Washburn senior Jason Williams stretched his legs on the stadium turf last week while hollering support to track and field teammates grinding through workouts.
A less ambitious group of youngsters caught Williams’ eye. They were laughing and tossing around a football rather than focusing on the coming Minneapolis City Conference meet.
Williams demanded the football and scolded, “We need to get serious,” before mumbling, “Man, underclassmen play too much.”
One of the state’s top senior sprinters, Williams had to mature faster than most kids because of tragedies beyond his control and a few missteps of his own.
His mother, Traci, died of pancreatic cancer as Williams was finishing eighth grade. He left Florida for Minnesota to live with his maternal grandmother, Catherine. Late in his freshman year, Williams lost her to the same ailment.
Devastated, Williams moved in with a cousin and struggled academically. Though capable, he did not turn in work and took incompletes in some classes. Attitude troubles led to him getting kicked off the track and field team last year as a junior.
Though it all, he showed up to school each day. He made connections with coaches and administrators. He made up classwork.
He returned as a leader on the track team. He’s favored to reach the finals in the 100-meter dash at the Class 2A state meet in June. He also recently learned he is eligible to graduate with his class on Friday at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
“It was all about him rising up to not be a statistic,” Millers track and field coach Kenan Moore said.
Said Washburn football coach Giovan Jenkins, “His drive to be a better person saved him.”
Sports, Williams said, were his foundation. He placed seventh in the 100-meter dash finals at the 2010 Class 2A meet, the only freshman in the finals.
A three-year starter for the Millers football team, the 5-9, 190-pound Williams registered 10 sacks last fall playing defensive end/outside linebacker.
“He couldn’t be blocked,” Jenkins said. “He had a great spirit.”
Williams plans to play football next year at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., hoping to use the community college as a stepping stone to a major university. But his focus goes beyond the gridiron.
“In college I want to be known as a scholar-athlete,” Williams said.
‘It was heartbreaking’
Maintaining both titles at Washburn was not always a priority for Williams after his grandmother’s death.
“Classes weren’t hard if I sat there and studied,” Williams said. “But I wasn’t focused on school. It felt like everything was crashing around me and it was hard to focus.”
Said Moore: “It was heartbreaking. Giovan and I got together and told him, ‘Whatever you’re going through, you’re not going to go through it alone.’ ”