Houston Texan standout Mario Williams might be the best defensive end in the NFL. On his off day, the former No. 1 draft pick talks to M&F about how he prepares for gameday

By Jon Finkel | Photos by Ian Spanier

>> For exclusive video of M&F's shoot with Mario, click here.

>> For web-exclusive images of our shoot with Mario, click here.


It looks like Mario Williams has baby seals connecting his shoulders to his elbows. That's the first thing you notice when you're standing on the sideline at Reliant Stadium before the Texans game against the Bengals. Maybe it's because his shoulder pads are too small or his No. 90 jersey is too tight, but as Williams goes about his pregame routine, the muscles in his arms look huge, like they belong to a larger man -- which, considering that Williams is 6'7" and weighs 290 pounds, seems almost impossible. It's as if he tore off the waterboy's legs and jammed them into his rotator cuffs.

Slowly, as the stadium seats fill, the buzz in the air grows louder and the contact on the field gets harder: swim moves, bull rushes, spin moves -- they all take place in one-second bursts. Each time Williams lines up opposite a teammate, the intensity heightens. In between hits, he looks across the field at the visiting Bengals, up at the stands, then at the sky. When his eyes return to the turf, his head starts to bob ever so slightly, and you can see the competitive fire building. Williams lit this flame a few hours ago and it's starting to blaze.

"I try to stay as relaxed as possible heading into a game," Williams says. "I like to listen to slow stuff like R&B to keep me calm. Then before we go out onto the field, I'll put in some hip-hop to get a little blood flowing. But once we're out there, the energy just takes over."


Today's mission is to sack the Bengals' quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. To do that, Williams must negotiate more than 1,800 pounds of huge humans, bookended by offensive tackles Levi Jones (6'5", 307 pounds) and Stacy Andrews (6'7", 342 pounds). Their job is to keep guys like Williams from reaching their quarterback; his job is to make them look bad.

With less than a half-hour until game time, security officials begin clearing the media off the field, and Cincinnati and Houston head to their respective end zones. While the Texans' offense runs through a few plays, the defensive line -- of which Williams is a captain -- gathers in a huddle in the end zone. Williams unleashes a scream that ignites his fellow linemen as they line up behind the goalpost. They pound the padding at the bottom of the upright, one by one, then head into the locker room.


"The first thing I want to do is get off the ball and react," Williams says, describing his mind-set right before the ball is snapped. "I watch videos of every guy we'll go up against. I look at their tendencies, how they block against the run and the pass, and I kind of anticipate what they're going to do."

What he calls anticipation, others might call a preternatural ability to read an opposing team's defense, otherwise known as football IQ. Some have it, some don't. Williams has it in spades. Exhibit A: He had more than 100 tackles as a junior on his high school football team. Exhibit B: He holds the North Carolina State University career record with 55.5 stops for losses. Exhibit C: He set a Texans franchise record of 14 sacks in his second season in the NFL.

This stat is the most important, because having the talent to flatten the other team's quarterback on a regular basis is a valuable commodity in pro football. So valuable, in fact, that the Texans drafted Williams No. 1 overall in 2006.

"It's funny because I used to want to be a running back," Williams says. "All big guys want to carry the ball. I used to watch Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, and want to be them."

With the goalpost still swaying from Williams' hit, the Bengals are lucky they only have to block him every down rather than tackle him each play if he carried the ball.

"I liked the defensive guys, too," he says, letting it be known that he's not at all disappointed with the position he plays. "I watched Bruce Smith and Reggie White play all the time." Smith had 200 career sacks, and White had 198. Williams, in his third season, has 24.5 heading into this game. If all goes well today, he'll clear 25.