So, since I like attacking the big bully, I still got my NFL pedigree aside in my spirit, even though my knees don’t do it the same. Basically, I wanted to see if I could solve it and come up with a solution that was cost effective and impactful and to put a dent into this crisis and we did it. So, it’s been five years of work. I fly back every single month from Los Angeles to go work. I started out with my credit card and my dream and an awful lot of my own resources. Over the last five years, we’ve helped transform more than a thousand teenagers that have been effectively written off. So, for all intents and purposes, to revitalize themselves as students, as leaders and as citizens because we need them to be a part of this workforce of the 21st century. Right? We need the next generation of Rochesterians of all backgrounds to be their best. It’s been some rewarding work, man. It’s been a whole lot of fun.
Sean Johnson: Yeah. One of my best friends, Dan Travis, is actually a teacher at East High, your alma mater. He won’t shut up about all the work that that you do. He’s told me about a lot of the struggles that the kids go through, and it’s really incredible what you’ve accomplished with the Champions Academy. You’ve had 82% of active members improve GPA’s from the previous year, 87% of active members improve financial literacy, 91% improved attitudes towards developing healthy relationships with peers and adults. Outside of the family, 89% improved attitudes towards developing healthy relationships with police officers and authority figures. You had 23 active members achieve 4.0 GPAs for the first time and 119 achieved 3.0 GPA for the first time. That’s pretty incredible work.
Roland Williams: Especially where they’re starting from. We take some of the most challenged students and we asked them to put them in an auditorium and leave. What we do is basically parenting, helping rebuild students from the ground up. So many times students are faced with trauma in their past, dealing with daily trauma issues and challenges that make them unruly that make it hard for them to focus. There’s so many other factors that factor into a student failing other than them just being ignorant and having no desire to succeed.
So, the Champion Academy, with our extreme mentoring model, we come in and we help students from the ground up. So, we’ve converted students from 0.0 to 4.0, 1.0, 3.0 the list goes on and all, but most importantly, individually, you can count on as you can hire at your workplace, right? People who have character and discipline and are fundamentally sound with the basics of what it takes to be a positive, productive citizen.
That’s what I’m most excited about. Every kid is not going to be a 4.0, every kid is not going to be, junior achievement, not going to be a scholar, but it’s fairly reasonable that every single teenager can be a positive, productive citizen and know how to be respectful and do the things the right way.
Sean Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. From everyone that lives in Rochester: thank you. It’s an incredible impact that you’ve had on this community and, I have the feeling that you’re just getting started.
Roland Williams: Can you tell? I’m sorry guys, I have all the tendencies of the retired guy. You retire from football, you get more wordy, you want to tell stories and talk. But, also I’m super competitive and so I am doggedly determined, one of the big issues in Rochester I’ve now become privy to understanding more is the workforce and workforce development, and the big need for us to build the next generation of workers in our community. Well, my conversation has been, and my explanation to those out there is to say before there’s workforce development, there must be workforce readiness training. I can teach you all the skillsets on paper that I want to, but if you’re not a teenager that knows how to, or you’re not a professional at Lowe’s, how to show up to work every day, have a good attitude, deal with challenges and emotions, learn about financial literacy so that you can actually handle the money that you make and know how to be a positive, healthy husband, father, these kinds of things. All these things factor into your ability to be productive in the workforce even after you accomplish or achieve certain skill sets. Does that makes sense? So, the Champion Academy is a necessary precursor to workforce development. Workforce readiness is what we do, is to prepare them to be able to take advantage of these opportunities and win for the long term. So, now retired guys like jumping back in the game now of being super competitive to come up with a solution to take our underdeveloped workforce and in the near future, turning it into one of the best ones in the state of New York and across the country.
Dave Naylor: So, Roland, have you been able to set up corporate partnerships, or how are you helping to fund the Champion Academy? How can our listeners help?
Roland Williams: Well, man, now you’re talking about the number one dilemma and my biggest challenge. I’m great at doing the work but not so great at being a fundraiser. So, now one of the things that we’ve done to simplify things is give companies who care about the workforce of the 21st century, Rochester’s future workforce to join me by sponsoring one or more students to go to The Champion Academy for four year programming. Each year, programming costs $3,500 and we take students from the eighth grade all the way through two years after high school. So, we’re looking and finding companies and people who are believing in us and the list is growing rapidly to sponsor students and support us throughout the year. We don’t have a golf tournament. We don’t have any galas. We just have the hard work and the principles of what I believe it takes to be successful. So, if you know anybody or if you are interested in it, our website is https://championacademyroc.org/. iHeartRadio came on and offered to give companies who sponsor students for $3,500 bucks a piece $5,000 and complimentary radio on their stations to add extra incentive. We’re trying to find other people to give more incentives. I’m going to come and do team building and performance coaching for companies who sponsor a certain amount of students, or I’ll come do a keynote. We’re trying to do as much as we can to bring value to those who actually care.
I’m the leading donor at The Champion Academy, so don’t worry, no one can ever catch up, I’ve given a lot. We just need more people to join us. We have a hardworking team of almost ten and I love it, man. It’s great work. It takes a lot and also it does require supportive people. So, I’m glad you brought it up, man. Thank you very much. I’m working on learning how to ask, so I’m asking now via this podcast, please reach out. Please reach out. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Look at me. Complete transparency.
Sean Johnson: I like it. You’re probably about to get a lot of emails.
