His sentences get shorter with each question. He maintains a mundane expression, as if he were testifying before Congress. At Saints practice in Los Angeles, a few weeks before the start of the 2018 season, Marcus Williams doesn’t want to talk about the past. Not about his stellar rookie season—”subpar,” he says—and especially not about the play.
“It’s life,” the Saints safety says. He repeats: “It’s life. That’s it. Life happens. That’s all.”
For the last eight months, Williams has had to come to terms with his role in what is now known as the “Minneapolis Miracle”—the play that knocked the Saints out of the playoffs last year. With 10 seconds left, then-Vikings quarterback Case Keenum surveyed the field before targeting wide receiver Stefon Diggs moving toward the sideline. Williams, the last line of defense, got a good break on the ball and appeared ready to make a stop to seal the Saints’ 24-23 victory. A perfect read. But when the ball arrived, Williams whiffed on the tackle. Diggs came down with the ball at the 34-yard-line and scored the game-winning touchdown as time expired.
“Oh my heavens, Marcus Williams is going to see that play the rest of his career,” Pete Bercich, the former Vikings linebacker and current radio commentator, said on the now-infamous radio call.
Williams was later brought to tears in the U.S. Bank Stadium visitors locker room.
He won’t talk about what happened now, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about it. Sure, those 10 seconds changed his life—and the lives of Diggs and Keenum. The three, in the view of many, will forever be linked to that where-were-you-when moment when our eyes widened, our jaws dropped. Keenum and Diggs have moved on since then—Keenum is now with Denver, while Diggs says his life has “changed for the better. I’m trying to keep it that way.”
But Williams, in particular, is trying to liberate himself—and his career—from that singular event. He’s been trying to figure out how to be a part of the Minneapolis Miracle without being defined by that moment. The key? Treat a once-in-a-lifetime happening as just that—a onetime thing.
“You’ve gotta be strong-minded and strong-willed,” Williams says. “As DBs, you’ve gotta have a short memory and go on to the next play.”
A few months after the Saints were bounced from the playoffs, in March, Williams posted a video to his Instagram that seems unlikely for a player trying to forget. The footage begins with a reel of his season-ending flub and then cuts off before Diggs reaches the end zone. Williams wakes up out of bed, restless, as if troubled by a recurring bad dream. The raspy voice of Al Pacino from Any Given Sunday plays in the background as Williams gets dressed, heads to his car and eventually pulls up to Winner Circle Athletics—a prep academy in his hometown of Corona, California, where Williams has trained since high school. “Turning my NIGHTMARE into my MOTIVATION‼️‼️ #motivation #mentality #grindshineeat” the caption reads. Then, a montage of his offseason workouts plays.
Marcus Williams @MarcusWilliams
Turning my NIGHTMARE into my MOTIVATION‼️‼️‼️ #motivation #mentality #grind https://t.co/bpESAX77zm
There might not be a stronger representation of what Williams’ daily life has been like since. He’s been focused, in grind mode. But mainly out of public view. This offseason, he returned home, about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles. He called up his longtime trainer, Eliseo Cabildo. And the two went to work.
They tailored their training sessions to the future, not the past. The two focused on Williams’ growth entering his second season—not the play he became famous for. They trained five days a week, with a rehab station conveniently located in the gym to help with Williams’ recovery after workouts.
“For him, when people bring up that play, it already happened,” Cabildo says. “He can’t turn back time. But he knows what his mindset is, and it’s always getting better. If that play would’ve never happened, he would’ve attacked this year the same way he has year after year.”
Williams’ mind is what has separated him from the pack throughout his career. It’s what helped earn him six starts at safety as a true freshman at Utah with just one year of experience at the position coming out of high school. It’s what gave him an edge so he could remain a starter for the following two years before declaring for the draft. It’s what made him a second-round pick last year—and what helped him prove in training camp that he was capable of starting in the NFL despite his age and inexperience. And it’s what helped him finish second on the Saints with four interceptions during the regular season.
“You’ve gotta have a … mentality that’s strong-minded and strong-willed,” Williams says. “That’s just who I am. That’s who I’ve always been.”
The cerebral aspect of football is an area every young player should emphasize following their rookie season, and Williams has paid particular attention to the mental side of things this offseason. He knows that mistakes are expected, especially if you’re a 21-year-old—barely old enough to legally enter a nightclub—starting at a position you’ve only played for four years. He knows that people have been talking about what he was “thinking” during that play. Some in NFL circles believe he got there too early. Others believe he was trying to avoid a pass interference penalty, which is why he let up on the tackle—that he was too smart for his own good.
“I don’t hear negative,” Williams says. “Everything is positive.”
