Donald Williams always wanted to play for the best high school football program in Camden.
He always believed that team wore orange and black and played its games behind the old building on Federal Street in East Camden.
He always saw himself at Woodrow Wilson.
“I grew up thinking, ‘I’m going to go to Wilson,’ ” Williams said. “I played for the Camden PAL Bulldogs. I was an East Camden guy. We used to get into Wilson games for free. I went to every Wilson game.
“I loved watching Wilson play. I was a Wilson guy. I was going to play for them, no doubt.”
Williams is one of the state’s top defensive backs. The speedy senior has committed to attend Rutgers University on a football scholarship.
Williams also is a Camden High guy, through and through. He proudly wears the Panthers’ purple and gold. He’s been on the other side of the city’s fierce rivalry ever since he moved to the Centerville section as an eighth grader.
“High school got here and I knew zero things about Camden High football,” Williams said. “Now, I’m all Camden.”
The 6-0, 175-pound Williams is one of the leaders of a defense that should be among the best in South Jersey this season.
Williams joins a veteran corps that includes senior tackle Tidaine Bamba, senior safety Ramer Nock, junior linebacker Emmett Prather and junior linebacker Tirek Austin-Cave – a highly-touted transfer from Camden Catholic — to form the nucleus of a unit that has the Panthers in the conversation as top contenders for the WJFL Constitution and South Jersey Group 2 crowns.
Camden coach Dwayne Savage said Williams’ work ethic is the key to his success.
“He’s a guy that we have to shut down,” Savage said. “He’ll keep working. He’ll do anything we ask. We have to force him to back off sometimes because he won’t do it on his own.”
A three-year starter, Williams said his top goals this season were to prove himself to be the best defensive back in the state, and to serve as an inspirational leader to his teammates.
“I want to prove that to New Jersey,” Williams said “I want to prove I’m the best DB in New Jersey.
“And if I don’t be the leader to my team, I’ll feel like I didn’t accomplish anything. I want to be the leader the coaches are looking for, be an elite teammate. I want to be somebody that the young guys can look up to.
“Coming from Camden, a lot of people don’t make it out of [here]. The young guys, they need somebody to look up to. I know that. I want to make an impact in their lives.”
Savage said Williams is a physical cornerback who does more than just blanket wide receivers and look for interceptions. He’s a top tackler, too.
“He hits people,” Savage said. “He tackles people. I think he might be a safety in college. He hits like a safety. He reminds me of (former San Francisco 49ers star) Ronnie Lott. He was a cornerback when he first started and moved to safety.”
Williams said he likes the personal responsibility that comes with man-to-man coverage as a cornerback.
“You mess up, and you’ve got no right to blame anybody but yourself, and that teaches you the aspects of life,” Williams said. “You mess up in life, you can’t blame anybody else.”
Williams hopes to major in visual arts and design at Rutgers. He said he always was one of those young kids who was drawing pictures with crayons.
“Literally, all the time,” Williams said.
That was back when Williams was an East Camden guy, when he thought he was bound for Woodrow Wilson.
“If somebody told me back then I would end up playing for Camden, I would have told them they were crazy,” Williams said. “Seriously. I would have told them they were crazy.
“I would have been like, ‘I’m not going to Camden High.’ No way. And boom, here I am. It’s like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Williams believes Camden, which opens Aug. 31 at Wise (Md.), the three-time state 4A champion coming off a 14-0 season, has a chance to put together a special season and make a run at the program’s first sectional title since 1976.
And no matter what, he knows the Panthers will play their cross-town rival on Thanksgiving, a game with special meaning to an athlete with ties to both teams.
“I still love the rivalry with Woodrow Wilson,” Williams said. “I love how fierce it is on the field, but it’s all respect off the field. It’s all between the lines.
“I used to be all Wilson. Now, I’m all Camden. I got to high school and I came to camp one day and I was like, ‘OK, I can really bleed this. I can really bleed purple and gold.’ ”
South Jersey defensive backs to watch
Ahmad Brown, Holy Spirit junior: He’s a returning two-way starter who made 43 tackles last season and caught 31 passes.
Donovan Bunch, Winslow Twp. senior: He’s a Rutgers recruit who had 36 tackles last season and also caught 22 passes for 367 yards.
Jaylen DeCoteau, St. Augustine senior: He’s a Kent State recruit.
Solomon DeShields, Millville junior: He’s a top athlete who has offers from Michigan State, Mississippi State and Rutgers, among others.
Wade Inge Jr., Williamstown senior: He’s a versatile player who has committed to Delaware State.
Najheem Johnson, Seneca sophomore: He’s an emerging standout who had three interceptions and scored four touchdowns as a freshman.
Kenny Lim, West Deptford senior: He’s a Princeton recruit as a defensive player and also a top running back who gained 1,005 yards with 11 TDs last season.
John Meekins, Cinnaminson senior: He led the Pirates with four interceptions as a junior.
Nasir Murray, Willingboro senior: He’s a heavy-hitting ballhawk in the secondary as well as a top wide receiver.
Omar Rogers, Burlington Twp. senior: He’s a versatile player with offers from Virginia and Kent State.
David Smith, Haddonfield senior: He’s a rangy athlete and also a top wide receiver who has offers from Air Force, Monmouth and Sacred Heart.
Donald Williams, Camden senior: He’s a Rutgers recruit.