When Andrew Pierce and Dominique Williams stroll to the middle of the field to shake hands Sept. 21 in Newark, Del., two of the best running backs in NCAA Division I FCS football will face each other for the first time since before high school.

Pierce's University of Delaware team and Williams' Wagner College squad both have championship aspirations, and both seniors hope to be in NFL camps next year.

But this handshake will be about something even bigger for these two close friends - Bridgeton.

Both players hail from the Cumberland County city, and both took long, sometimes frustrating paths to where they are now.

They see their success as an example to kids from their hometown.

"Not too many people make it out from our town," Pierce said in a phone interview last week. "There were a lot of great players from our town who fall to the streets, or their grades, and are not good enough to go to college. It's just good for me and him to make a difference. … We can show kids they can make it to college and be big-time."

Pierce, 22, grew up in the Gouldtown section of Bridgeton. Williams, who turns 23 on Sept. 2, was a year ahead of Pierce in school and lived about 10 minutes away, near the city's courthouse.

As kids, they played baseball, basketball and football together - sometimes on the same team, sometimes as opponents.

When it was time for high school, however, Pierce went to Cumberland Regional and Williams to Bridgeton. Since the teams play in different leagues - Cumberland in the Tri-County Conference and Bridgeton in the Cape-Atlantic League - they never faced each other in high school.

It wasn't until both had graduated from high school and reached a crossroads in their lives that they became close. It was the summer of 2009, and Pierce was preparing to "grayshirt," meaning he would take a semester - and a season - off before enrolling at Delaware as a walk-on.

Williams, meanwhile, was preparing for his freshman season at Wagner after a year at Milford Academy prep school in Connecticut.

Neither had been offered a scholarship after high school, despite stellar careers. Pierce was Cumberland's all-time leading rusher with 4,537 career yards, and Williams ran for 1,321 yards as a senior. Both were Press first-team All-Stars - Williams in 2006 and Pierce in 2007 and 2008.

"We definitely bonded," Williams said of their time working out at Bridgeton City Park and on the sand by Sunset Lake. "We talked about my experience up at Milford and the recruiting process, (and about) being away from home, stuff like that. We just talked about whatever it was."

The fact that both players were about to embark on NCAA Division I football careers was no small feat. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28.8 percent of people in Bridgeton were below the poverty level from 2007-11, compared with 9.4 percent in the entire state.

And a New Jersey State Police survey in 2007 - when both Pierce and Williams were in high school - found that Bridgeton was one of just eight municipalities in the state that reported four or more gang-related homicides the previous year.

"It's pretty tough explaining," Williams said. "We come from a rural area where there's a lot of gang violence, and some of the street things you normally see in movies, they happen where we are. And it's kind of hard … to stay away from that. But football, I can say it was my outlet, and I can probably vouch for Andrew as well."

What an outlet it was.

Williams rushed for 642 yards and nine touchdowns as a true freshman at Wagner in 2009. After missing 2010 with a knee injury, he ran for 1,338 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore in 2011 before leading the Seahawks to the Northeast Conference title and their first NCAA tournament berth last season. He ran for 1,328 yards, scored 15 touchdowns and was named to the College Sports Journal's All-America team.

Pierce, meanwhile, started every game for Delaware as a walk-on in 2010, rushing for a freshman-record 1,655 yards and 14 touchdowns to help the Blue Hens reach the Football Championship Series national championship game. The following year, he had 1,279 rushing yards and 16 TDs. Last year, he battled injuries and ran for 703 yards as Delaware struggled to a 5-6 season.

This year, Pierce is among 20 players on the preseason watch list for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the FCS. Williams is among 29 players on the College Football Performance Awards' preseason FCS running back watch list.

Both players want to go out on top. Williams says Wagner is deeper than last season, when it went 9-4 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Seahawks return seven starters on offense and four on defense, and they topped the preseason NEC coaches poll.

"The anticipation is tremendous," Williams said. "For us to have the season we did last year, it's like, what can we do this year? Was that luck?"

Delaware has a new coach as former Rutgers assistant Dave Brock replaces the fired K.C. Keeler. Pierce said the first thing Brock told the Blue Hens was that he expects them to return to their status as a perennial power right away.

"We weren't a 5-6 team (last year)," Pierce said. "I think we had the talent to be better than that. … I know a lot of the guys from last year are returning, so we've got big chips on our shoulders."

For Pierce, though, that chip doesn't extend to his friendship with Williams. Both players said their text messages to each other are always friendly - no trash talk or trying to one-up each other.

"It's like, 'Meet me at the top,' (as opposed to) 'I'm going to beat you there first,' " Williams said.

When they do meet, both players agreed it will be an emotional moment.

"It's really crazy because for us to be working out together and going to two different schools in two different conferences, and my school wasn't really into the playoffs until last year, it's surreal," Williams said. "It's something that you dream of and you can create in your mind, but when it really happens, it's like, 'Wow,' you know. It's a 'wow' moment. And it's sort of breathtaking because when you come from the area that you come from, there's not too many people that get that experience. So we're not just playing for ourselves. … We know how other people look up to us.

"I try to stay on a game-to-game basis, but it's just like, this is bigger than me, this is bigger than Andrew, this is bigger than Delaware vs. Wagner. This is a huge moment for not just Cumberland County but a lot of people in South Jersey who know who we are as well."