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Alabama's Improbable Defensive Standout

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The man they call Tha Monstar walked into Alabama’s football complex last month as if bound for a biker bar. Tattoos covered most every inch of his wide frame. He wore his hair carved down the center, into a Mohawk. He carried an Oakland Raiders knitted cap.

His name is Jesse Williams, Mr. Monstar to the uninitiated, nose tackle for the mighty Crimson Tide. Three words best summarized his aura: extremely bad man.

“Too easy,” he said by way of introduction, substituting a favorite catchphrase for “hello.”

His story, though, is not easy. It is more complicated, more nuanced, his path to stardom as improbable and distinct as any in college sports. It wound from eastern Australia to the Arizona desert to the most storied program in...

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