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Published: Friday, 12/24/2010

Rocket reunion: Church, Williams on opposite sidelines

The former University of Toledo players are NFL rookies this season — Church as a safety with the Dallas Cowboys and Williams as a receiver with the Arizona Cardinals — but they will be reunited Saturday night when their new teams square off at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. The game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. and will be televised on the NFL Network.

"Barry was one of my closest friends on the team in college, and we still talk daily," Williams said. "It's going to be weird and kind of crazy lined up against somebody I've practiced with and was teammates with and trying to beat him and his team.

"He's going to be trying to make plays for his team and I'm going to be trying to make plays for my team, so it'll be interesting and very exciting."

The pair planned on getting together last night for Christmas Eve festivities, but once game time rolls around, it'll be all business.

"I'll finally get to hit home like I want to," Church joked. "In college we weren't allowed to hit the offense, so definitely I'll be trying to put a lick on him."

Church could see extensive action tonight at strong safety in place of Gerald Sensabaugh, who suffered a concussion last week in the Cowboys' 33-30 win over the Washington Redskins.

"It's been a great experience getting to play for America's team," Church said. "I definitely feel like I've come a long way. Since preseason I've learned so much under great coaches like [secondary coach] Dave Campo and [safeties coach] Brett Maxie. They've taught me so much about the game."

It's been more of an uphill climb for Williams this season in Arizona. He has just seven catches for 77 yards in nine games and has been inactive in fives contests with a lingering back injury suffered against New Orleans on Oct. 10.

"I got hit and landed wrong," Williams said. "I'm healed now and just waiting my turn to get back into the action on the field. I'm excited about that and ready to make some plays."

Church has been making a lot of plays lately for the Cowboys.

After Sensabaugh went out in the second quarter last week, Church came in and made three solo tackles, tying his career-high.

Arizona wide receiver Stephen Williams has had a trying season, catching just seven passes for 77 yards in nine games. Arizona wide receiver Stephen Williams has had a trying season, catching just seven passes for 77 yards in nine games.
PAUL JASIENSKI / ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

Church has 14 solo tackles and five assisted tackles this season and has been one of the Cowboys' bright spots on defense, along with LSU rookie safety Danny McCray.

"I think they're getting better as defensive players," Dallas interim coach Jason Garrett told reporters last week. "They've each gotten a few snaps over the last few weeks, and they seem to be handling those things well. It didn't seem too big for them."

As undrafted free agents, Church and Williams have had to take the road less traveled to the NFL, but they've been able to beat the odds by sticking with their original teams that signed them on draft day.

Neither was guaranteed a roster spot and they both had to survive the many rounds of cuts in training camp and the preseason, competing against veterans and drafted players from bigger programs than Toledo.

Church and Williams signed multi-year contracts with their respective teams last spring, and both are expecting to be back with the same organizations next season.

"It's been a very long road," Church said. "Of course draft day was definitely disappointing not to get drafted, but it happened that way and God had a plan for me. I came in with a chip on my shoulder, saying ‘I'm going to make this team and I'm [going] to do what I can to make plays and prove myself.'

"So far, I feel like I'm doing that, but the road is just now starting," Church added. "The only way to smooth it out is to get experience and keep playing hard."

Both have also had to deal with a sometimes difficult transition to the pro game and have realized off-the-field preparation is just as important, if not more important, than what you can do on the field.

"The playbook is huge," Williams said. "We have about 50 million plays, and it seems like they change every week. They'll switch the formation and the positions. It's not something you ever get used to. It's not the same plays over and over that you're running [like in college]. It's switches daily, and they'll even add in new plays right before the game."

Nevertheless, Church and Williams said they are very much enjoying their rookie seasons in the NFL.

"The season hasn't been going how we all had planned it, in terms of wins and stuff," said Williams regarding the Cardinals, who are 4-10, "But I'm grown a lot and have been enjoying this ride."

Contact Zach Silka at: zsilka@theblade.com or 419-724-6084.



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