When several dozens of the nation’s top high school football players slip on ballcaps showing their college choice on Wednesday, parents smiling proudly by their side, Darius Williams will not be one of them.
February 4 will be another ordinary day for him. He’ll wake at 4:45 a.m. to catch the first of two buses to get to school by 7:33 a.m. During the two-hour commute from his home in Tampa to Strawberry Crest High in Dover, Fla., he’ll listen to music and reflect on his life.
The players inking letters of intent on National Signing Day will talk about how hard work and sacrifice led them down the path to this day’s spotlight. Williams’ story is equally worthy. He aspires to play big-time college ball, but he’ll have to get there through the junior college route first. The senior running back is happy it’s even an option.
The memory of finding his mother dead in their three-bedroom apartment two years ago is forever burned in Williams’ mind. He remembers coming home and walking into the bathroom to brush his teeth. He thought his mom was asleep. Then his brother started to scream, “call 911,” and Williams rushed into his mom’s room and immediately dropped his toothbrush.
He attempted CPR, but it was already too late. She was dead, due to an apparent overdose, according to Williams and his coach, John Kelly. Williams said his mother had struggled with drug abuse throughout his childhood.
A sophomore at the time, Williams and his brother attempted to raise money through car washes to pay for the funeral. Kelly stepped in and collected about $4,800 from the community in eight days – enough to pay for the funeral with funds left over to purchase gift cards that Williams could use to buy groceries. Some of the money was also used toward school supplies and for whatever football gear he needed, according to Kelly.
Kelly asked Williams if he wanted to take time away from football, to which Williams said no — he needed to be on the field with his teammates and coaches, whom he considers family.
Williams dealt with the emotional gravity by playing.
He said his father wasn’t in his life growing up. After his mother’s death, Williams bounced around and lived with his aunt for a couple of months before he stayed in a hotel for three months then transitioned to a trailer in Dover that his brother rented. The latter was short-lived because the two didn’t get along. So Williams moved back with his aunt when he was a junior.
Six months later, Strawberry Crest principal David Brown connected Williams with Starting Right, Now (SRN), a program that helps homeless teens get back on their feet. The Hillsborough County-based nonprofit provides a stable place for Williams to live along with academic and emotional support, clothing, transportation and dental and medical care.
Williams compared his living quarters to a college dormitory. He resides in a building with about six boys and 10 girls from different high schools around the area. Designated “boys” and “girls” rooms are located at separate ends, and the teens share a common room, where they watch T.V. or play pool.
He communicates with his aunt, uncle and brother throughout the week and tries to visit on weekends. Commuting is a challenge, but he’s gotten used to it since the second semester of junior year, when he joined the program. The trek home doesn’t take as long — about 45 minutes as opposed to two hours — because instead of riding two buses, he takes a cab from school; an expense, he said, the nonprofit covers.
Williams didn’t want to transfer to a closer school because he said he respected Strawberry Crest and wanted to stay with his team. The lengthy commutes are worth it, he said.
The morning routine to school is cathartic. Williams thinks about how far he’s come the past couple of years after his mother died and he became homeless. He’s grateful that he has a support system and most importantly, a roof over his head, because just a year and a half ago, he didn’t know where to turn.
Williams is fortunate that he played for the Chargers throughout high school. Football, he said, kept him in school. Otherwise, he imagined he would have started selling drugs, gotten shot or wound up in jail.
“Partly why I got into football was to let my anger out,” Williams said. “Anything at school or home that made me angry, I held it until I got on the field. Football helped me stay focused and calm.”
Williams said he considered dropping out of Strawberry Crest but eventually realized he needed school if he had any chance at avoiding the path his mother had pushed him to stay away from.
“My mom always wanted me to finish school and do something good with myself,” Williams said. “Knowledge is important. School is what I need to succeed.”
It’s also what he needed to be eligible for football, and the idea of not playing was unimaginable. So he made a pact with himself to focus on academics.
Kelly is in awe of Williams’ tenacity and recognizes that he’s come a long way since his freshman year, when he would lose his temper or get into fights.
“He’s blossomed so much. Interpersonal relationships, small situations would get him angry,” Kelly said. “Through counseling, he’s learned different strategies and how to channel his anger in a different way.”
Senior wide receiver and captain Clay Cullens admires Williams’s uninterrupted work ethic, which he said has pushed him and teammates to work harder. He said that Williams even showed up to practice every day, prepared to exhaust himself while also encouraging his teammates was not only inspiring, it brought the team closer.
“Knowing his situation and how he continued to work hard every day given his circumstances, made me [realize] that no excuses are valid,” Cullens said.
Kelly said Williams has not been offered an athletic scholarship, but he is considering playing for a smaller school — potentially Webber International in Babson Park, Fla. — and hopes to transfer to a larger division after a couple of years. He wants to study business and hospitality and hopes to own a hotel or open a restaurant in the future.
And while he acknowledges frustration that he can’t sign with his dream school Central Florida or another Division-I program, for now, he’s happy knowing he’ll graduate from high school, which will bring him a step closer to those goals.
“I’m really proud. I didn’t think I would make it,” Williams said. “I’ll play somewhere. I have the ability. I believe it.”