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‘Sky is the limit’: Partnership for Joe Graf Jr., Antonio Williams evolving

Buffalo Bills running back Antonio Williams has always been fascinated with fast cars. But over the past year, he’s become involved in stock-car racing and his investment is growing at a rapid pace.

While honing his skills on the gridiron as a rookie in the NFL, Williams watched the progression NASCAR made in 2020, fighting against social injustices in the United States. He believes that will open the doors for new owners – some of color – to enter the sport, diversifying the product even more.

“[If] you look at basketball and football, the biggest separation between those sports is that there is not just one demographic that watches it; everyone watches those sports,” Williams recently told NASCAR.com. “What NASCAR is doing is opening the door for that type of demographic and for everyone to be a fan of it now.”

Williams has been a fan of NASCAR since he was an infant, watching races with his grandfather, James Williams, whose favorite driver was Bill Elliott. Though he can’t remember his exact age, the North Carolina native attended his first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway approximately 15 years ago, cheering on Tony Stewart.

But when Williams’ grandfather died last summer, the 23-year-old wanted to honor his legacy. That prompted him to send out a tweet on Sept. 10, 2020, asking if anyone had any “NASCAR connections,” and that “I’d love to get involved with it in the future.”

With 323 replies, one in particular stuck out: Nate Blasdell, the business manager for Joe Graf Jr., who spends a chunk of his time in Rochester, N.Y., a stone’s throw away from Buffalo. Two days later, the two had lunch at a Texas Roadhouse in Rochester, sharing a conversation that sparked Williams’ interest in working with Graf and his current team, SS Green Light Racing.

At the same time, there was common ground between Williams and Graf through sports psychologist Desaree Festa. Before taking a job with the Bills, Festa was based out of Charlotte, working with several race teams and even Graf.

“I still kept in touch and worked with [Festa] through last year,” Graf said. “She spoke extraordinarily high of [Williams] and he was looking to get into NASCAR. She put us together and we’ve hit it off really well.”

Williams believes he and Graf were destined to meet, ultimately working together in NASCAR.

“I definitely believe me going to Buffalo and meeting [Festa], meeting up with Joe and all of this is happening for a reason,” he said. “I think it’s led for early success in NASCAR for sure.”

Shortly after the Bills’ loss in the AFC Championship game to the Kansas City Chiefs in January, Williams and Graf met in person for the first time at the team’s race shop in Mooresville, N.C. It was a fit from the start.

“When we met in person, it was the same,” Williams added. “There was a great connection, and we both have the same mindset of wanting to be great in our respective sport. I definitely want to help him out in his.”

Since then, Graf said he and Williams speak daily, forming a bond away from the business. The two have spent time at Graf’s house, while Williams is trying to attend as many race weekends as he can before training camp begins this summer.

Just before the 2021 Xfinity Series went green at Daytona International Speedway, Williams announced that he had become an investor in Graf’s racing career to help form relationships. That meant he would focus on helping recruit sponsorship to the No. 07 team to help Graf be more competitive on the race track.

On the racing front, Graf has gotten off to a much better start than his rookie season in 2020. Through six races, Graf sits 18th in the championship standings, five positions higher than at this point last year.

RELATED: Xfinity Series standings

Graf, a business, media and sports management major at New York University, is open to having all the help he can to find additional sponsors. Thus far, Z Grills and Hazheart.com have joined the team, along with Bucked Up Energy returning for the bulk of the 2021 season. The duo is in discussion with multiple other partners that could potentially join the No. 07 team.

Christian Petersen | Getty Images
Christian Petersen | Getty Images

“[Williams] has helped so much on the business side of it,” Graf noted. “I don’t think people realize how involved he really is. He’s helped close on a lot of sponsorship deals. He’s helped start a lot of conversations with sponsors we’re talking to now.”

Williams said he believes being part of another sport can also help sell sponsorship.

“The NFL logo, for me, can get us into a lot more doors and that’s beneficial,” Williams said. “It’s whatever I need to do on the sponsorship side. I’m mostly on the business side helping Joe with whatever needs to be done as far as sponsorships, promotional deals and all that type of stuff.”

Unlike Graf, Williams was a psychology major at the University of North Carolina with no previous marketing background. However, he believes his ability to connect with people and motivate them – especially useful in football – is what can help sell sponsors.

Williams said, “I know the way you can sell is by allowing people to see your vision and your dream and understand their vision and their dream and meeting at that halfway point. When you have two sides working for one common goal, it typically works. That’s what has been helping us out and I think that’s what is going to continue progressing us in the future.”

But over the years, many investors in racing have come and gone. New teams have opened, spent a boatload of money and shut down a handful of years later.

Graf believes it’s different with Williams.

“I feel like Antonio is here for the long haul,” Graf added. “He’s got a lot of ambitions within the sport, and the big thing is, Antonio isn’t putting a massive amount of money in up front like a lot of these investors do. We’re building a sponsorship portfolio that creates value.”

Currently, Williams is enjoying the role of being an investor. But his ultimate goal in NASCAR is to become a team owner.

He believes that would fulfill his destiny of honoring his grandfather’s legacy.

“At first, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with NASCAR,” Williams said. “I’m so competitive, I want to be the best in anything that I do, and potentially owning a team would give me the opportunity to do things the way that I would want to do it, exactly that way and potentially be very competitive.

“I think it would be fun and great to have owners of diversity within the sport, other owners of diversity. I think putting myself in that position would be good for my grandfather’s legacy and the sport in general.”

Being a realist, Graf wants to keep his expectations limited, but believes his SS Green Light Racing team can be the best of the teams running within similar budgets.

“My goal is to be in the top 15 in points,” Graf stated. “It’s kind of an outside shot of us making the playoffs unless maybe a win at a superspeedway race or something like that. I definitely want to be the best of that second tier of cars.”

But what’s next for this duo?

“If we just keep stacking days,” Williams said. “Stacking days and getting better each day. I don’t want to say what the next step is because I don’t know, I just know that we’ll try to get better every day. I think the sky is the limit at this point.”