Updated: April 26, 2013 at 12:00 am
ENGLEWOOD — Sylvester Williams took an unconventional path to the NFL.
An enigma as both a late-bloomer and a quick study, Williams started just one football game in high school in Jefferson City, Mo., where he admittedly wasn't much of a student or an athlete.
He twice got kicked off the basketball team for poor grades and eventually was expelled for ditching too many classes.
After high school, Williams went to work in a factory making radiator parts and $400 a week, good money for a 19-year-old. But the thought of hearing those whistles announcing lunch and cigarette breaks for the next four decades got him to thinking about giving the gridiron and the classroom another shot.
"I started getting a feeling that I could play football in my future sometime and I really wanted to go back to school and get a degree," Williams recounted Friday after donning a Broncos cap at team headquarters.
While punching a clock, all those hours in the classroom or on the football field didn't seem so bad, after all.
His life took a turn one weekend in the fall of 2008 when he and his high school strength coach went to Lawrence, Kan., to watch a friend play for the Jayhawks in their game against Texas Tech.
While waiting for him afterward, Williams realized he was looking eye-to-eye with all the behemoth linemen who had looked so much bigger to him on TV.
He started thinking that could be him.
"I realized they were around the same size and height as me. I realized I had an opportunity to play and I thought I had the ability so I thought I'd give it a try," Williams said.
He was pushing 370 pounds by the time he showed up — unannounced, uninvited and unwanted — at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, where coach Darian Dulin had taken one look at his high school tape and told him not to bother.
He promised to work hard and Dulin gave him that second chance that made all the difference.
After soaking up instruction and sunshine that spring and summer, Williams entered the fall weighing in at 315 pounds and Dulin put him on scholarship.
"When I went to Coffeyville, I told them I'm going to start a new life," Williams said. "I went in there and gave them everything I had in the classroom as well as on the field. It paid off; I worked hard every day and did exactly what the coaches told me. It helped me get to where I am today."
By the time his two years at Coffeyville were up, recruiters were lining up at his door. No longer did he have to go begging for a shot but instead found himself sifting through several scholarship offers from all the big schools salivating over this late-bloomer.
Williams chose North Carolina, where he collected a combined 96 stops, 20½ tackles for loss and 8½ sacks the last two seasons.
On Friday night, the Broncos chose the 24-year-old with the 28th overall pick.
From punching a time clock to hitting the tackling sleds, it's been both a long, winding journey and a fast rise for the quick 6-foot-2, 313-pound defensive tackle whom the Broncos envision collapsing the pocket from the middle, helping pass-rusher Von Miller get to the quarterback.
"Well, I think that's a reason for his maturity," Broncos coach John Fox said of Williams' unconventional path to the pros. "The guy kind of understands what a blessing it is to have that kind of ability. He's going to try to make the most of it."
All the stops on his journey have helped him become one of the best players in a draft deep on linemen.
"I worked at that factory, and I know exactly what it's like to do that, and that's where I never want to be at again in my life," Williams said. "This is the first step to better my future. I thank the Denver Broncos and I promise you all I'm going to continue to work hard because I've been like that for my whole life.
"I worked in that factory, and it showed me what hard work really is. Being able to play football as a job is a blessing."
And the Broncos consider themselves fortunate that Williams slipped down the draft board, which scuttled any plans to trade out of the first round for a second straight year.
"We've been looking for a young anchor on the inside for a long, long time and we really believe we have found him," Broncos boss John Elway said.
The last defensive lineman selected with the team's top pick was Trevor Pryce, also at No. 28, in 1997, and Pryce went on to become a four-time Pro Bowler.
"This guy is a little better than Trevor," Elway said. "Trevor was more of a pass rush, lighter type, quicker guy. Sylvester is very quick and sudden ... I tell you: I hope he has the career that Trevor had. Then we'll be in good shape."
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton can be reached at http://twitter.com/arniestapleton