FAITH RESTORED It had been a gloomy week for University of Memphis sports. But it all changed at precisely 1 pm Friday afternoon on the second floor of the U of M’s Athletic Office Building.

Facing a crowd of family, friends, boosters, students, and media types, DeAngelo Williams -- the greatest player in the history of Tiger football and holder of every rushing record the book can fit -- approached a podium laden with microphones and recorders to announce whether or not he would enter this spring’s National Football League draft. (When he accidentally knocked a recorder to the floor, one wise guy cut the tension by shouting “Fumble!”) Williams opened his comments by thanking the entire Memphis community for its patience. Then the fun began.

Spoke the junior tailback, “I’m going to forego my NFL career . . . .” However Williams finished this sentence no one will ever know, for “Ode to Joy” might as well have been playing. Williams is blessed with a smile that puts Magic Johnson’s to shame, but at this time in Memphis football history, in this room, he had a run for his money from all attendees, young, old, and in between.

Why come back for another year of college, with all that money on the table in the pros? Williams’s answers seemed to come out of a Frank Merriwell novel. “It was a very difficult, but easy decision . . . . It came down to the NFL vs. the city of Memphis, and the city of Memphis won, hands down . . . . I could gain a lot by going to the NFL, but I’d lose a lot by leaving Memphis.” Williams noted conversations he’s had with former Tigers now in the pro ranks like Jimond Pugh and Isaac Bruce, chats where he’s been left with the impression that pro football is fun . . . but a business. And he enjoys the fun that comes almost around the clock with being a college football star. “I like meeting people in class,” he said between smiles. “I like walking out of the tunnel, seeing the kids, signing autographs, running through the Tiger . . . when it’s inflatable.” (When his pro career is done someday, the man might try some stand-up comedy. That smile’s an ice-breaker and then some.)

According to Williams, no one -- not even his mother, Sandra Hill, in attendance at the press conference -- knew of his decision until he spoke into the microphones. But it was his mother, one has to believe, who wound up with the biggest impact on the choice. “My mom really wanted me to come back and get my degree,” he stressed. “I made a promise to her before I came to college. I knew her wanting me to return wasn’t about the Heisman.”

Ah, yes. The Heisman. Sport’s most fabled trophy will be at the center of discussion for the rest of Williams’s days as a Tiger. The front runners for the 2005 trophy will certainly be Oklahoma tailback Adrian Peterson and Texas quarterback Vince Young. Williams will enter the fall with 4,062 career yards and 41 touchdowns, more than enough resume to place him among the top five candidates. But if he doesn’t score a single touchdown in 2005, he’s already won, as has the University of Memphis.

“He’s mature beyond his years,” summarized coach Tommy West, himself at the podium after hearing the announcement. “I’m so proud of DeAngelo’s approach to this decision. We spent hours and hours together . . . I’m sick of him right now.” More laughter. When pressed about which way West thought his star was leaning, the coach quipped, “I had a real strong feeling that he would do one or the other.”

More Merriwell from the guest of honor: “I asked myself, have I done everything I can possibly do for the University of Memphis? I want to keep developing friendships with the fans and the players on the team.”

I got about 30 seconds with Williams after he completed his formal remarks. I asked if he had ever made this many people this happy . . . without his shoulder pads on. “No,” he replied through one more cheek-splitting smile. “But it sure feels good.”

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