Tracing Kyle Williams' path from highest-ranked Kirk Ferentz football recruit to an Illinois prison — and his hope for redemption
PINCKNEYVILLE, Ill. — Kyle Williams, the highest-ranked Iowa recruit of the Kirk Ferentz era, keeps himself in shape these days by doing squats.
The weight he uses? A 275-pound guy he knows in prison.
Williams is one of the 2,087 inmates at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center in this rural southern Illinois town. For 13 months, this is where Williams has lived after spending a decade locked up in northern Indiana.
It's far from the life that was imagined for Williams when he was among the biggest high school football stars in America 16 years ago.
If he’d followed that path, he could be entering his second decade as an NFL linebacker. To this day, you'll find college coaches who remain blown away by his natural gifts and the violence with which he played.
Instead, he sits in a barren meeting room in the correctional center, recounting the mistakes that led him here.
There was hubris and booze, marijuana, mendacity and, ultimately, malice.
And with it ... so much wasted athletic ability.
Even 13 years later, there remains one topic that Williams won’t discuss. And it’s the reason he’s to be in prison another four years. What caused his stretch of vicious assaults in the winter of 2006, when Williams scarred three victims and their families? He was convicted on five felony counts in two states, for attempted rape, criminal confinement and battery.
In two interviews with the Register, Williams frequently shakes his head in disbelief over what he did and what he cost himself. As a five-star prospect, he had colleges all over the country begging him to play there.
Williams doesn’t wish to re-live that staggering period of darkness. He says he’s only focused on reclaiming some semblance of the life for which he once seemed destined.
“I went from being the golden boy of the community to being reviled,” Williams says, his smile briefly disappearing during a downward glance at the table in front of him.
His family still struggles to comprehend what led Williams to hurt those women.
It’s unclear if Williams even understands why.
Williams was delighted when a Register reporter wrote him in prison this spring, wondering if he would be willing to talk about his two-month stint as the poster boy of Iowa’s 2004 recruiting class. The linebacker known as “Bonecrusher” was considered the best high school player in Illinois, and the nation's No. 22 recruit, according to the 247Sports' composite — higher than any Hawkeye since 2000.
Williams wrote back soon after he received the request: “As much as I hold the (Iowa football) program in high regard, I equally rue the day I left it. In retrospect, I have come to realize that Iowa was the university best-suited for what I needed at that time in my life.”
Williams arrives for his June interview in a light blue jumpsuit, his ID badge as prisoner No. M02948 dangling from his shirt pocket, and he takes a seat on the kind of plastic chair you might find in an elementary school lunchroom. At age 33 — 14 years removed from competitive sports — he retains the physique of an elite athlete. He’s a fanatic about fitness. He even believes that he still has a shot at the NFL once he’s served his time. His current projected parole date is March 28, 2023, when he’d be 36.
“Prison, it’s been tough in a lot of respects. But in a lot of respects, it’s been a blessing,” Williams says. “I don’t think about what I’ve lost as much as you would think. I’m not bitter at all. Because I’m hopeful about what lies ahead.”
'He was a very outgoing and daring person'
Williams is the youngest of three children born to Steve and Nyoka Williams in Chicago. When he was 6, the family migrated west to suburban Bolingbrook in search of a safer neighborhood and better schooling.
Nyoka Williams recalls Kyle’s childhood as a combination of maturity and impetuosity. She remembers him drinking coffee and reading the newspaper at age 9, looking like the old men she would see in her work at a senior center. But Kyle also was the first to sprint toward the roller coasters on family vacations, in search of a thrill.
“He was a very outgoing and daring person,” Nyoka Williams says.
His athletic talents were evident from the outset. He was a naturally aggressive football player who seemed to relish the sport's physicality. At age 9, Kyle took up wrestling; two years later, he was a state champion.
Those were the same sports in which older brother Steven Jr. starred. Steven Williams went on to be an all-state defensive lineman good enough to play 11 games for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006. But Steven says there was no doubt that his younger brother was the superior athlete.
By his sophomore season at Bolingbrook, a football powerhouse, Kyle was a starting outside linebacker and easily the best player on the team. Scouts took notice.
