James Williams’ Journey from the NFL to New York Medical College

James Williams

Of the 460,000 National Collegiate Athletic Association student-athletes in the United States, fewer than two percent will go on to be professional athletes. The average medical school acceptance rate in the U.S. is five percent. These odds do not faze James Williams, who, before being accepted into New York Medical College’s (NYMC) School of Medicine (SOM), spent two years in the National Football League (NFL) as an offensive lineman. Now in his second year of medical school, Williams reflects on how his unique professional background led him to pursue a career in medicine.

In 2010, Williams signed a free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after wrapping up an illustrious playing career during his undergraduate years at Harvard University. Described as one of the nation’s premier linemen, he was a three-time All-American selection and a three-time unanimous choice All-Ivy League pick. Williams started every game for the Crimson from his sophomore season to his senior season – a feat rarely achieved in football due to its high injury rate.

Eventually, the physical nature of the sport took a toll on Williams’ body, leading to multiple injuries upon his arrival to the NFL. He was released by the Buccaneers after one season and then signed a contract with the Indianapolis Colts. “I went through preseason camp with them and got hurt in the last preseason game,” he said. Williams fought hard on his road to recovery and landed a spot on the Colts’ practice squad the following year. Unfortunately, during the preseason, he suffered a Lisfranc injury – a midfoot injury that can take anywhere from eight weeks to a year to heal – derailing his dreams of staying in the NFL. “That was pretty much career-ending. I could never get my foot back to the way it was before,” he explained.

His transition from the NFL to NYMC was not immediate. Williams spent time as a personal trainer and a preloader for United Parcel Service while earning a postbaccalaureate certificate in pre-medicine from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. As an economics major at Harvard, he lacked the course prerequisites needed for medical school. To better prepare himself for the world of medicine, Williams then stepped in and helped his mother, a dentist whose oral surgery practice suffered staffing shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I had a hard time finding a good schedule between working full-time and studying for the MCAT, but I eventually found my groove,” he said.

Williams values the transition period before enrolling in the School of Medicine at NYMC and sees the impact it has had on his life today. “Consistency is important. Even if you cannot see a way to get where you want to be, being consistent allows you to learn new things and you’ll see opportunities begin to open up,” he said. His persistence stems from his days as a college football player. Williams says it was difficult to see daily improvements, but he noticed significant development down the road.

He credits consistency, along with a strong belief in himself, as driving factors for success in medical school. Williams is also grateful for the guidance he has received from multiple NYMC faculty members in the SOM, including Mill Etienne, M.D. ’02, M.P.H., FAAN, FAES, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and SOM associate dean for student affairs and professor of neurology and of medicine. “I did not have research experience and Dr. Etienne helped me find a position as part of a research team for traumatic brain injuries,” he said.

Williams’ support system, particularly in medicine, runs deep. In addition to his mother, his father is a critical care surgeon who inspired him to earn a medical degree. “He’s been helping under-resourced communities for his entire career, and I’ve seen the impact he’s had on people. For him, every patient is special, and they definitely feel that,” he explained. Williams has an interest in specializing in surgery after medical school—in the orthopedic space – a field that has intrigued him since he suffered his bone-related injuries in the NFL.

“I can see myself as an orthopedic surgeon in an area where I can help under-resourced patients,” said Williams. When he graduates from NYMC and James Williams becomes James Williams, M.D., he will be in the small percentage—5.7 percent to be exact—of Black doctors in the U.S. Williams is used to beating the odds, and he understands that his impact in the field of medicine expands beyond treating patients. “I see the importance of serving as an example to people who have never seen Black doctors and showing them that it is possible.”

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