The inspirational journey of Greenville High School's football team, guided by its coach with a terminal illness, ended with a 39-19 loss to Wilcox County on Friday night in the state playoffs.
The Patriots, stunned by a 27-0 deficit only 10 minutes after the opening kickoff, fought hard to the final buzzer.
As the team huddled after the game, Williams said, "I'm proud of you guys ... we were down 27-0 ... and we never quit. We never quit at Greenville High School."
The influence of Williams on his players goes far beyond the football field. On Wednesday, one of the Patriots got into some minor trouble at school.
"That youngster did not want Coach Williams to know about it ... anybody but Coach," Greenville principal Brenda Hudson said.
"Jeremy is a father figure to many of his players. They know Coach is going to do whatever needs to be done to keep them on track, or get them back on it. He cares so much for the kids."
The 42 players on Greenville's roster need their 38-year-old coach as much as he needs them. Many of the Patriots come from single-parent homes or from families struggling with poverty or illness.
Williams, who has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, sees his role as football coach, life coach, father figure, encourager, listener and pretty much whatever else his kids need.
"Maybe that's why God put me here at Greenville ... and if so, I am grateful for it," Williams said. "These young men mean everything to me. I'm glad to be part of their lives."
The feeling is mutual from the players. His disease causes Williams to slur some of his words, but the kids just listen all the more closely.
"They believe it because they see it with their own eyes," team chaplain Gerald Fowler said. "They have all seen his highlight tape from college, and know what a tough player he was. They see his health issues and know it hasn't stopped him from being out there at practice every day. Coach doesn't just talk it, he lives it."
Gates is the team’s bona fide celebrity. At 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, he has shown up on all the mainstream recruiting radars. Just about every SEC and ACC school has traveled the backroads to watch the athletic lineman who takes his schoolwork very seriously.
“When Kenarious was a freshman, I explained that grades come first to Coach Williams, and he agreed. ... Coach is a great male role model and mentor for the kids,” said his mother, Kinzie Gates, who is raising two boys on her own.
Gates has scholarship offers from Vanderbilt, Kentucky, North Carolina State, Mississippi State and Troy. His childhood favorite is UGA, and the Bulldogs called this week to reveal that they planned to sign one more lineman and that he was under consideration.
Would Gates commit to Georgia, if offered? “That has crossed my mind,” he said.
Williams, who played football at Memphis, has guided Gates through the recruiting process. Scouts give Gates extra marks for being a "character guy," as he carries a 3.5 GPA and aspires to be an engineer.
“You could see as a freshman that he was something special," Williams said. "But he’s very grounded and doesn’t let all the hype get to him.”
The player and coach also share a deep sense of spirituality. Said Gates, "Coach is like a father to me. He’s a strong man, and he doesn’t give up. I don’t want to give up. I want to be strong like Coach.”
Last year, Warner was suspended two games for violating team rules. With Warner on the sidelines, Greenville suffered its first of three 2008 losses -- a 14-13 decision to Brookstone. Yet it had a lasting effect on Warner.
"It helped him grow up and become a man ... and understand that he needed to be a leader not only on the team, but at home as well," Williams said. "He has come a long ways since that [incident] last season and is a super kid."
The two have grown so close that when Williams was going through some low moments, Warner sent him a text message that said, "Keep your head up, Dad." Warner's own father passed away before his junior season.
"Coach Williams is definitely like a father and treats the kids as if they were his own," said Vincent's mother, Judy Warner. "He fights hard to keep them on the right track in life."
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound offensive tackle has been so heavily influenced by his coach that he wants to be just like him. Warner hopes to play college football and study to be a high school guidance counselor and coach.
"He's like a father to me," Vincent said. "He has been there for me all the way through. Coach is such an inspiration with his attitude toward Lou Gehrig's disease. I've learned from him to keep fighting and never give up ... in everything in life."
Perhaps no Greenville player has been though more life-altering changes than Bell, a junior defensive end. Both of his parents died when he was in elementary school, and Bell went to live with his grandmother, who later passed away.
Bell began to hang out with the wrong crowd. He spent his entire freshman year enrolled in alternative school.
"That was a wake-up call," Bell recalled. "I didn't like it there. I had to make some big changes to get up out of there."
Sports has always been an escape for Bell, something he naturally excelled at. He showed up at Greenville's practices last year, short on experience -- but with a big smile and willingness to earn his own way.
"We all kept giving Rickey positive reinforcement, repeatedly telling him how proud we were with his efforts ... and it only made him work harder," Fowler said.
Inspired by his new-found football family, Bell has appeared to make radical changes with his life. He dresses neater, his grades are improved, and he chooses to socialize with teammates over childhood buddies. He turned into a pass-rushing machine on defense.
"We know with trauma, people react different ways, and I'm sure that had something to do with Rickey's past conduct and behavior ... but that's in the past," said Hudson, the principal. "What we see now is a child who has come into this setting at Greenville High School and accepted the challenge to be educated. ... He has risen above his obstacles and is one our favorites."
‘I got some bad news'
Many are surprised to learn that Williams has never made a big deal about ALS among his players. He figures they have enough challenges of their own. When first diagnosed a couple of years ago, Williams held a brief team meeting before practice.
"Guys, I promised you I would keep you updated with my health issues. I got some bad news. It's a terminal illness ... now let's go play some football."
Williams' disease causes a progressive and irreversible weakening of the muscles, to the point that the patient can't walk or even breathe on his own. Many of Greenville's players still do not understand the gravity of the coach's illness.
Williams prefers it that way, keeping the focus on his players and the next opponent. But the big picture of Williams and his impact on the tiny Class A school is nearly impossible to ignore.
"You can't help but love Jeremy," Hudson said. "I've just never seen someone reach out and want to touch every child, especially those young men on the football team. I guess that's his mission, making sure they stay on course with life."
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