“After a game in his sophomore season, I stopped Bolingbrook head coach John Ivlow and told him: ‘Coach, this kid will be big-time,’” Rivals recruiting analyst Tim O’Halloran wrote at the time. “He asked me: ‘How big?’ I said he could easily be one of the top recruits I’ve ever seen.
"And that was as a sophomore.”
Williams quickly racked up 20 scholarship offers from major Division I programs. Iowa, with assistant coach Lester Erb leading the charge, was the second school in on him and became the early front-runner.
“There was nobody in the area — in Illinois, anyway — at that time that could match him,” Ivlow says now.
Hard-hitting LB gets national acclaim
Williams says it was Ivlow who gave him the nickname “Bonecrusher” at the tail end of his sophomore year. Ivlow doesn’t remember it that way. But he does vividly recall a punishing tackle Williams made on a punt return that year.
“On the actual video from the press box, you can hear me yelling, ‘Oh, my God! I think that kid’s dead!’ Because I thought he was. He wasn’t moving,” Ivlow says. “It was a legal hit … but he just hit him on the dead run. Man. I was shocked.
“Kid got up, though.”
Steven Williams Jr., four years and eight months older than his brother, says he admired the fearlessness Kyle displayed.
“He had this tenacity to where you could tell he wasn’t afraid to hurt himself hitting someone,” Steven says.
Kyle says he had a simple credo when it came to football: “Either you’re going to feel my aggression, or I’m going to feel yours. I want you to feel mine.”
He combined that mindset with rare speed for someone his size (he was 6-foot-2, 220 pounds as a senior). Williams was timed running a 4.47-second 40-yard dash as a high schooler — a rare speed for even the best NFL linebackers.
Williams says he wasn’t really aware of how much fanfare he was getting until he went to a bookstore one morning with his mother and browsed the sports section. He opened a magazine devoted to high school football and turned to the pages touting the top juniors. His name was among them.
“That’s when my goal became not just to be the best at my school, but the best in the state, possibly the best in the nation,” he says.
Williams was so much faster and stronger than his high school peers that he could single-handedly wreck an opposing offensive gameplan, says Bob Sakamoto, who covered him in those years for the Chicago Tribune. Teams would try running away from him. It rarely worked. The Bonecrusher was too good.
Williams had 80 tackles as a junior, prompting longtime recruiting guru Tom Lemming to declare him the sixth-best prospect in Illinois heading into his senior year.
“Kyle was definitely the most dominating defensive player on his team. Could be very active," Lemming wrote in his annual recruiting report. "Can run with the backs and then drop back into passing lanes with ease. Shows big-time quickness and change of direction."
But something unusual occurred that spring. Lemming invited his top 100 Illinois players to a photoshoot and interview session. It’s a prestigious event. Ninety-nine of the boys attended.
Only Williams did not, Lemming said. No explanation was given.
“I’ve been pretty well-known for a long time. Usually if I don’t invite them, that’s when they get mad,” Lemming says now.
“Ivlow is one of the best at promoting kids. He always makes sure his kids show up. So Kyle not showing up, that tells you something about him.”
Playing by his own rules
All of the attention and athletic success went to Williams’ head. He felt like he could get away with anything, he says, joking that he did his homework “about half the time.”
“I felt like I was invincible,” he says.
So much so that he would regularly smoke and drink even on nights before football games.
Williams says he started smoking tobacco at age 13. He preferred Black & Mild cigars.
At 15, he became a habitual marijuana user. He smoked every day he could right up until his last arrest in February 2006.
“That kind of reinforced my cockiness and my attitude,” Williams says. “Because I felt like, man, I just smoked two Black & Milds and two blunts, and I came out Saturday morning and rushed for 200 yards and was the best kid on the field.”
His marijuana use took a bigger toll on his wrestling career. Williams fell twice in the 215-pound state semifinals to Russ Weil, who went on to play fullback at Illinois. As a junior, Weil won in overtime. As seniors, Weil claimed an 8-6 victory in the waning seconds of the match.
Williams still cringes about not winning a state championship. But he knows why he lost.
Steven Williams Jr. says he and his father were aware of Kyle’s pot smoking. They warned him but couldn’t make him stop.
