EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Chris Hovan, Fred Robbins and Kenny Mixon were the regulars on the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line when Kevin Williams broke into the starting lineup as a rookie in 2003.
Williams has seen many teammates come and go in nine seasons with Minnesota, including everyone from that 2003 season. The big defensive tackle, who started as a defensive end in his rookie season, is the longest-tenured Vikings player since Jim Kleinsasser retired in the offseason. He was set to share that honor with linebacker E.J. Henderson, but Henderson is still a free agent and unlikely to be re-signed by Minnesota. Williams was the No. 9 overall draft pick by the Vikings in 2003, and Henderson followed as a second-round selection.
Henderson isn’t returning because Minnesota has started a youth movement. Curiously, Williams, who is 31 just like Henderson, is back. Call him a veteran, a team leader, but don’t remind him of the turnover he’s witnessed in his time with the Vikings.
“You guys are making me feel old, and I’m barely 30,” Williams said last week while taking questions from reporters. “The locker room’s changed a lot. All these young guys we’re going to have to incorporate them somewhere to help us out, and we’re just itching to get going and try to get some wins this season.”
Williams might seem like the “old” man on the defense because of his tenure, but he doesn’t feel that way and plans on being around through more roster changes. He’s signed through the 2014 season and believes he’s been blessed to play with the same team for nine years.
Heading into his 10th NFL season, the six-time Pro Bowl selection is quick to point out 31 isn’t that old. This offseason is the type to make him feel younger.
Williams is past his NFL suspension for the StarCaps case, having served two games at the beginning of last season for testing positive for the banned diuretic. He feels good, clear so far from plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the thick tissue on the bottom of the foot) he dealt with last season. A five-time All-Pro, Williams has missed only four games in his entire NFL career.
“There’s a few things here and there you try and overcome,” Williams said. “That’s just with time and wear and tear of the game, playing the position I play and anybody for that matter. You’re going to get your injuries. You’re going to get your bumps and bruises. Just fight through it, and I’m just excited this year to be a clean slate, I’m hoping, and to get it rolling.”
With the late start to the season, the injuries and a constant rotation at defensive tackle next to him, it took Williams a while to get rolling last year. He tallied all five of his sacks and 11 of his tackles for loss in the final seven games. So used to having Pat Williams next to him as part of the “Williams Wall” that broke up before last season, he has Letroy Guion and Fred Evans competing for the right to line up to him this season.
And like many of the Vikings’ other veteran leaders — don’t call them old — Williams made sure to be in Minnesota the past two weeks for the voluntary organized team activities. His career stands on its own as an example to younger players, but his physical presence at optional practices speaks volumes, too. The Vikings are trying to set a tone for the upcoming season coming off last year’s 3-13 record.
“That’s why we’re here,” said cornerback Antoine Winfield, who is actually the oldest player on the defense at 34. “Usually some guys in their later years don’t even attend OTAs, but we felt like this is going to be a very important thing for us to do in a very important year for everyone. Get the vets out here working with the young guys.”
His tenure with the Vikings is just part of the leadership role Williams has said he’s adopted. The players look to him as a leader, and so do the coaches — none of whom were here when Williams was a rookie.
“You’re still trying to make me feel old,” Williams said when asked if the coaches lean on him more now. “I try to help the young guys as much as I can. I had guys that helped me out when I came in. You can’t tell them all the tricks of the trade, but you can help them with technique issues and as far as schemes and learning things. You do what you can to help them.”