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Randal Williams and his mother, Margaret McGee, clearly remember the day they showed up to begin Williams' new life at Deerfield Academy.

"Just the classic preppy environment, and the classic preppy look - blue blazer with the khaki pants," recalled Williams, now a Raiders tight end. "I got there, and I guess I wasn't necessarily prepared, dress-wise. I knew there was a dress code, but I wasn't hip to the khaki dress code."

If Williams was feeling somewhat out of place, McGee was invaded by doubts about the whole idea of sending her son - barely 14 at the time - to a boarding school in Deerfield, Mass.

The economic divide between McGee's modest household and the blueblood families of the prep academy was prodigious.

"Everyone was in this fine clothing," McGee recalled from her home in Irving, Texas, where she is "temporarily retired."

"Randal went to school with (New Jersey) Governor (Christine Todd) Whitman's child! ... I could look at a pair of their shoes and know that my whole outfit could cost the same as their shoes."

No one said the transition would be seamless. But McGee and Williams stuck to the plan, which took a black adolescent from the Bronx and plopped him abruptly into the leafy grounds, Colonial-style (or in some cases, truly Colonial) buildings and overwhelmingly white faces of Deerfield.

It worked, thanks to the ethic instilled by McGee, Williams' hard work and a helping hand from an organization called A Better Chance.

To be clear, this isn't a story about a kid from the projects, a boy who was abused or had to extricate himself from gang life. McGee worked as a registered nurse, first in acute care and later in long-term care. Her salary was pretty good and was supplemented by Social Security benefits. Williams and his sister, four years older, were always academic achievers. On the other hand, McGee was a single mother of two; Williams' father had died when the boy was 5.

The family lived in a 21-story apartment building in a neighborhood of Puerto Rican, Dominican and black families. McGee describes it as "fairly nice." Two blocks away, however, were the housing projects, with all the dangers and temptations they normally offer.

"It wasn't the worst, but you'd go around the corner and basically, the worst was staring you right in the face," Williams said. "I was fortunate I had a mom that put her children before herself, and she'd do what she had to do to ensure we had everything that we needed - not necessarily everything that we wanted."

McGee ran a tight ship. She'd be out the door in the morning in time to make her 7 a.m. nursing shift, which ended at 3 p.m. It was up to kids to get themselves ready for school. McGee would pick them up from day care when her shift ended, and they had to finish all homework before playing or watching TV. When they did play, she usually insisted it was in the playground or parking lot next to the apartment building, where she could watch them from a window.

"I had no problem with my daughter," McGee said. "With Randal, I was apprehensive."

She soon found an ally in a surprising medium: video games. Williams loved them, and his friends flocked to McGee's house to play. So she always knew where he was. Williams was always in the high-achiever classes in elementary school and junior high.

"A certain group of individuals would label me as maybe a nerd," he said.

He used athletics as his entry into the popular crowd. "That's what the cool kids did all the time," he said. "That was my way to crack into that group, was to get out there and perform well. ... You could develop a reputation by being fast or having a good jump shot. I worked just as hard on those things as I did in the classroom."

Williams' life path was set in motion in the sixth grade, whena teacher told students about A Better Chance. Started in 1963, the nonprofit group identifies talented minority students and helps to place them in top private high schools. A Better Chance now boasts more than 11,000 alumni, many of them highly successful professionals.

"Randal came home one day and said, 'Mom, I'm going to private school,'" McGee recalled. "He was always bright, but, to be honest, he had never really applied himself. I said, 'Are you for real?'"

Under McGee's guidance, Williams continued to get good grades. After graduating from junior high school, he got letters from three prep academies - Phillips, Concord and Deerfield. He and his mother visited Deerfield first and saw no reason to visit the other two.

McGee consented, though in a sense it felt like she was losing her son. The financial burden was significant, too. She was expected to pay $8,000 of the annual tuition of $19,000. "Every dime was going to education," she said. "Every dime."

Williams, though excited about his opportunity, found himself in the throes of culture shock.

"In New York, although blacks and Hispanics are considered the minority, where we grew up we were considered the majority," he said. "So when I got to Deerfield, I really felt what it was like to be the minority in a literal sense."

It helped that he had some acquaintances there from the Bronx, other kids who had been assisted by A Better Chance. He - and his mother - were amazed how quickly they felt accepted at the 600-student prep school.

"Happily ever after" might be presumptuous, but Williams certainly has made the most of his chance. He excelled at football and track at Deerfield, earned a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire, and wound up graduating with degrees in business and Spanish.

Williams had to start from the bottom in the NFL. He joined the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2001, and spent four seasons in Dallas playing almost exclusively on special teams before joining the Raiders in 2005. Now he is the recently promoted starting tight end in Oakland. He has a wife and son, and he has bought his mom homes in Texas and Florida.

Some would call him an upset winner. McGee knows otherwise. "She's ecstatic," Williams said. "She tells me every day how proud she is of me."

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