On the other side of the railroad tracks near downtown West Point, there’s a small house tucked into the corner of a dead-end street. Three lazy, sunbathing dogs lay in the yard.
This is where the state’s best high school player lives. From just talking to the hulking young man who lives inside, you would never know this.
Sure, West Point running back Aeris Williams oozes with confidence on the football field. But away from the game, he’s reserved, a yes-sir, no-sir kid who’d rather do his talking between the tackles.
That, he says, is where it really counts.
“He’s got that quiet strength,” West Point coach Chris Chambless said. “He’s got that ability that when he does speak, everybody listens.”
Known as “A-Train” — because, like a chugging locomotive, he’s “impossible” to stop — the bruiser finished with 2,821 all-purpose yards and 33 total touchdowns this season and helped the Green Wave make the Class 5A playoffs. As a result, Williams is The Clarion-Ledger’s 2013 Mr. Football, given annually to the best high school player in Mississippi.
He runs like he has no tomorrow, perhaps because he almost didn’t have one.
“A lot of times, you look into someone’s eyes, you see a lot about them,” Chambless said. “He’s got a good sense of urgency about him, even though he’s quiet.”
* * *
Aeris Williams called out to his mother from the other side of the road while trying to escape the grasp of Eris Williams, his grandfather.
“My mom and dad’s house caught on fire that morning,” his mother, Veronica Williams, said. “I was going across the street to get the belongings that we salvaged from the fire.
“When I turned around, he had slipped from my dad’s hands and was running toward me.”
Aeris never saw the car coming. The two-door car slammed into 2-year-old Aeris, sending him airborne.
His legs were broken in three places.
“Doctors told me he’d never be able to play sports,” Veronica Williams said.
They were wrong.
Aeris wore a full-length cast on his leg for six weeks. When it was taken off, it was as if nothing had happened.
“He was actually faster,” Veronica said.
* * *
The oldest of two half-brothers, Williams didn’t have a consistent male presence in his life growing up.
Aeris’ father wasn’t in the picture, and his grandfather died of a massive heart attack in 1999.
Veronica Williams named her son after her father, because she wanted to give Aeris “something he could stand on.”
“I could teach him how to respect a woman,” she said. “But I couldn’t teach him to be a man.”
They needed a male influence for that, she thought.
She met David Lee Edwards in 2003 when she already had three kids, including a baby.
“You put a plate on the table to eat, you don’t want anybody to go behind you and eat cold food,” Veronica Williams said. “That’s your food. For his (step)-dad to come in and deal with a 7, 6 and 9-month old baby like that … it’s crazy. But he did that.”
David and Veronica have been together ever since. The family moved from West Point to Wisconsin, where her father’s family was located, a year after meeting. Still, times were tough. They did what they had to, working a number of odd jobs. It was enough to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Wisconsin, but paying for her sons to play organized sports wasn’t an option.
Still, she needed an outlet to keep her kids busy.
“A child won’t know you’re at the bottom unless you’re comparing yourself to the Joneses,” Williams said. “We had a party in our little home.”
Williams didn’t want her kids to play basketball, mainly because, at 6-foot-2, she was always asked if she played the sport. So she chose football.
“My momma was out there just throwing the ball around,” Aeris Williams recalled. “I was probably about 6 or 7 the first time I picked up a football.”
* * *
It didn’t take long for Aeris to fall in love with the sport. He dominated backyard games during picnics at family gatherings. He’d hit anyone who had a football in their hands, even his mother, who was pregnant with her youngest son Dahmarion, now 11.
“He tackled me!” Veronica Williams said, her voice raising. “He had big hands as a baby. I always prayed he’d grow into them.”
Eventually, he did. He began playing in pads in seventh grade, when Williams and his family returned to Mississippi.
“His athletic ability carried him a lot early,” Chambless said. “As he learned football, he got better and better. With him, (you’d) hit your head and say, ‘I can’t believe I just saw that.’ Of course, now we’re used to it.”
It didn’t take long for Williams and Chambless to form a bond. Veronica Williams, however, was reluctant.
“I wondered why Chris had this special interest in him,” Williams said. “It wasn’t about the fact that they were close. I just didn’t know how to let go. I never wanted Aeris to hit those brick walls I hit.”
Chambless decided to set up a meeting with her face-to-face.
“Chris was like, ‘Veronica, please believe there’s no way he disappoints you as a mother,'” she said. “When I thought Aeris wasn’t listening, he actually was.”
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen also had to win over Veronica when he recruited her son. Mullen sold Aeris on the school’s academics, specifically in engineering. It also helped that MSU was 20 minutes from home.
“I explained to (Mullen), ‘I’m entrusting my son in your (hands),'” Veronica Williams said. “But Aeris will be close enough that if he gets out of line, I’ll go talk to him a little bit.”
* * *
In the summer, Williams plans to enroll in Starkville, where he’ll study aerospace engineering, even if he’s never been in a plane before.
“They make a lot of money,” said Williams, whose mom pushed him to do well in school. “I want to be a very successful man. I want to be there for my mother and give back to West Point.”
Close to 15 years after the accident that nearly took away everything, Aeris Williams still experiences fierce collisions. Only now, the 205-pound West Point running back and Mississippi State commit is the one delivering them.
“You get to take your anger out on other people just for fun,” Williams said. “And you ain’t got to do anything crazy like getting in trouble to do it.”
West Point’s season ended after a 33-20 loss to Pearl in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.
Williams, who played sparingly on the Wave’s 2009 title team, rushed for more than 150 yards and accounted for three total touchdowns in the finale. But he was crushed afterward, hunching over during an interview to cover his watery eyes.
“He (puts) losses on his shoulders,” Chambless said. “Sometimes he says, ‘Well, if I could do this or that.’ But I have to remind him we wouldn’t have won half the games we did without him.”