“I would watch Kyle wrestle in wrestling matches high, and I’d know he was high. It was frustrating, but I got used to it,” Steven Williams Jr. says. “Kyle should have won state wrestling two years in a row, but he gassed out because he was out of shape. You’ve got to go against that guy that might not be as good as you, but he works just as hard as you and he ain’t smoking? He’s going to beat you. They beat him because they didn’t have that weed in their lungs; they could breathe.
"That's what happened. Twice. But he wasn’t going to listen.”
Iowa beats the pack for five-star recruit
Williams hid that side of himself from the football recruiters. Ohio State, Penn State, Oregon, UCLA, Purdue and Miami were among those after him.
“Everybody and their brother was coming into Chicago to recruit one of the very best linebackers in the country,” says Mark Hagen, who was the Purdue assistant coach working that city at the time.
Hagen says he got the feeling early on that Williams was planning on choosing Iowa. And Williams did, in October 2003. Oregon and Purdue were his other finalists.
Erb had deep connections in the Chicago prep scene, and those paid off. Williams says they formed an instant connection. Erb, now on the staff at Rutgers, declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Iowa does things right, and everybody knows that,” says Ivlow, who still coaches the Bolingbrook team. “You’re impressed when you go there. There’s nothing flashy about them. Kids know they’re going to get treated right there. Families know their kids are going to get treated right there.”
Williams says he was impressed by the Hawkeyes’ upward trajectory under Ferentz, who was not made available for this story. Iowa finished 11-2 in 2002 and was in the midst of a 10-3 campaign when Williams committed.
There was one other factor.
“I always liked the uniforms. It reminded me of the (Pittsburgh) Steelers,” Williams says.
Williams’ former teammate at Bolingbrook, A.J. Johnson, was in his freshman season with the Hawkeyes, and Williams visited campus often during his senior year. Everything seemed to be falling into place.
Except Williams scored only a 17 on his ACT test, one point shy of the mark needed to play college football. He arrived in Iowa City in June 2004, was assigned No. 57 and given one clear instruction: Spend the next two months studying to get a passing test result in August.
“That’s a pretty reasonable plan,” Williams acknowledges. “At the time, I had no desire to study. It was so foolish.
“I was still smoking and drinking and partying.”
When Williams took the exam again, he was happy to see that the man next to him had received the same copy. Williams cheated. His neighbor was smart enough to score a 25. But the NCAA Clearinghouse flagged Williams’ result, since an eight-point increase was irregular. Williams retook the test without the ability to crib answers — a 17 again.
Iowa was already into its August practice schedule. Williams had spoken at the team’s media day, telling reporters: “I just want to contribute to this team in any way that I can.”
Williams was one of the star attractions of the Hawkeyes’ Kids Day scrimmage. He was the five-star recruit everyone wanted to see.
And then he was gone.
Williams left the Iowa campus for the final time 15 years ago this week. He said then he was coming back that next January. He says now that was never his plan.
The Hawkeyes advised Williams to go to Milford Academy in New Berlin, New York, for the semester. They wanted him to get a passing ACT grade and then return after the holidays. That’s what former Iowa running back Shonn Greene did.
Williams made the drive to New York with his parents. He took one look at the sleepy town and decided he was not staying. He says his dad yelled at him all the way back to Illinois.
“I wanted to come back home, hang out with my girlfriend, work out and smoke weed,” Williams says.
“I wish I would have been at Iowa for four years. That’s what I should have done. They were very patient with me. To this day, I acknowledge that the fault was in me.”
An ill-fated season away
Williams scored a 19 on his ACT in September of 2004. In mid-October, Hawkeye fans were stunned to read that their star freshman had signed to play at Purdue.
He told reporters who cover the Boilermakers that he liked the team’s defensive scheme and the number of linebackers who had left there and played in the NFL.
“Since I left Iowa, my plan was to pass the ACT and go to Purdue,” Williams said to those reporters then, contradicting what he had told Iowa-based media two months earlier.
Williams arrived at Purdue in January 2005, not knowing whether he’d be granted eligibility to play that fall. Hagen, who was coaching Purdue’s defensive line that season, says the team was thrilled when he reached out to them. He was the first five-star recruit in that program's history.
