Greenville coach a rock — and so’s his wife

GREENVILLE — There were ample tears to mark the end of the Greenville Patriots' season Friday night.

The toughest kids in school wept unashamedly as they gathered around their coach, Jeremy Williams, immediately after a 39-19 loss in the second round of the Class A high school football playoffs. The biggest among them, 6-6, 300-plus-pound lineman Kenarious Gates, cried the hardest, his great bulk heaving as he sobbed.

Jennifer Williams, the coach’s wife, a woman who has had too much practice being strong in public, didn’t need to add to the flood.

“Heartbreaking,” she said in a soft voice as she looked on, and left it at that.

Everyone near the Greenville football team has been tested these last few months, no one any more so than the coach’s wife.

Coaching a year after being diagnosed with the terminal disease of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Jeremy Williams has persevered through a series of physical challenges. As Greenville went unbeaten in the regular season, the team and the small town around it shared the dream of honoring its coach with a championship.

For as his physical condition worsens, and the disease slowly steals his speech and mobility, there is no guarantee that Friday was not his last game as a coach.

Asked earlier last week how she and her husband would react to the inevitable end of this season — whenever that would be — Jennifer had her answer at hand, like a comforter against the cold.

“My prayer is that God will use this football season to send whatever message He’s wanting to send through what Jeremy does,” she said. “Whenever it does end, it’s God’s appointed timing.”

Jennifer said when the time comes her husband can no longer coach, “He’ll be OK. God will fill it in with something else.

“It’s stuff like that I don’t even worry about. There’s a plan there and it does not have to be revealed to me at this moment. It has taken me a while to get there, but that’s where I’m at.”

Jeremy’s struggles are plain enough, as he moved stiffly along the sideline during the game and exhorted his players in a voice that has become increasingly difficult to make out.

His wife’s struggles are mostly unseen.

Jennifer Bolles had her guy picked out as far back as junior high, all those years ago before the doctors began delivering bad news in bulk.

She had been too shy to talk to Jeremy Williams when they were seventh-grade classmates. And, after they went off to separate high schools in Columbus, she only admired him from the stands whenever their two schools met in football or baseball. Friends finally pushed the two together.

By their senior year, they were wearing each other’s letter jackets. By his senior year at Memphis, they were married. By the time they were 28, their first child, Josie, was born, and Jeremy already was a head football coach at Greenville.

And everything was just as it was supposed to be.

Back then, Jennifer, now 37, could not have envisioned what would happen to Jeremy — “the person God had made for me” — or the ordeals a wife and a mother could be asked to endure.

For beyond the trials of dealing with her husband’s condition, there are those involved in raising her second-born, 6-year-old Jacob, with spina bifida.

Plain-spoken family friend Gerald Fowler, a chaplain to the Greenville team, is quite mindful of Jennifer’s part in the story of Williams, his team and their emotion-rich journey through this postseason.

“I pray for her almost as much as I pray for Jeremy because I cannot imagine what she is going through,” Fowler said.

“If you look at it through the eyes of the world, here doctors have told you your husband is dying and your son will never walk and you’ve got him for the rest of his life without your husband.

“She is a tough lady.”

Of course, Jennifer was staggered when Jeremy was diagnosed with ALS last year. When they spoke shortly after the diagnosis, she told Fowler that she “went to pieces.” But by the next time they spoke, she was well into the process of wrapping her faith around the ordeal.

Said Jeremy, of the way the couple has faced his condition together, “There have been times when I’ve been weak, she has been strong. And times when she has been weak and I have been strong. Never have we both been down together.”

To the world now, Jennifer shows an unfailingly upbeat attitude. With the help of nearby family and a solid circle of friends, she said, she gets by “day to day, second to second.”

Let her tell the rest, because she says it best, from that same corner of her heart where Jeremy has always lived.

The most basic question is how does she balance the demands of two children, one with exceptional needs, a home on seven acres, two horses and a husband with ALS?

“There is a lot of juggling and I have a lot of help,” she said.

“My priorities have very much changed. Where I might have been more concerned about how clean my house is or how clean my barn is, now those things have kind of gone to the side. Now my priorities are more taking moments when I can to do something I enjoy for a short time. That and family time. If the choice is are we going to go camping or am I going to stay home and clean the house, we’re going to go camping.”

The one time Jennifer choked up during an hourlong interview was when the talk turned to the Greenville players and how they rallied around their coach:

“This team is so sensitive — and they’re guys. 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, but you want to help them if they need help. His guys really know how to balance that. They don’t say, ‘Do you need help?’ They just do it.

“We were at a cookout for a whole bunch of athletes and [Jeremy] was trying to squeeze the ketchup out on his hamburger. A kid saw him struggling with it and just took it from him and did it without saying any words.

“They do things like that all the time and don’t make a big deal out of it.”

Jennifer admits that she has had to suppress her own urges to do too much for both her husband and her son. Jeremy says that “being married 16 years, being that close, we know the boundaries and not to step on them.”

Her husband is a proud man who will hold onto any measure of self-sufficiency as long as possible.

“I’ll help him do one thing that I see him struggling with and I have to make myself stop right there. Before I know it, I’m helping him do the next thing and I’ll hear him say, ‘I can get this,’ in his mild way,” Jennifer said.

“I have to watch myself or I’ll start doing it all.”

Asked how she has prepared the children for the ravages of ALS and the fact that it eventually will claim their father, Jennifer responds with the strength of her faith:

“Some people would say you need to be telling them and preparing them. My feeling is they live in the house with us. They don’t miss that he can’t button his pants. They don’t miss that he can’t tie his shoes. They don’t miss that he can’t really wrestle around with them, that he can no longer pick up Jacob, that he has trouble picking up the wheelchair.

“They’re kids. They see everything. They’re going to watch whatever God’s plan is play out. My preparation for them is much more spiritual, it’s much more of trying to teach them to trust Jesus in all things. That will be the most important lesson for them as things play out.”

In the end, if there is anything Jennifer has learned from being married to Jeremy so long it’s that every good coach takes it one game at a time.

“For most people,” she said, “they are always wanting to hurry up to something. Hurry up and let it be the weekend. If you’re 12, you want to be 15. If you’re 15, you want to be 21. Hurry up to Christmas. Hurry up to spring break.

“For us, we want it to slow down. You get more aware of the small blessings you encounter every day — the ones that you took for granted because you were too busy looking at what you were going to do this weekend, instead of saying today is such a wonderful day because my family is still intact.”

About this series

In this season of a lifetime, Greenville High School coach Jeremy Williams led his Patriots football team into the playoffs that began earlier this month. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution followed the fortunes of this team and its courageous coach through the playoffs.

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