CV Sports Hall of Fame: Jeremy Williams may no longer coach, but he continues to lead

dmitchell@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 31, 2014 

Independent movement is just a memory for Jeremy Williams.

The legs that earned him two All-Bi-City football selections as a defensive back at Kendrick High lay idly on the leg rest of his battery-powered wheelchair. They are crossed. His wife, Jennifer, uncrosses them at his request.

His arms and hands, those that earned him the nickname "the Georgia Assassin" at the University of Memphis, rest in his lap or on his arm rest.

The physical ability that garnered an election to the Chattahoochee Valley Hall of Fame, into which he will be inducted today, is no more.

He uses his index finger to push the wheelchair's trigger, commanding his chair to move.

His lungs, which at one time were used to inhale oxygen deeply after a long run, are controlled by a ventilator, and his voice, which gave speeches, encouraged teammates and coached players, is silenced.

But there are about 50 muscles in his face, and Jeremy uses every single one of them.

He greets familiar faces with a bright smile at an event on the Tenacious Tour, a book tour organized by the Christian foundation Light Up This City to promote his book "Tenacious."

He uses the machine connected to his chair, which reads eye movements to form words on the screen, to share short inside jokes with friends. At the words, his friends turn around to laugh, but Jeremy has beaten them to it.

His book shares the familiar story of a football coach at Greenville High in tiny Greenville, Ga., stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the degenerative neuromuscular disease also known as Lou Gehrig's, and forced into early retirement as his body slowly broke down. The disease, which will eventually take his life, has greatly deteriorated his once athletic build.

The book tells of his son, Jacob, who was born with spina bifida, confined to a wheelchair and faces many physical battles of his own.

And his wife, who only recently was diagnosed with breast cancer and forced into painstaking rounds of chemotherapy.

More accurately, though, it tells the story of a family that, despite all the obvious hardships, approaches life with more vigor than the healthiest among us. A family that feels blessed to have the opportunity to share God's love through their lives.

And so Jeremy uses the only muscles he has left to tell the story the other 600 can't.

The Georgia Assassin

Flash back to 1990: Jeremy is coming off back-to-back All-Bi-City selections at Kendrick and a lifetime away from his ALS diagnosis. The two-position football star is preparing for his first season at Memphis, where he had received a scholarship to play defensive back.

From the start, Jeremy faces a steep climb because of his size. At the time, the Tigers were competing against some of the best teams in the country, and not everyone thought Williams' body was equipped to take the punishment it would receive on a weekly basis.

John Flowers, now the coordinator of athletic construction projects at Memphis, was the director of football operations when Jeremy joined the team. His initial assessment of Jeremy as a football player was mixed, to say the least.

"To be honest, when we recruited Jeremy I didn't think he could be what we really needed," he recalls. "At that time we were playing a ton of (Southeastern Conference) teams each year. Our schedule was not easy. We were playing quality football teams and I didn't think Jeremy had the size or speed when he first came in."

Jeremy got that a lot. Being undersized was nothing new to him, so he approached the game the only way he knew how.

He studied. He watched film. He used his knowledge of opposing offenses to put himself in the right position.

"I guess you could say it was more of my football IQ than my abilities that I relied on," Jeremy remembers.

Whatever it was paid off. He went from fifth string to second string over the course of his first four weeks at Memphis. When the starter got hurt in the first game of the season, he took over. He started the next game, a road affair against Ole Miss, and finished the season with more than 50 tackles.

He was second on the team in tackles as a sophomore, helping to lead the nation's No. 3-ranked defense, and ended his college career as the all-time leading tackler as a defensive back, a record he still holds.

Flowers, who maintains a good relationship with Jeremy today, has a much different assessment of his play years later.

"It didn't take long to realize he was a sharp cookie," Flowers remembers fondly. "He loved to play football and he'd light you up. Played with great leverage and passion.

"He wasn't one of those guys that did all the chitter chatter. He did his talking with his play. They learn really, really fast who can play and who can't. Those guys know. It didn't take long for them to realize he could play."

And coach, which he did almost immediately after graduating college.

Called to coach

He started out as an assistant at Manchester High in 1994. Current Blue Devils coach Tanner Glisson was a member of the team.

"When he first came in, he was a young guy," Glisson remembers. "He was able to relate to us immediately. He was a great college football player. I remember sitting down with him when I was a sophomore and watching his film. He was the Georgia Assassin."

