How watching anime has motivated Lions' Jamaal Williams during difficult first season in Detroit

Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams has leaned on an unlikely source to provide him inspiration this season. David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

By the time media members circled around Jamaal Williams outside of the visitor's locker room at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 26, the Detroit Lions running back had changed out of his uniform and into a ninja headband featuring the Naruto anime series, and an anime-themed T-shirt.

His wardrobe might not have looked like that of your typical NFL player, but it’s a reflection of an off-field obsession with Japanese anime cartoons he credits with helping him cope during a difficult first season in Detroit.

A fourth-round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers in 2017, Williams hadn’t experienced much losing prior to signing with the Lions as a free agent last March. He’d lost six games total in his final two seasons in Green Bay. In Detroit, he had as many losses by Week 6.

“This losing stuff is not something I really … I will never be comfortable with it," Williams said.

"This year has just been a good year of adversity and having adversity as a challenge.”

To help deal with those tough times, Williams, whose social media accounts often feature anime images and references, said he has leaned on inspirational messages from his favorite characters.

“I’ve been watching so many anime motivational speeches from my boys Naruto [main character of “Naruto”] and Luffy [main character of “One Piece”]. That’s why I like anime,” said Williams, whose favorite show is “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.” “It’s just something that I know that’s always going to keep me uplifted, and every show I’ve watched, everything I’ve watched from anime, they go through adversity every episode -- like literally.”

American audiences are used to thinking of animation as cheap, childish entertainment, but from the perspective of the Japanese entertainment industry, it's a mode of storytelling unencumbered by the practicalities and budgetary considerations of physical, live-action filmmaking, according to popular anime YouTuber Geoff Thew -- known online as “Mother’s Basement.”

Thew has 1.22 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, which produces content analyzing the anime industry. He told ESPN that anime can provide not just motivation, but as wide an array of emotional experiences to viewers as you'd find in film or any other major artistic medium.

“That said, if you're looking for motivation, you will find it in abundance among Shounen anime and manga [Japanese comics], like ‘JoJo's Bizarre Adventure,’” Thew said. “Many Shounen works are united by a common narrative thread of heroes pushing back against entrenched power structures with their own individual strength and the support of their friends."

Often, these anime stories will devote nearly as much screen time to training and strategy sessions as they do the big conflict itself, making victory, when it comes, feel well and truly earned, Thew says.

"And because we in the audience see the process, the struggle, not just the result, that can make our own struggles seem more manageable, and our own goals more attainable, especially with a good team on our side," he said.

Williams’ mother, Nicolle, first noticed her son take a strong liking to anime shortly after arriving at BYU in 2012.

Over time, it became an obsession. So much so that once he joined the Packers, he started wearing anime apparel.

“I remember when he first had his [anime] jacket, and then the headband and the pants," Nicolle said. "You would’ve thought he was in a Gucci outfit or something. He really started embracing his anime in the NFL.”

Nicolle was confused by her son’s fascination at first. When they would watch episodes, she dreaded reading the subtitles, but over time she’s witnessed the genre evolve in America, notably without subtitles, and she has grown an appreciation for the art, mainly because of the deeper messages of courage and overcoming issues that get highlighted through the storylines.

“It just kind of gave him more insight that he can be who he wants to be and not conform to the world around him,” Nicolle said. “He’s never been one to really party and hang out with a lot of people. He’s kind of to himself and does what he wants to do, and I think that just gave him a little more motivation that you don’t have to be like everybody else. You can be yourself.”

Sixteen days prior to the game in Atlanta, Williams was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list, making him unavailable for Detroit’s games against the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals.

The time away from the team gave him ample time to binge-watch many of his favorite shows. And in his first game back, he responded with 77 yards on 19 carries in a 20-16 loss to the Falcons.

“Yeah, I watched so much, I was just like ‘Maybe I should just stop watching it so I can save some shows for myself,’” Williams said about his time in quarantine. “But, honestly, it kept me cool.

“It’s just things about anime and the main purpose of all of them is not to give up, and that’s what we’re in. So, everybody goes through life and adversity."

Williams said he admired the determination the characters exhibit in the shows most of all.

“They never give up, and that’s what you’ve got to take into real life,” Williams added. “So, when it’s time for your own anime, you’re going to go through adversity. Just make sure that you keep fighting and make your anime show the greatest it can be, and that you never give up and keep fighting for what you want.”