Football player with history of concussions became pioneer on NASCAR's pit road
Ryan Bergeron, CNN - On a warm, sunny November day, the ISM raceway near Phoenix is literally roaring with action. The NASCAR Cup Series is heading into its second-to-last race of the year, and drivers are speeding around the track for the final practice of the day.
This is what NASCAR pit crew veteran Dion Williams calls the "calm storm," the one gearing everyone up for race day.
"When you hear the cars prior to the race, testing and tuning up, it's all a part of the process of getting you ready for that green flag."
The pre-race anticipation brings Williams back to his football-playing days.
"When the green flag drops and when a whistle is blown for the first quarter, that's where the butterflies in the stomach come in. As soon as you stand on the wall, as part of the pit crew, you are nervous."
Williams spent 13 years as a pit crew member, carrying tires and being a jackman for NASCAR drivers like Jeff Gordon and Chase Elliott. Though football and NASCAR are two very different sports, Williams credits a lot of his success on the track to his days on the gridiron.
"You get used to handling pressure and performing well at a high level with thousands of people watching you. You have to be very athletic for these positions."
But even Williams didn't realize that until he was invited for his first tryout.
Sidelined by concussions
The high school and college football player says he had "no idea" about NASCAR and did not grow up a fan of the sport. The unlikely switch came after a brutal hit in football.
"It was a special teams play. I was running full speed down the field and got knocked out again. I was dizzy. I had blurred vision. I knew I was done as a football player after that hit."
Williams, a self-proclaimed "headbuster," played linebacker at Wake Forest. He was involved in a lot of violent collisions and had a history of concussions.
"I imposed my will on a lot of players. Over my 10 years playing football, I've had six or seven concussions."
Williams even recalls times when he got his "bell rung" but wouldn't alert anyone so he could stay in the game.
"There were times when you look up and see the field spin. The ground is turning. You did not want to come out. You wanted to fight through it. That was just the way it was. It just wasn't treated the same as it is now."
After suffering through his final knockout blow and realizing that the hits would only get harder and rougher in the NFL, Williams was ready to hang up his cleats.
It wasn't until a NASCAR recruiter approached him about trying out as a pit crew member that Williams realized his dreams of becoming a professional athlete might still be possible.
A pioneer on pit road
Combining his size, strength and speed with his ability to perform under pressure, Williams quickly found his career in NASCAR on the fast track. Within six months, he was pitting cars in the top level of the sport. As he rose through the ranks, he found himself taking on a new role in the sport: trailblazer.
"In 2005, when I first went over the wall, being one of the few African-Americans at the racetrack, I didn't think anything of it. It wasn't until it was brought to my attention, 'There's never been an African-American to pit a car at Hendrick Motorsports' or 'there's never been an African-American to win in the top series of NASCAR.' That's when it clicked to me that I'm doing something pretty cool."
Having now retired from the pit, Williams is looking to "spread the gospel" of NASCAR. He's a national recruiter for pit crew development in NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. He travels the country looking for college athletes with the skill sets that could transition to NASCAR.
"Running backs and wide receivers have good hand-eye coordination and good flexibility. They make very good tire changers. An average NFL career is about three years. You can easily go 10-plus in NASCAR competing at the highest level."
After years of changing tires, he's now changing the sport by exposing it to more people like himself.
"I could have been the first in a lot, but I definitely won't be the last."