When cynics hear the word transfer, as it relates to high school athletes, they frequently associate it with recruiting. Within the sewing circle of prep football fans and coaches, it’s an easy explanation for a talented athlete changing schools.
But even the most hardened skeptic would have trouble connecting the dots in Justin Williams’ case. For one, no area prep staff has the recruiting budget to reach Killeen, Texas, where Williams lived until last fall. Secondly, it seems Williams’ transfer to Cleveland (Tenn.) High School has more to do with divine intervention than any shady deals to fill a need on the Blue Raiders’ roster.
Tom and Jennifer Wolverton knew Williams from their years working in Killeen as youth pastors. When they returned to Texas last fall to discuss a missionary trip, they heard about the struggles the teenager was having. Rather than simply praying or hoping for a change, they intervened. After getting clearance from Williams’ mother, the Wolvertons brought Williams back to Cleveland with them and laid out a set of house rules that quickly began changing the Williams’ outlook.
“They saved my life, no doubt about that,” said Williams, a 6-foot, 230-pound senior two-way lineman. “There’s no question in my mind that I would’ve been in jail or dead by now if not for them. I went back home to visit my mom this summer, and two of my friends that I was hanging out with are now dead, another had been shot and a couple others are in jail.
“Any time I’m alone with my thoughts, I think about how far I’ve come in the last year and how this had to be an act of God that I’m here.”
Williams began to find Texas-sized trouble by the time he reached high school. Once an active member of his church, he stopped attending Sunday services after he began to follow the path of his older brother, who dropped out of high school and joined a gang. Living in a single-parent home, with his mother working from 11 p.m. until 8 a.m., meant that Willliams would be out of the house by the time she returned every morning.
While his mother assumed he was at school, Williams actually would ditch class and walk to friends’ houses, where he was influenced by older boys and began taking steps toward a life of crime.
“We knew the neighborhood, with gangs and drugs, had overtaken his brother,” Tom Wolverton said. “My wife and I just wanted to provide Justin with an opportunity. He has taken that chance and run with it.
“It’s more change than most people are able to conjure as adults, much less a teenager. So you can see this was done with God’s help.”
It took Williams nearly three months to adjust to the stricter home life. He’s still playing catch-up in the classroom but is at least on track now to graduate after more than a year in Cleveland’s credit recovery program.
“He was definitely an at-risk student when he came here,” said Stephanie Pirkle, who works as Cleveland’s graduation coach. “He was pretty far behind academically. But right away he started working and doing whatever we told him he needed to in order to not only get eligible to play football, but to graduate.
“This is about more than just football. It’s about the rest of this child’s life, and Justin has one of the best attitudes of any kid I’ve dealt with. He missed some workouts over the summer to be in the computer lab instead of the weightroom, so that tells you something about how hard he works to overcome his past.”
Beginning last fall, through the spring, Williams spent more than two hours after school each day and for four hours on Saturdays working in the credit recovery program. After sitting out last season to concentrate on academics, Williams now is one of the few Blue Raiders playing on both sides of the ball.
“I never knew my dad, and with my mom working a lot, I could do pretty much whatever I wanted,” Williams said. “Killeen has a high crime rate, so pretty much every day I saw people running from the cops or heard sirens constantly. That’s the first thing I noticed about Cleveland. There’s hardly any sirens and it’s pretty peaceful.
“I still worry about my older brother because I haven’t heard from him in several weeks. I worry that I may get a phone call saying he’s back in jail or dead. That’s an awful feeling. But I’m going to be the first one in my family to graduate. My mom is planning on coming here to watch me walk across the stage for that, and I know she’ll be proud.
“After that, I’m planning on going to Lee University to major in pastoral studies. Maybe that way I can make a difference in people’s lives too.”
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...