Every face lights up when Ian Williams walks into the Boys and Girls Club in his hometown of Altamonte Springs, Fla.
The 6-foot-1, 305-pound defensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers is a hero in the city located about 10 miles north of Orlando. And on every trip home during the NFL offseason, Williams makes multiple visits to the place that holds such a special place in his heart.
For Williams, his relationship with the Boys & Girls Club is a lifelong commitment that began thanks to his late grandmother, Lillie Mai H. Green.
Miss Green, as Williams said she was known, was a staple in the local community and played an integral role in getting the Boys & Girls Club established in Altamonte. For her efforts, the club was officially named the Lillie H. Green Center in her honor. Sadly, Miss Green passed away before the doors of the center opened in 1998, but her name remains on the building to this day.
Williams began spending time at the youth center when he was in middle school – mostly because of his family's special connection. But as Williams grew older, the center became a foundation of his teenage years.
From his college years at Notre Dame to his time with the 49ers, Williams now makes sure he goes back to the Boys & Girls Club to help make a difference for a new generation of youth. San Francisco's starting nose tackle was there as recently as a few months ago during the lull of the NFL offseason, talking with the kids and partaking in all the activities the center had to offer.
"I grew up in the Boys & Girls Club," Williams said. "It's great, and it's crazy because I see myself in a lot of those kids. When I was growing up, we didn't have anyone like a pro football player or pro basketball player come back and talk to us.
"It's kind of crazy that I'm that guy now who can go back and talk to these kids. As soon as I walk in the door they come rushing out and know who I am already. It's a blessing and it's amazing."
Williams receives a similar welcome each summer when he makes his appearance at 49ers Youth Camps. For two weeks in July, hundreds of campers take over the team's practice fields at the SAP Performance Facility where they are welcomed and instructed by 49ers players.
As you can probably guess, Williams is always involved.
"It's kind of surreal," Williams said. "It's fun to be out there with the kids, running around with them and just seeing the light you bring into their eyes. I've been out there for a couple years now and you see some of the same kids each year.
"They come over to me when I'm working out and yell, 'Hey, Ian!' and wave me down and stuff like that. It's pretty cool. I've built a relationship with some of the kids and they like to tell me how their season went."
It's important to note that none of this is mandatory. The camps occur during a time when 49ers players aren't required to be at the team facility. Those who are present, like Williams, choose to play with and talk to the campers on their own time.
Maybe the best part about Williams giving back to the 49ers Youth Camps is that he never went to a football camp himself while growing up. The lineman was always big, too big even by Pop Warner standards, keeping him out of youth football leagues.
That, combined with the NBA's Orlando Magic being the closest professional sports team made basketball Williams' first love as an athlete.
The past few years have produced a dreamlike shift for Williams, who has become such a role model for kids while still feeling like just an ordinary guy. He said many of his teammates share the same sentiments. The transition from obscurity to an admired public figure is not one many comprehend.
Players stopped by the 49ers week-long youth camp from SAP Performance Facility.
"A lot of guys who are humble and down to earth, they feel like they're just guys," Williams said. "But to these kids, they're NaVorro Bowman, Antoine Bethea and* Colin Kaepernick*. To me, those guys are just normal guys, but to people outside of these doors, people view them how I would look at Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas. It's crazy."
Williams has embraced this role and taken the subsequent responsibility of being a mentor in stride. The fifth-year pro said he hopes to have a big season so that he can continue to contribute to his community and beyond.
Williams doesn't have his own foundation or charity yet, but he wants to continue to build up the Lillie H. Green Center. Altamonte isn't an affluent town, so Williams knows that he may be one of very few people with the means to provide for the center. The lineman hopes to update the center with everything from pool tables to new books.
After having his last two seasons cut short due to injuries, Williams has won San Francisco's starting nose tackle spot for a third consecutive season. On Monday, head coach Jim Tomsula announced that Williams was selected by the players to be one of the captains for the 2015 season.
There's still plenty of work to do for Williams amidst a deep group of defensive linemen, but the man who adorns the red and gold No. 93 is one worth rooting for.
Fun Fact: Miss Green, a huge Notre Dame fan, predicted that her grandson would play college football for the Fighting Irish before he was even in high school. She only told Williams' mom, however, so all of this was unknown to him. Sure enough, when it became time to sign an offer letter, Williams wound up in South Bend just as his grandmother predicted.
"After I committed, my mom told me the story, and she showed me my grandma's old Notre Dame sweatshirt which she still has today," Williams said. "It was pretty cool."