The Greenville Patriots were having a turnaround season. It was 2008 and although they were 3-0 and gliding through the competition, something wasn’t sitting right with their coach, Jeremy Williams. Coach Williams was dealing with a thumb injury he received the year before that just wasn’t healing. All the tendons and ligaments in his left hand and forearm were becoming atrophic. Coach however, wasn’t as concerned with his physical condition as he was with the complacency of his team. They were getting overconfident. Coach thought his team needed something to wake them up. So he prayed. He prayed for adversity.
After a heartbreaking loss to a powerhouse state contender 14-13, a game in which they fumbled twice near the goal line, coach got his prayers answered. Unfortunately, Monday morning’s diagnosis was not one of the answers he was hoping to receive.
ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, is an incurable disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movements. Coach Williams received his diagnosis with dignity and determination. This former star defensive back for Memphis State University’s prognosis is “when,” not “if.” Nobody has ever been cured of ALS. No one has ever survived this horrible disease.
After receiving his death sentence, Coach Williams remained positive. It’s not that he thinks he has a chance at beating the disease, but that God has bigger plans for him in the afterlife. His strong faith and his love for his family carry him through his days. That family includes a loving devoted wife Jennifer, a gregarious daughter Josie, and son stricken with his own misfortune, Spina Bifida. Little Jacob Williams likely will remain in a wheelchair for life. Jeremy may have one more year till he is confined to a chair himself, and then ultimately, bedridden, only to die a slow and inexorably death.
Flash forward to 2009. The Greenville Patriots became the biggest show in a no stoplight town. Sixty miles southwest of Atlanta, it has a population of only 946. The Patriots, coming off their 8-2 2008 season, actually improved to 10-0. Never before had a Greenville team gone undefeated and never before had they reached such heights.
Although they lost in the 2nd round of the Georgia High School Football playoffs, to the eventually state champion, Wilcox County, the season was a tremendous success. The success of the team seemed to bring this small town together. A town once divided amongst racial lines now cheers for one team, and one coach.
Coach Williams’ disease started to really take effect during the 2009 season and his team played off their coach’s misfortune. Although the humble Coach won’t take the credit, his will to live inspired his team to achieve a higher power both physically and spiritually.
It is now 2010 and Coach Williams story reaches the country on a national level. “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” choose Coach Williams and his family to not only receive a new home, but his team a new locker room, weight room and new football equipment. The episode was chosen to be the finale for the 2010 spring season. Over 10 million people fell in love with the Williams family during that hour.
You’d have thought it was the perfect time and place for Coach Williams to retire. He now could retreat to his dream home and savior the time with his family. But Coach had a calling. He had to come back for one more season.
The team was in bad shape. Not only did they lose 4 out of their 5 offensive and defensive linemen, they also lost all their receiving corps when three star players decided to stick to basketball exclusively. With a young team and a few remaining starters, Coach had a huge mountain to climb to get back to the state playoffs, let alone a winning season.
Greenville is a town built on hope…and Greenville never stopped believing its Patriots could be crowned state champions at the Georgia Dome one day. Many of those hopes and dreams have come to focus not on a trophy but on a coach.
Coach Williams is determined to lead them to the promise land. However his health has deteriorated quicker than he had expected. He can longer stand on the sidelines. His speech is slurred. He has lost the use of his fingers and hands. “It’s a matter of time,” Williams says. “Some die within two to three years, some in five to 10 years, and some in 20. Now, I will be cured one day with Jesus Christ, and I believe that.”
The Patriots have adopted their coach’s never-surrender attitude. A few of them refer to Williams as a “second father,” or even their exclusive “father,” and like loyal sons they quietly keep an eye on him.
“Coach Williams told us, ‘As long as you’re standing, I’ll be standing right beside you all’,” said one of his players. “We know it is hard for him to get out here. We know he is going through a lot. That’s why we want to win the state championship so badly for Coach. We want to do it for him.”
For one so afflicted, Williams is absolutely unquestioning in his faith. His office walls feature numerous handwritten Bible quotations, including one from Matthew: “Keep on asking, and it will be given you; keep on seeking and you will find; keep on knocking (reverently) and the door will be opened to you.” For one more season, this IS his “Season of a Lifetime.”
And what happens during the 2010 season was magical.