“He went through spring practice with us and showed a lot of great physical tools and the mindset to be a great player, certainly in the Big Ten (Conference),” says Hagen, now an assistant coach at Indiana.
The Purdue sports information staff posted a glowing article, titled “Meet Kyle Williams,” on its website.
“I am here to compete and make this team better,” Williams said in that story, “so I want to be a starter by the time fall comes.”
Williams got his eligibility. The Boilermakers returned three starting linebackers, but it wasn’t long before he supplanted one of them. He had 10 tackles as a reserve in a Week 3 loss at Minnesota and got the starting job the next week, against Notre Dame.
“Kyle was just everything that you look for in a linebacker. He had the size and the speed and the explosiveness, certainly the instincts,” Hagen says.
“He was as good a player as I’d been around. There were no limitations on his game. I think any school would have been happy to have him. We certainly were.”
Williams had six tackles against Notre Dame and three more the next week, when the opponent was Iowa.
But his performance waned as the season went on. He started skipping classes, too. He suffered a second concussion in a Week 7 loss against Wisconsin and played only one more college game, the next week against Penn State. He had one tackle. The Boilermakers were in the middle of a six-game losing streak.
“I kind of lost my will to play, which was crazy,” Williams says. “I was not happy at Purdue.
“I was smoking and drinking like I was in high school. When I got to college, it was hard for me to keep up with the demands of a student-athlete and basically live this duplicitous life off the field. So that was getting to me. I just kind of lost structure and drive. I was not in a good place. It wasn’t Purdue. It was me.”
Williams secretly let the coaches at Oregon know he was interested in a transfer at season’s end. He says they were willing to listen.
In the meantime, Purdue coach Joe Tiller pulled Williams’ scholarship. In addition to missing classes, he had failed a drug test. He says he had some complications from his second concussion.
It was clear Williams was on a downward spiral, Hagen says.
“Obviously, he had gone past his three strikes with coach Tiller,” Hagen says. “Hindsight is 20/20, but we probably should have done more research and maybe reached out to those guys at Iowa to see if there were some red flags. I’m not saying there were. You’ve got to do due diligence, and we probably should have done some more of that.”
A chilling crime spree, a family alarmed: 'I broke down crying'
Williams last played in a football game on Oct. 29, 2005. Exactly one month later, he shocked the Purdue campus by committing two brutal crimes in one evening.
Court records from the case reveal the extent of his rampage. Williams attacked a student as she parked her car at her sorority sometime after 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 29, 2005. He knocked her unconscious, with blood covering her face and her pants unzipped and pulled down to her knees. The woman’s roommate came looking for her at that time, and Williams walked away. The attacked woman had suffered a concussion, broken nasal bone, lost a tooth and required stitches on her lip. She also had broken blood vessels in her eyes, a result of being strangled.
About 90 minutes later, Williams ran up behind another Purdue student heading to her dorm. He tackled her, turned her over, straddled her midsection and repeatedly punched her in the face. A passing bicyclist heard her screams. Williams jumped up and ran away.
Police sent out a warning of the attacks and an officer soon saw Williams following another female pedestrian. He stopped Williams and noticed blood on his jacket and hands.
Nyoka Williams received the news about her son and called Kyle's older brother.
“I broke down crying,” Steven Williams Jr. says. “I was in shock.”
While awaiting trial for those crimes, Kyle Williams went home to Bolingbrook. On Feb. 12, 2006, he struck again, following a woman to the parking garage at her apartment complex in Lisle, shoving her to the ground and punching and choking her before she escaped.
“I don’t really want to get into that,” Williams says more than once when asked what prompted him to prowl for random women to savagely assault.
He says he feels remorse. But he has no idea what he would say to his victims if he could speak to them now.
“I’ve changed significantly,” is all Williams will say.
The brutality of those attacks has lingered for Laura Zeman, who prosecuted Williams in Indiana. She can still recall the details 14 years later.
Now a Superior Court judge, Zeman says what Williams did stands out in her career for the degree of violence.
And for how deliberate it was.
Two prison sentences ... and a plea for forgiveness
Williams wasn’t tried in Indiana until April 2007. He was convicted of attempted rape, two counts of criminal confinement and two counts of battery resulting in serious bodily injury. He was sentenced to 31 years in prison.
