Is Lions WR Jameson Williams finally ready to launch after gambling ban?

DETROIT -- The scene was difficult for James Williams Sr. to watch.

When Detroit Lions players streamed out of the tunnel ahead of their 2023 home opener against the Seattle Seahawks, there was one notable absence.

Williams' son, second-year Lions wide receiver Jameson Williams, was serving the second game of a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's gambling policy in 2022.

In one of the most anticipated Lions seasons in recent memory, Williams had, for the second straight year, been prevented from playing with his team. He missed the first 11 games of his rookie season as he recovered from a left ACL tear suffered in college. When he returned, he struggled, catching one pass in six games. Fully healthy and with an offseason to prepare, 2023 was going to give him the runway to launch what the Lions -- and he and his family -- hope will be a promising NFL career.

That's why, with the fourth-largest crowd in Ford Field history cheering the rest of the team on, James couldn't help but think what the Lions would be missing on the field.

"Every game I see he could have two touchdowns," James said.

Now, the wait is over. After sitting out the first four games of his suspension, Williams was one of three players fully reinstated when the NFL announced revisions to its gambling policy last week. As a result, Williams, who bet on a non-NFL game from the club facility in 2022, will be eligible to play when the Lions host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

When he makes his 2023 debut, last year's No. 12 overall pick will be well prepared thanks to a foundation instilled in him by his parents that has helped him deal with the setbacks he has already faced in his young NFL career.

"On the toughest days, that's who I leaned on," Williams said of his family. "So, I usually text them and they'll help me get through the toughest days. Those days where I wouldn't feel like getting up and working out because I wasn't in the facility or days where I'm just like, 'Man, I need to be with the team' or go workout or go just do some extra.

"They would be the ones to tell me, 'I need to go do this' or keep me up. They were there for the toughest days and they helped me get through it."

WILLIAMS WON'T FORGET the night of Thursday, April 20. That's when -- after speaking with his father and his agent, Rocky Arceneaux -- he learned of his gambling suspension. The ruling was formally announced the next morning.

He said he had no knowledge of the NFL's gambling policy but accepted full responsibility and didn't appeal the decision.

"I was sick. I was hurt, because I didn't know things like this was coming," Williams said. "I just took me some time. I just thought about the better days and moving forward."

The Lions organization continued to maintain faith in Williams in the midst of the storm the suspension created. The following week, after the 2023 NFL draft, Detroit general manager Brad Holmes said the team had "no real concerns" about Williams' character moving forward, calling the incident a "mistake."

To keep him on track, the Lions connected Williams with individuals in the organization who offer mentorship for players, like co-directors of player engagement Jessica Gray and Sean Pugh, who assist with helping players develop life skills. Members of the coaching staff, such as receivers coach Antwaan Randle El, were conscripted to help, too.

In the offseason, Williams also exchanged phone numbers with Lions great Calvin Johnson and says he benefited from the leadership of veteran teammates Marvin Jones Jr. and Teddy Bridgewater during training camp.

James said he saw his son learn a valuable lesson from the gambling suspension that he hopes the next player won't have to face.

"What I would say to the next kid is, 'Take your time, young man, and read your paperwork and read all the rules and make sure you understand those,'" James said.

"Don't let a little cost you a lot," he added. "Accountability. This story shows a lot of accountability. He stood up and said, 'Yeah, I made the mistake, naw, I'm not going to appeal it,' although everybody said he should. 'I'm going to accept my punishments,' and he went about his business."

THROUGH THE BEGINNING of Williams' suspension, coaches weren't allowed to be in contact with him.

"I couldn't even call him. It was the worst thing. They need to change that," Randle El said. "You've got a young kid, young player. The suspension is enough, but you can't even communicate with him. That's bad."

After being completely away from the team for the first three games, Williams was allowed back at the Lions facility for Week 4 due to the terms of the suspension, but under strict guidelines. He couldn't attend or participate in group workouts or attend, observe or participate in practices.

"He can be in meetings and that's about it for now, and then we'll have him out here training a little bit, but until further notice, he can't practice with us or anything so we're kind of in that boat right now, but it's good to have him back," Lions coach Dan Campbell said last month. "He was in the team meeting, it's good to see him and be around his teammates, so we'll see what we can do."

During the suspension, Arceneaux implemented a daily routine similar to what the Lions had Williams doing in training camp. He completed an early-morning strength workout, ate lunch, then came back in the afternoon for another session on the field. Even at home, his emphasis was catching. He caught at least 100 passes per day on his personal Jugs machine.

"You do the math on that. That's a lot of catches," Williams said of the routine.

Williams also had to rehab a hamstring injury he suffered during a Lions joint practice session with the Jacksonville Jaguars in August, which he and Campbell both described as being "good" now. They believe he has put the work in to contribute immediately.

