Jeremy Williams, Greenville football coach with ALS, dies at age 50

Jeremy Williams, the former Greenville High football coach who battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for almost 15 years, died Sunday morning, his family said. Williams was 50.

Williams was named the National High School Football Association’s coach of the year after the 2009 season, when he led Greenville to an 11-1 record and region title while struggling to walk and communicate and sometimes breathe.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Williams was diagnosed with ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, in October, 2007, and continued to lead Greenville for four more seasons. The 2009 Greenville team remains the school’s most recent region champion. His final team in 2010 went 8-3 and reached the playoffs.

ExploreAJC story from 2009: Greenville coach Williams' a rock - and so's his wife

As the disease progressed, Williams used a golf cart given to him by community leaders to get around while coaching. In his last season, his ninth at Greenville, Williams used a motorized wheelchair. The players rallied around their coach and played the best football Greenville had seen in over a decade.

“This team is so sensitive – and they’re guys,” said Williams’ wife, Jennifer, in a 2009 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I mean that in a manly way. They are sensitive to his physical struggles. You always have that line – you don’t want to step on somebody’s pride. ... They don’t say, ‘Do you need help?’ They just do it.”

Williams was a Columbus, Ga., native who starred in football at Kendrick High School, then played safety from 1990 to ‘93 at the University of Memphis. He and Jennifer met in junior high and married during Jeremy’s senior year in college. They have a daughter, Josie, and son, Jacob.

In 2010, the family was featured in the TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Their home was renovated to accommodate Williams and Jacob, who was born with spina bifida. The family continues to live in that Pine Mountain home about 30 miles north of Columbus.

Williams also was the subject of a 2012 documentary, “Season of a Lifetime.” Williams went on a respirator that year to work his lungs and to prolong his life. He soon would lose the ability to move or speak but remained upbeat and inspiring.

“I can still make a difference on this earth,” Williams, using a synthesized voice, told the AJC’s Steve Hummer in 2014. “I can share the gospel of Jesus Christ. I can still coach. I can tell my wife I love her. And I can share knowledge and praise my beautiful girl and brave boy. I still have purpose.”

Williams communicated through a computerized system that tracked his gaze over a keyboard. It generated a voice, the kind associated with Stephen Hawking, the physicist who lived with ALS for more than 50 years before dying in 2018. Williams called the eye-tracking communication system a lifesaver for him.

“Just imagine not being able to communicate and not being able to move,” Williams said. “Your mind is bright with ideas and statements, but you have no way to express yourself. Being like that you have no worth.’’

Williams was active in church and frequently spoke to congregations, schools and community groups about his Christian faith. He had an extensive email chain through which he shared his beliefs. Williams related to Hummer a time when he attended a funeral for a friend and former football teammate. The service reminded him of his mortality, he said.

“The message I got afterward is that we are not promised another breath on this earth,” Williams said. “I want to have everything taken care of so Jennifer does not have to make any decisions. I want Jennifer and the kids to enjoy my celebration of life. It will be a party not a funeral because I will be hugging Jesus.”

In recent years, Williams could no longer use the original eye-gaze system, but Jennifer found a new one that allowed him to construct simple messages. Williams had not made public appearances in the past few years.

Plans for a movie called “The Jeremy Williams Story,” to be directed by Steven Camp, was announced in 2020 with a goal to begin shooting next year. It will be based on Williams’ 2014 book, “Tenacious: How God Used a Terminal Diagnosis to Turn a Family and Football Team into Champions,” which he wrote with his wife.

ExploreAJC story from 2020: Williams, family still living with ALS, still inspiring others

“Everybody loves a good football movie, but this is really going to encapsulate Jeremy and Jennifer and their love story,” Camp told the AJC in 2020.

Jennifer said other movie opportunities had been discussed in previous years, but this one seemed right.

“I keep telling people it’s all for the enhancement and advancement of the kingdom,” she said. “The enhancement part is encouraging fellow believers and their walk with Christ and encouraging them to keep on keeping on. The advancement is that hopefully God would use this movie as a tool to draw people to him and to salvation in Jesus. To keep people encouraged in their lives about things that they face knowing that God is there, he’s real, he’s present. He carries us, if we let him.”

There will be a celebration of Williams’ life April 3 at Mountain Shadows Community Church in Hamilton.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Coach Jeremy Williams