Kent Moore, who represented Williams, said he did investigate his client’s mental state but determined they could not use an insanity defense under Indiana’s narrow definition of that law. That Williams had suffered two concussions was not brought up.
The weeklong trial was well-publicized, and the courtroom was tense. Nyoka and Steve Williams attended to show support for their son.
“We love him deeply and we ask for your grace,” Kyle's father told the judge before sentencing. “I don’t feel like his life should be ended so he doesn’t have a future.”
Kyle Williams did not testify, although jurors were shown video of his statements to police officers. He finally spoke after being sentenced, according to an article in the Purdue Exponent.
“Try to find it in your hearts to forgive me,” Williams said. “From the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry.
“Hope the best for me.”
In Illinois, the Williams family hired Terry Ekl to represent their son. There was no trial. Williams pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated criminal sexual assault and received a 10-year term to be served after his time in Indiana. That case didn’t get as much media attention.
Both of Williams’ lawyers were struck by his charm. And by how devastated his parents were.
His victims were never publicly identified. But the woman in Illinois spoke of the impact the crime had on her life.
“It was all because of the grace of God that this individual did not accomplish his intentions,” she said, according to a 2009 story in the Daily Herald newspaper in suburban Chicago. “I am nobody to judge, so all I can say is that I forgive him for all the pain he has caused me, and continues to cause me. I am still feeling the repercussions of that night he pushed me to the ground and repeatedly beat me. Not to mention the emotional distress I have experienced.”
Neither Kyle Williams’ mother or brother have asked him what his intentions were when he set out to attack the three women.
“Kyle was a good kid, and he just made a big mistake,” Nyoka Williams says.
Steven still can't believe what he did.
“It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not saying he didn’t do it; the evidence is clear. But I just don’t understand why,” Steven Williams Jr. says.
“I haven’t asked him what he was thinking. He was in a bad place. And he realized he needed to have a change in his life.”
A jailhouse epiphany: 'I don't want to be defined by this'
Kyle Williams says the enormity of his actions hit him on Feb. 16, 2006. He was sitting in the DuPage County jail after his second arrest. He knew then he wouldn’t be freed for a long time.
Williams was raised in a Christian home, but had never followed a religious path. He says he said “a sincere prayer” that night asking God to change him.
“I don’t want to be like this. This is not where I want to be. This is not what I want to be,” he remembers thinking. “I don’t want to be defined by this.”
Williams was in DuPage County for two years, then spent 10 in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. He was transferred to Pinckneyville last July to serve his remaining time.
In Indiana, Williams earned an associate’s degree in business and a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies through Grace College and Seminary.
He is proud of that achievement and pleased to discover a studious side of himself that he never knew existed. Williams has become an avid reader, with books and magazines shipped to him by his sister, Tiffany. He enjoys learning new words and expands his vocabulary in his idle hours in his cell. He has taken a keen interest in politics, spurred by the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama and a newfound obsession with watching CNN.
Williams works out as often as he can. He has to improvise. There are no weights available to him in Pinckneyville. He does calisthenics. He lifts his 275-pound workout partner, putting him in a “fireman’s carry” and doing squats. He recently did this 120 times, then stood at the bottom of a staircase and did “explosion jumps,” reaching the sixth stair.
He often thinks about what life will be like when he gets out.
“I want people to look at me and say, ‘Hey, I seen Kyle Williams. He looks great. It seems like he’s a totally different person,’” he says. “I want that change to be evident. I want my overall health to be evident — not just how I look, but things that come out of my mouth, how I act, my spirit, all that.”
Williams says he’s given up smoking, drinking and cursing.
He receives few visitors, essentially just his immediate family. His friends from Bolingbrook, his former coaches, his one-time girlfriend, have all faded away.
He last saw his father in March 2009. Steve Williams took Kyle’s incarceration the hardest.
“He used to love picking up the newspaper. People would stop him and say, ‘Kyle had a good game.’ My dad would just be so proud of that. Watching Kyle get all the attention, the dream …” Steven Williams Jr. says of his father, his voice trailing off.
“Kyle was my dad’s favorite.”
