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September 21, 2010Many of the men that play football along side William Powell every day haven't begun to scratch the surface, and the media, well, they never really had chance. Open book? Yeah, not exactly. Instead, the Kansas State running back-slash-return man is sealed shut with adhesive, clamped down with dozens of staples and wrapped in 28 rolls of duct tape.
Opening him up takes time, lots of it. Savvy reporters searching for direct responses about his abilities have long since learned to look elsewhere, but it's not as if Powell doesn't have them in him. He'd just rather not share, at least not yet.
"I'm a pretty quiet guy," Powell said on Tuesday, just days after being announced as the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week. "On the field, I'm not that quiet, though. I like to keep my enthusiasm up, but with (the media), yeah, I'm a pretty quiet guy."
The quasi-pantomime public routine is one he's kept up since his days at Duncanville (Texas) High School. So not many in Manhattan know that Powell's role as a walk-on when he transferred to K-State from Navarro (Texas) Junior College a year ago was one reprised.
A non-scholarship junior college athlete? You bet. As a matter of fact, he never did earn a scholarship at Navarro, where he rushed for 973 yards and eight scores in 2008. It's not as if he hides it out of pride, it's simply a character trait. To learn specific information about Powell, -- both the football player and the person -- you need to ask specific questions. Yet sometimes, even that doesn't work.
Warming him up is key. It's best to start with the easy stuff. A query about his 40-yard dash time seems like enough of a softball, but even when lobbed at him softly, he rarely takes the metaphorical bat off of his shoulder.
"I really don't know my exact 40 time," Powell says in a muffled voice. "I think I can do a little something."
That's certainly one way of putting it. Here's another: Fullback Braden Wilson calls Powell "one of the two fastest players on the team." It's been on display so far this fall.
The speedy senior has been used not only as a return man but as a change-of-pace back in the Wildcats' offense and has no problem talking at length about the team's offensive line or the talented tailback that sits ahead of him on the depth chart. Bring up his breakout start or his league-leading, 31.7-yard return average, though, and you're committing interview suicide.
Try as everyone might, it's best to understand that the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week would rather not publicly discuss the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week not now and probably not ever.
"You never hear much from William," said Navarro head coach Nick Bobeck, who coached Powell in 2008 and 2009. "When he gets to know you, he opens up a little bit. You really have to push to get anything out of him, though. It took him a while to open up to me. He was still reserved when he left here. He was always kind of to himself, but he opened up to me after the first year."
Powell knows his 40 time. He knows his current scholarship standing, too. It's just that he fears conveying it through the press would somehow be putting himself in front of the team.
"You probably want to discuss that with Coach Snyder," Powell said of his scholarship status following Saturday's game, keeping quiet the fact that he had actually been put on scholarship just the day before. "Coach Snyder can tell you the whole story. I don't know what I'm on or what I can or can't say. I don't want to get into trouble."
He's not about embracing the underdog roll, either. Powell simply does Powell, and does so privately. That's not to say there aren't stories. There are plenty, both trivial and massive. Finding one of the few people the junior college transfer has opened up to, however, is the key to getting to hear them.
Powell won't tell you that he was never supposed to play junior college football, let alone show up on two-deep of a BCS-level team, but when you finally find the facts, you can draw your own conclusion.
"William wasn't even a preferred walk-on here," Bobeck said. "He just showed up and enrolled in this walk-on class we offer. He earned his position. He was actually the running back of the year in our conference his last year, too."
But most impressive might be the fact that he did it all while paying his own way through school.
"We never put him on scholarship because we didn't think he was going to play very much," Bobeck said. "We had some really talented kids here, but William ended up being the best out of all of them. He deserved a scholarship, but it was too late for us to give him one."
The trend runs deeper than some missed playing time and a scholarship-less first two years of community college, though. Ask Powell to discuss the biggest form of adversity he's ever run up against, and you'll get this response: "Coming out of high school and not getting all of the looks that I wanted to."
He delivers it as if the answer had been prepared and waiting in the mental oven for months, but ask anyone else who knows him -- truly knows him -- and you'll hear the real thing.
The situation is tough for Powell to talk about, and, as it turns out, the 22-year old masks his pain just as well as he hides his accomplishments. So when his mother passed away last spring after fighting a battle with cancer, the general public along with most members of the media were none the wiser.
All that changed this Tuesday, when the tailback was asked point-blank about the painful incident for the first time.
His reaction was predictable. The senior wiped his face with the black, Powercat-crested blazer draped over his man-sized shoulders, burst into tears and headed for the Vanier Football Complex door, leaving his tough exterior shattered on the interview room floor and a bunch of confused reporters scrambling to figure out what had just taken place.
Just when most in the room began to think they had seen the last of Powell and heard the last of the story for the day, however, he re-entered and persevered through the interview. It was the same treatment he gave the scholarship issue or any other roadblock he's encountered over the last five years.
Eventually he spoke, even if he didn't make doing so look easy.
"The scholarship would have meant a lot to my mom," Powell said, this time winning the battle against his tears. "She loved football and was big on my success. She was part of the reason I came here. It probably would have meant the world to her.
"She was an educator, so she was big on school."
If anybody privy to the initial conversation had known a lick about Powell, his reappearance would have been a forgone conclusion. He's never been one to hide from anything challenging, after all. And with a major-conference player of the week award now in hand, he sees no reason to change his approach.
Why tinker with what so obviously works?
"William came through that adversity and ended up on top," Bobeck said. "He's done his mother proud. He's a guy that never gave up on what he wanted to do and he's a tough-minded kid. He's gone through a lot. He's what everyone would want on their football team or as a son."
Indeed he has, and now on scholarship for the first time in his life and headed toward graduation, all that's left to do is overachieve, and the smart money wouldn't bet against him doing just that.
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