That smile you see Ashante Williams proudly displaying has been splattered across his face since he made the play of the game last week against Western Michigan, returning an interception 60 yards for a touchdown. That's no small feat for a guy who has enjoyed more downs than up during his first four years at Illinois. Suspended numerous times, including a three-game ban last season for a DUI arrest that saw him miss all of Camp Rantoul, the linebacker/safety is making the most of his final season in an Illinois uniform.
How did it feel to make such a big play for your team? It was a tremendous feeling. As soon as I caught the ball, all I could see was the end zone and all I could think about was just getting there. Going into that drive, the coaches said we needed to put the game out of reach with a three-and-out, a fumble or something. I just kept saying I needed to make a play.
Has that smile left your face since Saturday? No. It's just that I feel like this is my opportunity to show the fans, the media, the whole University of Illinois that I'm not a bad person because of the things I've been through in the past. I'm here to help this team, to lead this team to more victories, hopefully a Big Ten title and hopefully a BCS bowl.
How have you grown from those off-the-field transgressions? I'm glad I went through the things I went through because it made me the man that I am today. It taught me how not to quit because I easily could have. After the situation I had last year, I could have just thrown my pads in. My parents always taught me perseverance and to never give up. I felt I owed it to them and all they went through with me. Not only did I hurt the team, I let down my family and everyone else back home. I wanted to prove to them that I didn't come down here to mess everything up, I came here to accomplish something.
Does all that make the success you're enjoying now that much sweeter? Yes, indeed. Everything I've bene through to this point, people have doubted me and expected me to mess up. Guys would make jokes like "Wow, you still have a locker here?" It's just a great feeling knowing I can be here and do something positive for the team. Last year, I felt like I hurt the team so much by not being on the field and not being around. It was selfish of me taking myself away from them.
Do you feel much more a part of things now, more connected? Absolutely. When I sat down with Coach Beckman, he let me know I had a clean slate. He asked me to be a leader and I wanted to do that. I'm not a very vocal person, I like to lead by example. I took that to heart and that's what I've done on and off the field. When I'm on the field, I always make sure I'm going 100 percent and off the field I'm doing the right things like going to class, keeping my nose clean and making sure they have nothing negative to say about me in the media and that nothing bad can get back to the coaches.
It seems like you and Coach Beckman have grown close in the last eight months. I look at him like a father. He actually recruited me a little bit when he was at Ohio State. He's giving me a chance and I want to help him as best I can to take this program to the next level. He wants to see this program be a top-tier program in the Big Ten like the Michigans and the Ohio States and I want to do everything I can to help him get us to that level because he's done so much for me since he's been here.
I saw you come on to the field with orange chains around your neck, what's the story behind that? Me and Graham Pocic did. The chain symbolizes unity within the team. Our motto is "The image of one projects the image of all" and "We, not me." We're like a chain, and to beat us you're going to have to beat that chain. One link isn't as strong as many links.
After the touchdown, you did a chest bump with someone and ended up doing a backward somersault. Was that by design? Ta'Jarvis Fuller, he got me on that one. I was excited and just trying to do the chest bump, but he caught me and I couldn't stop myself from falling.
You did a back flip for our photographer on media day, is that something you've always been able to do? I've always been pretty acrobatic since I was little. When I was younger I would go to the park and flip off of stuff: tires, swings. I can actually do a no-handed cartwheel and flying twists. I don't think Coach knows about all that.
Tell us something about one of your teammates people might not know. Donovonn Young, he tries to rap. We actually have a few rap battles and dance battles in the locker room. Donovonn is a pretty decent rapper and Glenn Foster dances. We'll call them out every once in a while and get them to perform.
Who's the best rapper on the team? I don't really know. It's not Donovonn, though.
Who's the best dancer? It's probably Donovonn or Glenn. They're both energetic, they like to get us laughing and having a good time.
You want to tell us something about you? My middle name is Raphael, I was named after the Ninja Turtle. That was my favorite show when I was younger and I actually liked Raphael, he was my favorite. I had the red head thing that went around the eyes. I have pictures, but those aren't coming out.
Who's your celebrity crush? I'd have to say Hope Solo right now.
OK, a night on the town with Hope Solo, or nine more tackles and another pick-six in a win at Arizona State? The pick-six and the win. Maybe Hope can call me after that, but I'll be happy with just the win.