"I think that program actually put us in a position to be ready to play this week," Arceneaux said.

Before training camp began, Williams attended private throwing sessions with Lions quarterback Jared Goff in Southern California with Amon-Ra St. Brown and a handful of other Lions teammates.

Williams also worked this summer with his longtime trainer, Pete Luton, focusing on technique. Luton, runs Tight End University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and works closely with tight ends and receivers. He and Williams first connected in 2019, when Williams was at Ohio State.

"He was always studying, staying sharp. He's still working out. Jamo likes to do things where he doesn't show too much, but he's doing a lot," Luton said. "I texted him every week, saying, 'It's almost time,' but he was staying pretty sharp. I know that for sure. He loves football. He's never sleeping on no football, man. He loves that football."

WILLIAMS' LONE NFL catch was a 41-yard touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 11, 2022.

After stretching his arms out wide in celebration, Williams immediately found his father in the stands and gave him the ball.

"It feels normal because we're supposed to be here. That's supposed to happen," James said at the time, sitting among roughly 20 family members. "It's not being arrogant, it's just being confident on what I know he can do and what he feels like he can do.

"When they move up 20 spots to get you, that's kind of like what you're supposed to do, correct? Welcome to Detroit."

Holmes took a big swing in the 2022 draft when he traded up from the 32nd pick to land Williams at No. 12 overall, despite knowing the former Alabama standout wouldn't be available for most of his rookie season as he recovered from the knee injury suffered that January.

The road from rehab back to the field wasn't a smooth one for Williams, who admitted experiencing some "down days." But he said he leaned on his parents and the mentality they instilled in him as a young kid.

When he was 10 years old, Williams said he was waking up to train with his parents and siblings as early as 6 a.m. -- a time they called "The Williams Six."

His parents, James and Tianna Williams, were both track athletes at Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri.

His older brother, James Jr., ran track at Northwest Missouri State University. His older sister, Ja'Inna, ran at Wayland Baptist University. And his younger brother, Jaden -- aka "Slim" -- plays safety at Wayne State University in Detroit.

"So, in the morning, you're pretty much getting up and doing a workout, no matter what sport it is, so you need to get used to that. That was my gift to them," James Sr. said.

"You can have that and it's also going to help you because nobody else is getting up at 6 in the morning running hills. Nobody else [is] getting up at 6 in the morning doing stairs or 400s and then at 1 o'clock going back and doing another workout on Sunday. Sunday was bananas. We used to do like three workouts in one day."

"All four of our kids, they used to race to the dinner table," Tianna said, laughing. "[They] did not want to lose at nothing."

"And before you get dinner," James Sr. added, "you've got to do your pushups and situps. So, if you want to count that as four [workouts], it was like that."

That foundation has helped Williams deal with the trials he has faced so far as a Lion. While serving his suspension, he received constant check-ins from his parents to make sure he was staying on point mentally.

"My parents are real active with me. I talk to them almost every day," he added. "If not every day, every other day. They just check up on me to see how everything is going. They're just making sure everything is good."

THOUGH THE HOPES for Williams' return are high, Campbell has tried to temper expectations.

"I'm not worried about him working, he will. And it's just about polishing all the little things, and we also know if he does play, he can't play 60 plays," Campbell said. "That's not smart, so we can't do that to him. So, we'll see where it goes and it's all about improvement."

Detroit's offense is averaging the seventh-most points in the league (24.8). Third-year receiver St. Brown leads the team in receptions (26), receiving yards (331) and receiving touchdowns (two). Rookie tight end Sam LaPorta is No. 2 in receptions with 22. Veteran receivers Josh Reynolds and Kalif Raymond are fulfilling key roles in the passing game, but Williams can provide a legitimate deep threat with speed that's missing from the roster.

"I'm not looking for yards, I'm not looking for explosives, I'm not looking for touchdowns. Man, just be a reliable receiver like any of those guys in the room," Campbell said of his expectations for Williams. "That's it and to me, that's a good year, because we're about winning, it's not about one player, and that'll help us win."

Randle El likens Williams' ability to former NFL speedster Mike Wallace, who was Randle El's teammate with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only is Williams an option on deep passes, but he's also a threat for short, shallow routes on which he can hit a seam and explode for big gains. Coaches say Williams' speed puts pressure on safeties and cornerbacks because he can catch a deep ball over the top and open up lanes for everybody else underneath with his ability to stretch the field.

"We welcome the pressure, meaning that helps him grow," Randle El said. "It's a good pressure from that standpoint, but we know our offense and putting him back in the mix, how much further we can go.

"It's not like he's the end all, fix all, be all from that standpoint, but he brings a different element that us and many other teams don't have just in terms of his speed. ... Again, it's back to how quickly can we get him ready to be able to get on the field."