Leonard Williams spotted the familiar face as he made his way through the lobby of the South Florida hotel.
Outside, by the valet, was a man the Jets star had not seen in 10 years — his father. Clenon Williams had spent a decade in a Florida prison, going away when Leonard was just 14. Clenon was released last month and reconnected with his son for the first time on Nov. 3, the night before the Jets faced the Dolphins.
“I just looked at him,” Leonard Williams told The Post on Wednesday. “I don’t know. I didn’t expect it to be super emotional because I’m just not that type of guy and neither is my dad. We’re just not that type of people. But when we saw each other and hugged each other, we just held onto each other for a really long time. You could feel the energy going through each other.”
The following day, Williams played in front of his father for the first time since he was a freshman on the junior varsity team at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Fla. When Clenon was locked up, he missed out on his son becoming one of the top football recruits in the country, eventually going to USC and then becoming the No. 6 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Jets.
Clenon stood on the sideline before the Jets-Dolphins game, wearing his son’s 2016 Pro Bowl jersey, then watched him play an NFL game.
“I feel like it’s surreal for him,” Leonard said.
The two will spend Thanksgiving together for the first time in more than a decade on Thursday. Clenon Williams was flying in Wednesday night and Leonard will host his father, his two brothers, his sister, an aunt and a cousin for the holiday.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Leonard Williams said. “This is the first time in a long time where we’re getting together and I’m feeling nothing but excitement about it.”
The younger Williams never visited his father at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ocala, Fla. The two talked by phone, but Williams said he held a grudge against his father for a long time. Clenon was convicted of a number of charges, the most serious being robbery with a deadly weapon. The elder Williams followed his son’s football career from prison. When they reconnected this month, Clenon showed Leonard newspaper clippings of stories about Leonard that he had saved in prison.
Leonard said the root of his father’s issues was an addiction to drugs.
“That was the most difficult thing growing up, the drug part,” Williams said. “That’s the reason I didn’t forgive him for a while. I felt like he chose that over us at a certain point. I had some anger toward him.”
The Jets defensive end had a rough upbringing because of his father’s drug problem. Williams said his father is a smart man, who earned a college degree and held a high-paying job when he was young. But then he would get back into drugs, end up in jail and the family would be on the move.
“When he would mess up, we would end up losing the house,” Williams said. “He was making really good money. If he went to jail, we couldn’t afford the house and we had to move out. That happened a lot. I moved around a lot.”
Leonard was born in Bakersfield, Calif., but he bounced around to Sacramento, Michigan and Arizona before he was even 10 years old.
Eventually the family settled in Daytona Beach. At times, the Williams family had to stay in homeless shelters or a motel.
Williams said it was not until he attended a leadership class in 2017 that he truly forgave his father. Still, when Clenon, 51, was released from prison in October, Leonard did not want to welcome him right back into his life.
“When he first got out, I was not super eager to be like ‘Oh, what’s up?’ and be around him all the time,” Leonard said. “I wanted to him to like prove himself a little bit, just naturally. That was what was in my head. I feel like he’s been going above and beyond to put himself back into our lives. That’s the reason I’m giving him a chance now.”
Leonard said Clenon has shown he wants to make up for lost time. They text each other daily. Leonard often wakes up to a message from his father. The family has a group text chain through which they reconnect.
“I don’t think you can ever make up 10 years of lost time, but the fact that he’s out and back in our lives is the most important thing,” Leonard said.
Leonard recently helped his father get a place near where Leonard’s mother, Aviva Russek, lives in Florida. Leonard said he hopes his father can stay out of trouble now that he has served his sentence.
“I feel like he’s in a really good place now,” Leonard Williams said. “I can see it in his eyes. I can see it in his body language, his face. I could just tell because I know him so well.”