Today marks just 71 days until the Chicago Bears begin the 2023 season against the Green Bay Packer, and to celebrate the start of the year inching closer and closer, today's installment of Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff will focus on the life and career of the most dominant player in franchise history to don the number 71, offensive tackle James "Big Cat" Williams.
James William's journey to the Chicago Bears
Williams began his football career at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he excelled as an interior defensive lineman. Following a solid high school career, Williams elected to continue his athletic and academic career at the nearby Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a Division II HBCU.
At Cheyney, Williams became a physically imposing player at 6'7" and over 300 lbs. While Williams excelled individually, the team faced many struggles, and after posting an 0-11 record in his final collegiate season, Williams entered the professional ranks.
Unfortunately, the large defensive tackle went undrafted in the 1991 NFL Draft but was subsequently signed as a free agent by the Chicago Bears. After a long summer, Williams made the roster as a defensive tackle and served as a primary backup behind Steve McMichael and William Perry as a rookie.
In his first season, Big Cat managed one sack across 14 appearances, but also contributed on special teams, serving as a key member of the field goal-blocking unit. Williams was involved in several blocks as a rookie, even aiding William Perry in one of the franchise's most iconic blocked kicks against the New York Giants.
In his second season, Williams took a step back in the defensive line rotation, largely due to the drafting of Notre Dame standout Chris Zorich, but the 6'7" athlete nonetheless remained a key part of the team's special teams unit.
James Williams becomes Chicago Bears starter for over a decade
Going into his third season, the Chicago Bears coaching staff recognized that there were perhaps better ways to utilize Williams' skillset and the defensive lineman was moved to the offensive side of the ball. In 1993, Williams got his first taste of the tackle position in relief of starter, Keith Van Horne.
By the 1994 season, it became apparent that offensive tackle was truly Williams' position, and the Division II product would go on to start in 15 of the team's games as the anchor of the right side of the offensive line.
Williams' breakout offensive season would prove to be the norm for his career with the Bears moving forward, as the former defensive tackle turned into a consistent starter at right tackle for the next decade or so.
From 1994 to 2002, Williams logged 143 starts in 144 games and even earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro nominations in 2001. 2001 was also the team's first playoff appearance since 1994, Big Cat's first season as a starter, and he became the only player on the Chicago Bears to be rostered for both of those postseasons runs.
James Williams' Chicago Bears legacy and life after football
Following the 2002 season, Williams retired from the NFL after a 12-year career with the Chicago Bears. Williams garnered respect around the league on the field for a consistent and long career as a professional, but his impact on the Chicago Bears as a team is perhaps more impressive and certainly less quantifiable.
A Brian Piccolo award winner in his penultimate season, Williams was a level-headed and dependable leader for over a decade despite being an undrafted, Division II player who needed to switch positions at the next level.
Since his retirement, Williams has stayed involved in the game of football in more than one fashion. In recent years, the former tackle has worked with WTTW as a Bears analyst and commentator, offering his input and insight into the current events around the team including games, transactions, and drafts.
Williams has also recently served as an assistant offensive line coach for the nearby Lake Forrest High School where his son, Jai Williams, attended through 2020. Today, Jai is entering his third season at the University of Kentucky as an outside linebacker, following in his father's collegiate footsteps as an athletic pass rusher.