GREENVILLE, Ga. — Kenarious Gates, mud splattered on his jersey and tears on his cheeks, waited patiently as teammates, one by one, embraced his coach. When it was his turn, the 300-pound lineman hugged Jeremy Williams with a gentleness you wouldn’t think was in this 6-foot-6 giant.
Gates didn’t want to let go. Whispers were exchanged.
“I love you, coach,” he said, not caring who heard him.
Dreams were now only dreams. The scoreboard said it all. A football game was lost and Greenville High School’s unbeaten streak came to an end. But the love of this coach and this team didn’t end when the stadium clock hit zero.
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Greenville lost to Wilcox County 39-19 last Friday in the second round of the Class A playoffs. But more was going on at that tiny school than football, and it started with Williams, a coach who left on that field emotions and energy that his withering body couldn’t spare.
Now he was talking to his Patriot squad, and everyone who listened knew it might be his final time to speak to these young men as a team.
“Remember how this feels,” he told them.
More than how this loss felt, they’ll remember this magical year, for it delivered lessons usually reserved for the old to an unlikely bunch of high school football players.
Every day they watched the ravages of an incurable, fatal disease humble their head coach whose ferocious play as a college defensive back earned him the nickname of the “Georgia Assassin.”
Now he rides from the dressing room to the field in a golf cart driven by his little girl. His speech slurs and he’s losing volume. He walks with a forced gait and when he shakes hands you feel the clinching of his fingers.
Williams suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. The world was introduced to the disease 70 years ago when it systematically destroyed the body of New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig. Fans learned that the Iron Horse wasn’t made of steel.
Neither is Williams, who learned about football at Kendrick High School. He was the quarterback in 1989 when the star of the backfield was Dell McGee, the coach at Carver High. Their coach was Howard “Buzz” Busby, who was assembling a team that won a state championship in 1991.
Busby was in Greenville last Friday watching Williams struggle up and down the sideline, but the memories of these two harkened back to a game on a Friday the 13th in October 1989.
It was Kendrick versus Baker. Dan Ragle, the coach of Baker, told a reporter, “Both of us need this one real bad.”
They met at a foggy Memorial Stadium.
“Kendrick emerged with a 7-0 victory and Baker went home with bitter memories,” sportswriter Kathy Gierer wrote.
“Jeremy was the quarterback but he played both ways,” Busby said. “He left the field with bloodshot eyes, a crust of mud on his face and a facemask so mangled that we had to throw it away.”
The Ledger-Enquirer named the Cherokee defender its co-player of the week, an honor he shared with teammate Roderick Farley. Williams had five tackles, three assists, broke up three passes and intercepted two.
That didn’t count his broken nose.
“I was in my brother’s wedding the next day with that broken nose,” Williams recalled.
Busby and Ragle — both retired — were hired the same night in 1987. For five years, Kendrick-Baker games were classics. The 1989 game was replayed over and over again — literally.
“Dan got the film of that game and played it every day for the next year in the weight room at Baker,” Busby said.
That film was also important to Williams. “It earned me a college scholarship,” the Greenville coach said, resting in his golf cart.
The late Joe Sparks was head football coach at Columbus High in 1989. He and Busby were friends despite the rivalry between their teams and when Sparks was fired he spent the rest of that school year at Kendrick.
Williams was a scrawny defensive back but Busby knew what was inside him. The summer before his senior year, the coach challenged him to do better. He increased his strength and his speed. He started the summer running 40 yards in 5.1 seconds and by fall ran it in an impressive 4.5.
Busby unsuccessfully tried to interest Livingston, his alma mater, but they never offered scholarship to Williams. Neither did any other college. Sparks, meanwhile, took a job as a defensive assistant at Memphis State University under former Columbus High player Joe Lee Dunn.
“I gave Joe (Sparks) that Baker film and told him Jeremy could play up there. He trusted me so Memphis made an offer,” Busby said.
Before he could coach the Kendrick grad, Sparks died suddenly. But Williams went to Memphis, starting the pre-season far down the depth chart. By the opening game, he was in the lineup.
“They played Southern Cal on TV and Jeremy was the defensive player of the game,” Busby said.
“I’ve always been like that,” Williams said. “I was always small so I always had to fight for what I got.”
That is the type of football player he was in high school and college and that is the type of human being he is. Only now, the challenges are greater.
His son was born with spina bifida. He faces treatment and surgeries and he may never be able to walk. Waving from his wheel chair and wearing a tiny Patriot jersey, he often led the Greenville team on to the field.
The spirit of this family and the Patriot football team’s unlikely season captured a town of 946 that has endured a loss of jobs and places to work. Last Friday, boosters sold special shirts celebrating the winning streak along with week-old editions of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution containing articles on the school.
Down 14-0 before they had run an offensive series, Greenville fought back. They made it a game by halftime but the third quarter sealed their fate. Through it all, the coach kept pacing.
“Look at him,” Busby said. “He never quits. He’s giving it all and he has nothing to give.”
Busby, whose son Trip is a Greenville assistant coach, has watched the decline of his former quarterback. “I called him and said if it got too much for him that I’d come and coach. He could sit next to me and if I did something wrong he could correct me. He never called. I didn’t think he would. He’s that tough.”
With toughness Williams blends a faith that hasn’t diminished.
“I don’t know how anyone could go through these things without Jesus,” he said.
As Friday’s game ended, the cheering PA announcer ignored the final score.
“Aren’t you proud to be a Patriot?” he exclaimed.
And aren’t you proud of that humble man in the golf cart?
Richard Hyatt is also found at www.richardhyattcolumbus.com