Dave Naylor: We will put a link in the show notes to The Champions Academy website and for anybody who’s interested in donating because it is such a worthy cause and somewhere along the lines societally we’ve got to figure out a way to break this cycle and help these kids to see a better life for themselves. Otherwise, it’s a perpetual downwards spiral. So, it’s such a wonderful thing you’re doing, Roland.
Roland Williams: Amen. Thank you guys.
Sean Johnson: So, Roland, you mentioned something before we started recording about a secret project you’re working on. Do you want to let the listeners in on what’s in the perks?
Roland Williams: Alright, well, people who might be fans of this show may have already saw a little bit of it, but in case you don’t know, I was actually on Shark Tank a few months ago, and depending on when it showed, it could be way more than that. But, long story short, I was in the Shark Tank with a company I invested in, that had a unique solution for an old problem. It went great, and now we’re coming back and we’re getting ready to launch a new iteration of this product, an executive collection, an executive line that we plan on launching, hopefully right around Super Bowl Sunday. So, the company is called The Pocket Square Doctor, and the product we’re going to be launching is doing customized luxury pocket squares that you can sort of put your initials and your own style and stuff to it. Also, we’re going to be selling the executive collection of a product called The Best Pocket Square Holder. This product solves the timeless problem of how to keep your square from slipping or moving inside your jacket. Anybody has ever worn a pocket square, you know that’s one of the big issues. You don’t know how to keep them still or you don’t know how to fold them and you don’t know what to do with them. Well, The Pocket Square Doctor’s going to solve all those problems for everybody and educate you and connect you with people from across the world who wear pocket squares and we’re going to become like the new center of the pocket square universe, so to speak. So, our website will be http://pocketsquaredoctor.com/ and check us out. It’s going to be cool. I’m a pocket square man. Join the pocket square revolution. I like it. It’s good.
Sean Johnson: I like it, it’s good. We’ve got to keep everybody looking sharp.
Roland Williams: Yes. Thanks for the plug. I will be sending you all some custom pocket squares on the house.
Dave Naylor: We’ll be styling with Roland! I’m curious about something else too. You mentioned in passing, when you came out of the league, I know that you do the speaking, the coaching work, the working with corporations, give us a little bit of an insight in terms of what have you seen with working with professional athletes versus working with people in corporate America, how have you helped people to transition from the lessons you learned there to what they need to focus on in the corporate world?
Roland Williams: Well, that’s a great question and I love doing that work. I think that since my philosophy or my brand of team-building, leadership, coaching and things is more NFL in nature. It’s only for individuals who are into honesty and the NFL intensity in their workplace. So, the clients I’ve worked with are excited about digging into the details and doing what it takes to be their absolute best and are interested in getting the truth given to them in a real way that they can take steps to improve. So, one of the biggest takeaways that I learned from being a pro athlete to coming into the corporate space is the lack of consistency of excellent effort on a day to day basis. In the NFL, there’s a requirement that you come and you have to perform every single day or every single day can be your last, that’s in the game or in practice. In corporate America, we’re corporate athletes. Some days a staff member comes in and gives 90% themselves, some days 72%, some days 85%, some days 20% if there’s something going on at home that has them distracted. This inconsistency costs companies millions of dollars every single year.
Specifically, they say that every employee wastes between one hour to three hours every single day in personal tasks and movements and inefficiencies. If we only take one hour per employee, per day, over the course of a year, that’s 15 days for free that they actually have wasted. 15 days they have wasted by literally just incrementally wasting time throughout their year. So, when you’re an employer and you say for every single employee that I have at bare minimum, 15 little days are free, that is a hefty bill. It seems that there would be some value in trying to diminish that number. So, what we do is very confrontational. It’s NFL inspired training and coaching, to get into the locker room and get into some of the individual blockers that people have and help them not just improve at the office, but help them improve in other areas of their lives, because it’s all connected.
Sean Johnson: Absolutely. So, as we kind of wrap up here, I had one more question for you, Roland. If you could give advice to your 16 year old self, what would it be?
Roland Williams: I would say, do your best and forget about the rest.
Sean Johnson: I like that. There you go. I like it. Yeah.
Roland Williams: Do your best and forget about the rest.
Sean Johnson: That’s beautiful. Alright, Roland, well, thanks so much for hanging with us. Do you have any closing thoughts or asks of the people listening?
Roland Williams: No, you guys are great. I hope that all of this helps somebody in their journey. If you are interested in potentially having new help from a team building perspective, my website is https://rolandwilliams.com/and I love to help. So, all is well, guys. Thanks for checking in with big Roland, man. I hope it was helpful.
Sean Johnson: Thanks for hanging with us. It was an absolute pleasure to chat with you today.
Roland Williams: Alright, guys.
Dave Naylor: Thanks, Roland.
*Episode transcription edited for clarity
01:00- MTV “Made”
02:33- Coaching Philosophy
03:46- Attacking Flawed Belief Systems
07:47- How Roland Stays Motivated
10:56- Mental Muscles
16:15- Roland’s Childhood
19:11- Getting Started With Football
22:22- Using The Mental Muscles
27:59- Natural Ability
32:30- Transforming From Worst to Best
38:28- A Great Coach
42:50- Leaders Of The Team
45:25- Jerry Rice
48:09- Champion Academy
55:23- How To Help
58:09- Secret Project
1:00:15- Bringing NFL To The Corporate World
1:03:42- Advice To 16 Year Old Self
1:04:28- Closing Thoughts