Marquise Williams threw three interceptions – two in the end zone – last week during North Carolina’s season-opening 17-13 loss against South Carolina. And then came the most difficult part of his night, when he found himself alone with his thoughts and disappointment.
“It hurt,” Williams said after practice Tuesday, the first time he’d spoken with reporters since after the game in Charlotte. “I couldn’t really sleep Thursday.”
Friday, though, was a new day, and one that started well enough. Williams said he began hearing from fellow quarterbacks from all over the country, sending him text messages and words of encouragement.
He said he heard from former North Carolina quarterbacks Bryn Renner and T.J. Yates. And from current college quarterbacks – Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Southern Cal’s Cody Kessler. And Williams heard, too, he said, “from one of the greatest.”
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“And that’s Peyton Manning,” Williams said. “He gave me a text and told me to give him a call, and I did. And he just said, ‘Go out and play your game.’ I felt like it was over (after the loss), man. It just felt like you just lost everything. But when I got that call, I was like, man, I’m back at it. Let’s move on.”
Williams during the past two summers has gotten to know Manning – and his brother, Eli, and father, Archie – while working with the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La. The camp is designed for boys entering eighth through 12th grade, and college quarterbacks are invited to serve as counselors.
Williams has done that the past two summers, and he has formed enough of a relationship with Peyton Manning that Williams was on Manning’s mind after last Thursday night.
It was, perhaps, the most difficult night Williams had on a football field. After an offseason of hype and accolades, Williams threw an interception in the end zone on UNC’s first possession. He did the same on the Tar Heels’ final possession, effectively ending UNC’s chances to win.
Afterward, Williams’ teammates attempted to console him. Jeff Schoettmer, the senior middle linebacker, and Landon Turner, the senior offensive lineman, approached Williams after the game. Schoettmer said it was “tough to see,” the way Williams struggled.
“We need you to pick yourself up, move on from it,” Schoettmer said he told Williams. “All players make mistakes in games and have off games.”
Easier said than done. Williams on Tuesday thought about that conversation. He said Schoettmer reminded him that the Tar Heels’ defense struggled throughout last season, and that the offense was there for it. Now the tables were turned.
“You probably felt sad,” Williams said he told Schoettmer. “But I feel like I’m just out of it, Jeff.”
He felt that way through a long night, and still felt that way, Williams said, when he received the text message from Peyton Manning on Friday morning. Manning wrote Williams telling him to give him a call.
So Williams did. They spoke for about 20 minutes, Williams said.
“You think once you leave those camps, those guys don’t even bother to think about you,” Williams said. “Or (you’re) even thinking, like, those guys got their own lives. But the relationship is there. He keeps up with me.”
At one point in the conversation, Williams said Manning asked him if he knew who holds the NFL record for most interceptions thrown by a rookie.
“And I said, I’m assuming that’s you,’” Williams said. “And he said, ‘You’re right – I still hold that record.’”
Manning threw 28 interceptions in 1998 during his rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts. Now about to enter his 18th season, he holds the NFL record for career passing touchdowns (530) and is second in career passing yards (69,691).
Williams said Manning warned him about being too critical of himself. Williams said Manning reminded him to remember the things that have made him successful.
“It was great to hear from him,” Williams said, “and I felt on a new level. And I felt like, ‘Hey, man, if it’s coming from a Hall of Famer, then what else more could you ask for?’”
In all, Williams said he heard from more than 10 quarterbacks who offered their support.
“It was just guys around the country just knowing what we go through,” Williams said. “A lot of people don’t really realize what’s out there on the field in that heat of the moment. A lot of people are going to say, ‘Man, this guy just sucks.’ …
“But I take the blame because that’s just who I am.”
All three of Williams’ interceptions against South Carolina came inside the Gamecocks’ 21. Williams said he “was down” emotionally even after speaking with Manning and others and that he began to feel better on Sunday.
He reviewed his mistakes with the UNC coaching staff, and coach Larry Fedora, in particular, spoke with Williams about what he was thinking and about his decision-making process before each interception. The interceptions, Fedora said, came when Williams attempted passes to receivers who were the third option.
Williams on Tuesday said they were “rookie mistakes.”
“It was stuff you can’t do,” Williams said. “You can’t turn the ball over in the red zone three times, man. You don’t give (yourself) a chance to win a football game in that case. And that’s what I did.”
Hearing from Manning and others, Williams said, helped reunite him with his confidence.