Once he got back to the bench, away from the backslaps and bear hugs, Joe Williams celebrated his 1-yard touchdown run as quietly as he could.
The 49ers running back tapped his chest twice and pointed toward the nighttime sky.
The phrase “meaningless preseason game” does not apply here. Williams spent this week grieving for his brother-in-law, Godfrey Jones Jr., who was shot Monday in broad daylight in Newark, New Jersey. He was 25.
Williams spent Thursday paying tribute in the best way he could.
“He was on my mind the whole game,” he said after the 49ers’ 24-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. “He was an amazing man, a father of three. He was a stand-up cat.”
The emotional touchdown came at a time when biggest question surrounding Williams is his heart. He is hardly a lock to make this roster, partly because the 49ers still wonder just how much he cares about football. That’s not speculation. That was the widespread knock on him when the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder when he came into the league and that remained the knock when training camp began this summer.
Kyle Shanahan was a big Williams fan a year ago when the 49ers took him in the fourth-round pick (121st overall). But the coach bluntly acknowledged that doubts still linger.
“You don’t fall into playing in the NFL. You’ve got to be talented and it’s got to mean a lot to you. I think it does to Joe. But I think it’s taken him time to see the difference and the urgency that it takes to succeed at this level,” Shanahan said after a recent practice.
In Williams, the 49ers want to see more ruggedness, more willingness plow into a pile and keep on pushing. Shanahan, a former college receiver, admitted that he would have resisted playing running back even at the high school because you succeed only “if you’re not expecting to get drilled every single play.”
Williams needs to prove himself quickly. He’s in a battle with Raheem Mostert (8 carries for a team-high 57 yards on Thursday) for the third running back spot. In a competition this close, everything from special teams ability to locker room intangibles will be considered.
So the most meaningful sequence for Williams on Thursday came late in the first in half. On a first-and-goal from the 7, Williams took a handoff from C.J. Beathard and ran smack into heavy traffic. But he found a way to keep the pile moving and mashed his way to the 1. On the next play, Williams finished the job with another determined bulldozer run.
“I appreciate Coach Shanahan giving me another chance to get in there,” said Williams, who finished with 27 yards on 11 carries. “It’s big, it’s big. It’s been a long time coming. I definitely can cross that off as a goal for the preseason.”
Williams’ celebration in the end zone was businesslike. He simply dropped the ball and bumped shoulder pads with tight end Ross Dwelley and tackle Pace Murphy as he headed back to the sideline.
But, privately, his thoughts were with his family. Williams is married to Jasmine Jones, the shooting victim’s sister. Williams shared news of his brother-in-law’s death in an Instagram post on Tuesday morning: “I know for a fact that we never lose the people we love, even in death. They’re right by our side guiding us through the good times and the bad. Rest in Peace big bro. Tell my father-in-law I said what’s up. Love you.”
A day earlier, Essex County Sheriff’s officers found Jones on a park bench suffering from his fatal gunshot wound. Jones was apparently shot around 9:15 a.m. and died at University Hospital in Newark at 5:27 p.m. In a statement, Sheriff Armando Fontoura said his office was offering a reward of up to $10,000 through its Crime Stoppers program for information leading to an arrest and conviction in Jones’ killing.
“It sucks,” Williams said in the 49ers locker room late Thursday. “Because you lose him to gun violence. You know that’s a big issue. And it hits home even more because it’s not a random person: It’s somebody you know. It’s really close to your heart.”
Williams’ sister, Kylee, died when he was younger. He sports a tattoo on his left arm that reads, “My Sister’s Keeper.” Over the past three years, Williams said he and Jones became super close. “Just having him as the older sibling in my life really meant a lot,” he said.
So Williams will continue to play hard in order to fulfill the promise he once showed at Utah, where he rushed for 1,884 yards and 13 touchdowns in 19 games over two seasons. At the 2017 NFL Combine, he finished with the second fastest time among all running backs in the 40-yard dash (4.41 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.19 seconds).
But that burst did him little good in the fourth quarter on Thursday. On a two-point conversion attempt with 4:24 to go and the 49ers trailing 21-16, Williams took a handoff and went nowhere.
“I saw a hole for a split second,” Williams said. “I think a linebacker on the backside shot the gap. I definitely need to work on my jumping over the top. You have to punch that in.”
Whether on not Williams makes the regular-season roster remains to be determined. But maybe he answered at least one question Thursday night. By scoring as touchdown and pointing to the sky just days after such a painful loss, Williams showed that he can take a hit and keep on moving.
You might say he’s a stand-up cat.