By Lauren McMillin
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Playing in the NFL is a dream of young boys everywhere. Making it to the pros is quite an accomplishment. Having the opportunity to come home and play for your favorite team, however, is truly special. For rookie linebacker and Tennessee native Avery Williamson, that dream became a reality when he was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the fifth round of the NFL Draft.
A native of Milan, Tenn., Williamson began following the Titans early in life. "I've been a Titans fan since I was young," he said. "I've always loved the Titans, the hometown team."
The Titans used their fifth-round pick (151 overall) on Kentucky LB Avery Williamson. (AP Photos)
Growing up, Williamson enjoyed watching Eddie George, Jevon Kearse, Keith Bulluck and Steve McNair. "Everybody liked McNair," Williamson said.
Influenced by both the Titans players and his family, Williamson decided to pick up the game of football for himself. "I just gained an interest for it," he said. "I kind of burned out of baseball, and then my cousin had a (football) team that he started around fifth grade. My brother and my cousins played, as well. (They) started trying to get me to play, so that's when I really got interested in it."
From that point forward, Williamson knew that he was destined to play football in college and, eventually, in the NFL. "That's all I wanted to do," he said. "From then on, I just kept on working hard at it."
Williamson's work ethic and determination led him to the University of Kentucky, where he had an impressive career as a Wildcat. Playing in 49 games with 21 starts, he recorded 296 tackles, posting 135 stops as a junior and 102 tackles as a senior.
With college behind him, Williamson anxiously awaited the draft. He knew that joining the NFL would be exciting, but he did not anticipate that he would have the opportunity to join the team that he had admired for so long. "It was huge," Williamson said. "It was a shock and a lot of excitement, because I would be playing for my hometown team, and I would have so much support."
For people who don't know much about Milan, Williamson classifies it as a "small town," where "it's all about the football program. Everybody loves football season. We've had a long tradition, a great tradition of great players. We've had guys almost make it pro, to practice squads, but we've never had anybody get drafted, so it was huge when I got drafted. They watched me when I was at Kentucky, and now that I'm here, it's even bigger. Everybody's centered around Friday nights. Friday nights to Sundays, now, everybody will be excited about that. It's a dream come true to be so close to home and be able to play for your hometown team. It's really cool, and it's something that not many people get to do."
With Milan only two hours away, Williamson's biggest fans can easily attend the Titans' open training camp practices. His parents, high school coach and close friends have already made the short drive. "It was really good to see familiar faces that I wouldn't be seeing if I were somewhere else," Williamson said. "It kind of helps out the process."
While friends and family help Williamson feel at ease on the field, his teammates provide an even closer connection. Wesley Woodyard, a seven-year veteran and 2014 Titans free agent acquisition, played at Kentucky several years prior to Williamson. As an experienced player in the NFL, Woodyard is able to provide guidance to Williamson and serve as a positive influence as he adjusts to the NFL.
"It's pretty cool to have another fellow UK linebacker here," Woodyard said. "It's like a brotherhood, like a little fraternity that we have. We call it LBU, Linebacker U. We had the same college coach; my linebacker coach was his linebacker coach. It's amazing to share that, to have that bond and know what it means to come from Kentucky and what it is to be a Wildcat."
Williamson agreed, "I get to see him every day, so it's really cool. I really get to pick his brain. He's a good guy, and I'm glad I get to be a teammate with him."
Coincidentally, the Kentucky coach that Woodyard and Williamson shared, Steve Brown, is now the assistant secondary coach with the Titans. Entering his third season with the team, Brown is able to continue to support Woodyard and Williamson just as he did during their college years. "They're my boys," Brown said. "It's great to have them. There were a lot of really fine players and people at Kentucky, but these two might be two of the finest as far as players and people combined. It's a nice thing, because Wesley's able to coach him up not only in football but also pro football life and help him out. Like Wesley, I'm here for (Avery); this coaching staff is here for him. It's good to have both of them here. It's like a little reunion. It's good to have them playing at a higher level, because it does say something positive about the University of Kentucky."
Even though Williamson is just a rookie, Brown expects big things from him. "I think he's going to be a great contribution to this team, because he has phenomenal character, he's a hard worker. I think he's going to make a big splash for this league, but more importantly, a big splash for the Titans."
Part of Williamson's character is his passion for community service, a quality that Woodyard shares, as well. After serving the community during his time at Kentucky through events such as food drives and speaking at schools, Williamson hopes to continue serving others and make a difference in the lives of Tennesseans. "I like doing things in the community, and now that I'm at the Titans, I want to carry that over," Williamson said. "Since I'm closer to home, I want to really start reaching to areas in West Tennessee and also here. It would be really cool."
In the meantime, Williamson is getting used to life in the NFL. Fortunately, there haven't been any surprises yet. "There's a lot of hard work, a lot of long hours. You've got to perform, and coaches expect a lot out of you. Also, just being an NFL player, a lot of people are really excited. It's a whole other level. Fans look at you differently."
As far as what's in store for the Titans' 2014 season, Williamson said that fans can "expect good things. I feel like Coach Whisenhunt's really pushing us, and I feel like the talent that we have on the team will really get us over the hump and get Nashville to be a great city again for football."
And for his first NFL game? "I can't wait."