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.’ ”
But loneliness set in at home. In addition to coping with two deaths, Williams was apart from older brother Jordan and younger sister Natalie, both of whom left Florida to live with their father (Williams’ stepfather) in Alabama.
“I had someone at home, but no one can replace your parents,” Williams said. “No one puts in the same amount of effort.”
In retrospect, Williams takes a share of the blame for his academic troubles.
“I could have done more myself,” he said. “I didn’t have anyone telling me every day to work out, but I still did.”
As a sophomore, Williams again took all-state honors by placing ninth in the 100. But his junior year ended with a thud. Williams admits now he “was being more of a Terrell Owens,” the brash, selfish former NFL wide receiver.
Moore cut Williams from the team, his first such move in 12 years of coaching. Moore, unsure how Williams would respond, called it the scariest moment of his career.
“It hurt,” Williams said. “I was ticked off at him. I could’ve switched schools and ran, but it was time to be a team player.”
Moore’s next contact with Williams came via text message in December. It read, “Merry Christmas. Just thinking about you and your family.”
“I was glad he reached out,” Moore said. “I read into his message that he had matured.”
Moore welcomed Williams back to the track team this spring, though both agreed that past drama might make being a captain not an ideal fit. Williams understood.
“I always wanted to be a captain, but that doesn’t mean you’re a leader,” Williams said. “All my life I was told I was a natural born leader.”
Those closest to him are seeing a difference in Williams this school year. Lisa Jensen, dean of Washburn students in the 10th and 12th grades, helped Williams get back on track academically. He spent two hours per day in her office making up school work.
Jensen remembered Williams as a freshman who “stood out as a student full of energy, warmth and life. I felt he had a bright future,” she said, one “that’s starting to come out again.” Jensen wrote Williams a letter of recommendation to college, touting him as “one of the most trustworthy students I’ve ever known.”
“He had everything taken from him,” Jensen said. “The resiliency required for him to get to this point is phenomenal.”
Looking ahead to Friday’s graduation ceremony, Williams envisions both his mother and grandmother cheering when he receives his diploma. Catherine Williams was the first black probation office in Hennepin County and a community leader who enjoyed working with youth.
With four years’ worth of lessons to draw from and opportunity ahead, Williams feels closer to finding his own path in life.
“As I get older I feel like I’m making better sense of everything.” Williams said. “Life doesn’t pity anybody. Life will care about you, but only if you care about yourself.”