Steve and Nyoka Williams divorced 10 years ago. Steve moved to Florida, remarried and became estranged from his first family.
Steve Williams committed suicide last September. Nobody told Kyle initially. He was doing well in prison, playing by the rules. They didn’t want to upset him.
“I made that judgment call because I felt like there had to be some kind of mental instability for Kyle to do what he did,” Steven Williams Jr. says. “I didn’t want to be the reason that could set him off. I didn’t think he would ever do anything like that again, but sometimes you just don’t know. You’d rather not take the chance.
“He talks to me about ‘pressures,’ but I don’t know what type of pressure he deals with every day. I don’t know if he could be at the point, one more bad thing and he’s just going to snap and beat everybody up?”
Tiffany Williams visited Kyle in April and broke the news to him about his father.
“They didn’t want me to take it hard and lash out,” Kyle says. “Do I feel like they had to do that? No. They could have told me, and I would have handled it.”
'One of the greatest comebacks ever'
Steven Williams Jr. owns a small trucking company in Atlanta. That’s where Kyle will relocate once he’s released from Pinckneyville. His brother has a job for him if he needs it.
But Kyle’s original dream of playing in the NFL tugs at him. He knows it sounds crazy. Why would an NFL team take a chance on a 36-year-old ex-convict and registered sex offender?
Still, Kyle insists he’s in the best shape of his life, stronger at 235 pounds than ever. He believes he’s just as fast as the kid who turned heads at Bolingbrook all those years ago.
His biceps bulge from beneath his short-sleeved prison uniform: A tattoo of a tiger and the words, “Fear None,” is on one arm, with a “Bonecrusher” tattoo drawn by his brother on the other. Williams looks at them and smiles, thinking of happier days.
“Why not try to conceive the impossible?” he says. “Maybe I’ll have one of the greatest comebacks ever.”
Steven is going to put Kyle in touch with some agents he met during his NFL playing days. He is even more animated than Kyle when discussing the subject.
“If he gets the chance to sit down in front of any owner, any coach and general manager, they will give him a shot,” Steven says. “You can feel his energy. You can listen to him speak. With the combination of him being the person he is now and his athletic ability, I believe somebody will give him a shot. Even if it’s just a week-by-week contract, and if we feel you’re doing anything that is detrimental to yourself or the team, you’re gone. He’ll take it.”
Steven and Kyle Williams never played on the same football team. But Steven says lately he’s been having vivid dreams of the two of them doing just that, Kyle at linebacker coming up to the line of scrimmage to pat Steve on the rear end and give him some defensive signal.
That’s an impossibility now, of course. It’s more likely that the brothers will just be co-workers in the trucking business.
Steven mainly wants Kyle around so he can steer him on a better path. Kyle has never met his nephew, Steve’s 9-year-old son James, a budding pianist.
“I believe Kyle can re-write his story,” Steven says. “And I want him down here with me because I’m a man. I know what it’s like to be an African-American man in the United States. Then Kyle’s going to have a record, so he’s going to need somebody. And you know Kyle looks up to me more than anybody.
“At this age, Kyle will listen to me now. Because he’s seen where it got him not listening.”
Truly a changed man? Only Kyle Williams can answer that
Steven Williams Jr. says he's confident that his brother will stay out of trouble once he's released.
Nyoka is also certain that she’s seen a permanent change in her son.
“He’s a grown man now. You have time to think and you have time to put things in perspective,” she says. “You have time to look over your life and see what you’ve done right and what you did wrong and how you can correct things. And I think he’s done all of that.”
Ultimately, it will be up to Kyle to prove he's a changed man.
He wants to start a family of his own. He wants to show people that they shouldn’t judge him solely for his misdeeds. He knows he’ll possibly be answering those questions forever.
Williams seems sincere. But saying the right things was never his problem.
One of the most chilling details of his two nights of assaults was that he wore homemade masks on each occasion. The forethought he must have put into that is staggering.
The question now: Is Kyle Williams still wearing a mask of sorts? Or is this truly the gaze of a man reformed?
“I have no concern whatsoever that when I get out I’ll ever commit a crime again,” Williams says, leaning into the words as if to give them more weight.
“I want my legacy to be, from the time he got out of prison, he was a great person.”
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