When asked whether he has ever thought about what it’s like to be Williams after that play, Keenum said he does a little bit. Fresh off his second training camp practice with the Broncos, he doesn’t often think about that play. A lot has changed since then: Keenum has published a book, received the Play of the Year Award at the NFL Honors and moved 900 miles to Denver, where he earned a two-year, $36 million deal to become John Elway’s starting quarterback.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
With Keenum’s move to the AFC, Williams, for the most part, is out of sight and out of mind. Still, Keenum looks fondly back at that day and the play that, he says, was a perfect call in a situation the Vikings practiced every week. “It was a play where we had 11 guys doing their jobs perfectly in the right spot, with the right call, and the right time,” Keenum says.
Including Williams, who was in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t see it as them screwing it up,” he explains. “I see it as Stef catching the ball, turning and scoring to make that play.”
But, he adds: “From what I’ve heard, [Williams is] using it as fuel.”
While Williams’ season ended after the Minneapolis Miracle, the Vikings could only prolong their year for another week. They were blown out by the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, failing to become the first NFL team to make it to the Super Bowl as the host city.
Vikings fans didn’t seem to care during Super Bowl week when they crossed paths with Diggs. Minnesotans were euphoric at the sight of their folk hero as he made the rounds at Radio Row inside Mall of America. Diggs was showered with a standing ovation when he walked up to his courtside seat to watch a Timberwolves-Pelicans game, followed by a thunderous “Skol” clap—a recent traditional cheer at Vikings games that draws on a similar cheer by Iceland’s soccer fans.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Vikings fans start an impromptu SKOL chant for Stefon Diggs at the Wolves game ✊🏽 https://t.co/F6AQ81GrEo
“It brought some smiles on faces and made people happy,” Diggs says. “For me, I’m glad I can share that with them. I’m glad I can be the staple for that for them. It’s just me being appreciative of the moment and making it come full circle. So when somebody gives me a lot of respect and love, I want to give it all back.”
Diggs has received a number of endorsement opportunities and a couple of free meals in the Twin Cities during the offseason, but nothing was more gratifying than inking a five-year extension on the fourth day of Vikings training camp. The $72 million deal will keep Diggs under contract until 2024. More important, it fulfilled a promise to his father, who asked Diggs, then in high school, to look out for his family months before he died of congestive heart failure.
As his family stood in the back of an emotional press conference announcing the extension, Diggs fought back tears as the realization that he could financially provide for his family hit. The fourth-year wide receiver has yet to record 100 receptions, 1,000 receiving yards or 10 touchdowns in a single season. His playmaking potential is apparent, even at the most expected time.
After the Saints stormed back from a 17-0 deficit, Diggs’ mother, Stephanie, thought the game was over. She shot her son a text from her house: “Better luck next time. Maybe we’ll go next year.”
Once Diggs walked off the field, still in disbelief, and received a chance to see his phone flooded with texts, he responded, “You gave up on me already?”
“You see how Mom do you?” Diggs cracked as he laughed about the moment with his mother in retrospect. “It be your own people.”
“That’s just so Stefon to put it on his back at the end and do something magical,” Stephanie says. “I walked away.”
Both Diggs and Keenum have reaped the benefits from the moment, while Williams’ name was exposed to a mainstream audience that likely had no idea how well he had played up until that play.
“I’m pretty sure it motivated him, though,” Diggs says. “If he’s a competitor and he loves the game, it motivated him in a way where it’ll drive him for a very long time. If I was him, I wouldn’t want that play to define me because he actually had a good game other than that and a good season. Don’t let that put you in a tank or a bad place because, at the end of the day, if you’re a baller, it’s big, but you’ve gotta let that roll off your back.”
What’s often forgotten about that game between the Saints and Vikings is that Williams picked off Keenum in the third quarter. The play led to a Saints touchdown, which cut their deficit down to three points with about 13 minutes left in the game.
It was a sign of life against a team tied for the best regular-season record in football that had lost just one game at home. Had it not been for Williams, there would not have been a Minneapolis Miracle in the first place.
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
“It’s just a freak deal,” Keenum says. “It’s a crazy little thing. It’s like anything else in your life. You use those moments as learning tools.”
Williams has attempted to stay the course this summer. As he returned to Southern California for two joint practices with the Los Angeles Chargers before their preseason game, Williams recorded an interception off Philip Rivers during each practice.
Unofficially, he had seven interceptions during training camp. It was a needed reminder of his talent, backing up high praise Williams received from Saints quarterback Drew Brees at the start of training camp.
“I compare him just as you look at guys in history, you know, if you ever played against Ed Reed,” Brees told Saints reporters. “You had to do a great job of looking off and try to get him leaning one way, and still you’d throw a ball and be like, ‘How did he get there?’ Marcus makes some of those plays, where you’re like, ‘How did he get there? Where did he come from?'”
This Sunday, Williams will be alongside Brees again as the Saints open the season against the Bucs. And for his part, Williams isn’t interested in any discussion of a sophomore slump.
“I don’t know what a slump is,” Williams says. “I play every day the same. I get better each day. I take that climb and don’t think about a slump. I don’t think about what everyone else is saying. I just do me and play.”