LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- D.J. Williams is talking barbecue, business and football, but the conversation keeps coming back to the issue of trust.
Williams said he trusts his three buddies from the University of Miami with whom he has partnered in two soon-to-be Brother Jimmy's BBQ franchises.
He trusts the Bears after giving him a fresh start and then keeping their faith in him despite a calf injury that kept him out all of training camp. And he trusts that Bears fans will give him a chance after his final two years in Denver, which have him grateful to still be playing.
"I think me leaving Denver was the perfect situation," said Williams, suspended for nine games by the NFL last season for two separate incidents dating back to 2010. "The first thing for me is always to be somewhere where people want you. [The Broncos] weren't interested in me anymore. I really wasn't into what was going on there and how I was treated that year I came back from my suspension, so I think it worked out well. Everybody got a good part of the deal."
In March, Williams signed a one-year, incentive-laden, nonguaranteed contract with a base value of $900,000 to replace Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker. But he may be gone before Bears fans have a chance to get to know and trust him.
A former first-round pick of the Broncos, Williams, 31, seemed to hit his stride in Week 3 at Pittsburgh with two sacks, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble, and he has 14 tackles in four games. The Steelers game, said his mother Sherri Gonzales, was a key in her son's comeback of sorts, and she heard it in his voice afterward.”
"How he looked on the field in that third game is exactly who he is and what he is, and no matter what anyone says, they can't take that from him," she said. "In his head and in his heart, that's who he is. ... That was a long time in coming and he definitely deserved that game. He proved to everybody he deserves to be in the NFL and he deserves to be a Bear for the rest of his career."
Gonzales said things got so bad in Denver after the suspensions -- one was for violating the league's banned-substances policy and the other after a jury found him guilty of driving while impaired in a case that dated back to 2010 -- that he was stopped indiscriminately by police in his own gated community.
Williams said, however, that his love of the game never wavered.
"Personally, I'm not bitter," he said. "But seeing the things that happen on and off the field, it's a crazy business. A lot of the stories that came out about me -- I did some wrong things but a lot of the truth was missed, and in those situations, I just decided to be quiet. The story is already out. But once you get out on the field and you start laughing and joking around with the guys, you realize why you continue to wake up every morning and put your body through it."
Gonzales was a former junior Olympian in track, a college softball player, and a figure competitor in physique exhibition events (stressing muscle definition over size, unlike bodybuilding). She said D.J.'s father was also well-built and that their son is a product of his parents.
"There were articles when D.J. was in 10th grade, with reporters calling him a freak of nature because he was so big. There were pictures of him where he looked like a grown man. He's just always been big and athletic," said Gonzales, who said her son excelled in football, baseball, track and basketball, dunking at age 13 at Jason Kidd's basketball camp.
Williams wanted to be a running back and played fullback his freshman year at Miami before switching to linebacker, where he was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award with teammate Jonathan Vilma his junior year and again his senior year.
His friendships with Vilma, now with New Orleans, and fellow linebacker Jon Beason, now with Carolina, expanded into a business partnership.
"We made sure they were good investments, nothing ridiculous," said Williams, who -- like the other two -- owns a 17 percent piece of the restaurants and is also a part of a "very small investment" in some lounges. "Nothing that would hurt my bank account too much if it didn't pan out. I think that's the biggest mistake most guys make."
Williams, who said he would also like to own a gym one day, speaks to his partners at least once a week, and each occupies a different role in the business.”
"I like to say I'm the party and event coordinator," he said. "Jonathan Vilma does the books. Restaurants and clubs are the worst things in the world because they flip-flop so many times, and you have to have someone you trust watching the money when you're not there. There are so many intangibles where you can lose money, but this one is kind of a family-oriented thing -- basically four guys that went to school together and the owner who really doesn't want to tarnish his name, so we've got a good crew."
In August 2012, the restaurant received national attention when a sign in the window reading "Do Not Serve This Man" (with a picture of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell) was photographed and spread via Twitter.
"One of the managers, I think, put that up, and Vilma and I got a lot of attention for it," Williams said. "I was in training camp with the Broncos and Vilma was suspended." Vilma was a central figure in the Saints' bounty scandal that led to the suspension of four players, but the suspensions were eventually vacated by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed by Goodell to review the penalties. Vilma filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell, but it was later dismissed in federal court.
"Once it hit the media, it made it seem like we put it up," Williams said. "At the time, Vilma was beefing with the commissioner and I stick with my friends. But the truth was, neither of us put it up, and it was only up for one day when the picture was taken."
That loyalty and trust between friends, Williams said, is nothing new for him.
"I've pretty much been that way my whole life," he said. "I really only talk to people I know. I do have an outgoing personality, but it's only outgoing with people I know. If I don't know you, I really don't talk to you. There are only so many hours in the day and only so much time, and I'd rather waste it with people I have genuine relationships with."
His best friend, he said, is still a guy he met when the two were 9 years old.
"He's been everywhere," Williams said. "He came to Miami when I was in college. He used to come to Denver all the time. He's already been to Chicago twice. I'm his kids' godfather and vice versa. He considers my mom his mom. And besides that, the only guys I hang out with are guys who I went to college with. I doubt I'm going to make any new friends in Chicago unless they're teammates.
"It's a guy thing. I think after around 21, guys don't make friends. Girls can do that, be in the bathroom, 'Your shoes are cute,' come out and exchange numbers. Men really don't do that."
Williams, however, has forged friendships quickly with his teammates, including rookie Jon Bostic, whose solid play while Williams missed all of training camp had some Bears fans calling for the second-round pick to start at linebacker when the season began.
"D.J. has helped me since day one. I'm real close with him," said Bostic, who has also sought Williams' advice on future business plans. "He'll come out and say, 'Hey, did you see that player whatever?' ... He's played in this league 10 years, so there's a lot I can learn from him."
Williams said it meant a lot to him that Bears coaches stuck with him and started him when the season began.
"We communicated the whole time, and they told me if I came back and I was healthy, the spot was still mine," he said. "It was a good feeling."
Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said the decision was not a difficult one.
"[Williams is] a veteran payer; he has a tremendous amount of experience, has a high football IQ," Tucker said. "He's a good football player, and he's been that for a long time. We had him before his injury and we saw that. He was that. And we felt once he got healthy that he'd eventually get back to full speed and continue in his development in this system.
"I really like D.J. He's a great guy to be around. He loves football, loves to talk football, has a lot of experience in a lot of different schemes. He's excellent with his teammates, always willing to help. He asks good questions and he works hard."
As for replacing a legend like Urlacher, Williams trusts that his teammates and Bears fans will know that it won't get in his way.
"I don't think about it," he said. "That's just [added] pressure and something good for talk radio. I just try to come out and perform, make sure I'm a solid player for the defense. It wouldn't matter to me if I had my best career stats if we did poorly. To me, I'm just filling in that spot, filling in the void."