At Manchester, he brought a knowledge from the college ranks that he could put into high school. Glisson said he learned a ton then and what the team ran in '94 is still run today.

"It might be tweaked a bit, but the nuts and bolts are the same," Glisson said. "His fingerprints are all over our program."

The fingerprints are also there because of the time Glisson spent with Jeremy at Greenville. When Jeremy took over as head coach in 2002, the team was coming off more than a decade of mediocrity.

After a one-win campaign in '02, Greenville improved to eight wins in '03 and had an 11-1 season in '09.

"I witnessed firsthand how a program is built from scratch," Glisson describes. "It was a difficult time when you had to do everything from teaching kids equipment to lifting weights."

Jeremy credits his assistant coaches for the success he had at Greenville.

Asked how he did it, he names his colleagues: Glisson, Chip Medders (current principal at Troup High), Dell McGee, Tripp Busby and many more.

"In order to have a winning program, no one person is greater than the team," Jeremy writes. "I think we established that."

His assistants credit Jeremy's leadership on and off the field as the driving force behind the program's success.

It was his attitude, more than anything -- his devotion to the church and commitment to ministry through his career as a football coach. In an atmosphere that promotes aggression, Jeremy had his ideals and stuck to them.

"I've never heard him cuss, never heard him say a harsh word about anyone," Glisson says.

And, even before his diagnosis, he displayed an incredible calmness when faced with difficulties in life.

Glisson recalled an encounter the night after Jeremy's dad died.

"I remember how positive he was about it," Glisson said. "I remember being in high school and just wondering how he, in all this grief, could remain so positive. I remember saying that whatever he had, I want some of that. It drove me closer to God, and it's really one of the main reasons I wanted to go into coaching."

"He knew there was a right way and a wrong way of doing things," Flowers remembers about Jeremy the player. "He had an incredible internal conviction that this is the way he's supposed to do it. He truly wanted to set an example for everyone to see.

"It's so easy to say and so hard to do, but he did it and he's doing it and he will continue to do it until God takes him home."

A new ministry

Now, the Georgia Assassin can't run.

He can't tackle, knock down passes, call plays or any of the other things that got him elected to the Chattahoochee Valley Hall of Fame.

Despite his inspirational determination and positive outlook, Jeremy is still human.

There are still tears, still regrets, things he wishes he could still do.

More than anything, he misses the players -- the teammates he played with and the teenagers he coached.

"You go from having over 50 sons that you see daily," Williams writes in an email. "You bleed and sweat with them, and then they are gone. Yeah, I miss the games, but I truly miss the molding and shaping of young teenagers' lives into becoming young men."

But Jeremy isn't finished coaching. Not until he breathes his last breath.

He knows that could come at any moment, so he approaches life with the same vigor he had as a young football player at Kendrick High.

His family has shared its incredible story in a book and has been ministering to people at events on the "Tenacious Tour" around the area. It began with an event in September at Harris County High that drew more than 1,000 attendees.

They will be in Florence, Ala., on Feb. 16. A trip to Memphis is also on the schedule, despite the obvious dangers. Jeremy's ventilator is battery powered. On a long trip like that, he literally risks his life for his ministry.

"People tell him to keep it close to the area, but he won't do it," says Don Butler, founder of Light Up This City and the man who partnered with Jeremy to begin the tour. "That's just Jeremy. He's running his life."

"He gets it," Flowers says. "If you don't get it, you just don't get it. He gets it. He's lived it and he's shown that as an example to his teammates, coaches, kids he's coached, his family. He's a great example of what God intended man to be. He's one of my heroes. I have three, and he's one of them."

And so, on a Sunday night in early January, Jeremy is on stage talking about the need to fully immerse oneself in God's grace. Popular Christian musical artists like John Waller and John Berry just performed, but Jeremy is the person people came to see.

A cross hangs from the front of his wheelchair. Jeremy says it's there to remind him to follow Christ in all he does.

He calls his life a blessing, a description at odds with the many challenges he and his family have faced. Told that many people may have a hard time understanding that word choice, Jeremy nods and looks at his screen. Words begin to appear.

"It's a blessing knowing God's purpose for me," he types. "It makes me fight on."

He looks up and smiles.

JEREMY WILLIAMS BIO

High school: Kendrick

College: University of Memphis

Local tie: Played football at Kendrick

You need to know: He is the all-time tackles leader for defensive backs at the University of Memphis. … He had a 55-40 career record as head coach at Greenville High … He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 2008.

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