Since the days when his helmet was bigger than his pee-wee body, Keon Williams learned the opportunities that came with taking a hand-off.
This season the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior running back has made the most of his opportunities, breaking a 68-year old school record for career touchdowns and earning first-team All Southern Conference honors with a career-best 891 rushing yards heading into Saturday's FCS playoff game against Indiana State at Finley Stadium.
But the exchange Williams and those closest to him will be most proud of will take place on the morning of Dec. 13, when he's handed his college diploma.
"It's the thing I'm most proud of in my life, making it to this point and graduating," Williams said. "I feel like you could ask a lot of former teachers and they would be shocked to know that I'm graduating from college.
"I've already got the spot picked out where we're going to hang my diploma. It's going up in mama's house at the top of the chimney. I'm happier about that diploma than anything I've ever done in sports."
Williams' path has been filled with stumbling blocks, including some of his own making. A strong support system -- and Williams' determination not to disappoint those that believed him -- allowed him to overcome the hurdles.
"Nothing has ever come easy for Keon," said Tim Daniels, who coached Williams at Red Bank High School. "From the time he came here he's had to battle and overcome.
"I was 50/50 on whether he would finish college or wind up in trouble. But I've seen him grow up and make a 180-degree life change. I was one of those second-guessers who doubted him, but he's proved a lot of people wrong, including myself and I couldn't be more proud of him for that."
The early hurdles for Williams started when he moved from North Carolina to Chattanooga to live with his older brother Marlon, a detention officer for the Hamilton County juvenile court, shortly after their mom, Juanita, was diagnosed with breast cancer and their father, Roy, was laid off from his job.
"If it weren't for God putting the right people in my life and my brother looking out for me, I would have taken a totally different path and probably messed up my life," Williams said. "I rode back with him after the Furman game a couple of weeks ago and I thanked him for getting me out of the situation I was in back in North Carolina.
"We didn't have any money there, and I was already starting to make some bad decisions. I was trying to make money the wrong way just because I didn't want to get picked on for going to school and having to wear the same stuff over and over. He didn't have to, but he saw something in me and recognized I was going down a bad road and he brought me here and looked out for me. He already had his own family to take care of, but he pulled me out of a bad situation because he knew I could make something out of myself. He gave me a chance to do something with my life."
After sitting out his junior year at Red Bank because the TSSAA had red-flagged his transfer, Williams turned in an all-state senior season to earn a scholarship offer from Middle Tennessee State University. However, concerned that he would not pass the ACT to become college eligible, MTSU coaches pulled their offer just one week before signing day. UTC quickly swooped in and he became a steal for the Mocs -- a 6-foot-1, 225-pound FBS level runner on an FCS team.
Rise, stumble, rise again
Williams' blend of power and speed got him on the field right away for UTC. He was a freshman All-SoCon pick with 500 rushing yards his first year.
The following spring, though, he nearly fumbled away his entire career.
After a Sunday evening in May in which several tornadoes touched down in the area, Williams was riding with a friend when their car came upon a police road block. When officers searched the car they found a white container in Williams' book bag containing marijuana. Williams admitted it was his and was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
"As soon as they put the handcuffs on me I felt like crying, but I knew I had done it to myself," Williams said. "I couldn't blame it on anybody else; it was my fault. I had put myself in that position, and all I could think was, 'This was it; my career is going down the drain right here.' It felt like my life was over at that moment."
Williams got two years probation and 10 days of public works. The toughest punishment came from UTC head coach Russ Huesman, who along with school administrators, decided to suspend Williams from all team activities, including practice and workouts, for the entire 2011 season.
Huesman told Williams his only hope of returning was to stay out of trouble and to continue showing academic progress. Even with that, there was no guarantee he would be allowed back on the team.
As a student Williams did everything that was asked, even changing the circle of friends.
The following January, Williams joined winter conditioning, and by that spring he was again a part of the team, albeit at the bottom of the depth chart.
"You make those decisions, and it wasn't by me alone," Huesman said. "It was made with the input and support of our school president and our athletic director. I knew his background, and we all liked Keon a lot. He was a good kid who didn't cause problems. He made a mistake. I think it was an isolated mistake.
"He knew it was his last shot, and he flipped a switch."
But like other areas of his life, it wasn't a smooth transition back for Williams, who finished the 2012 season with half the carries he'd had as a freshman and just 155 total yards of offense.
Distraught over what he felt was a lack of inclusion in the offense, Williams considered leaving the program to join the Army, but he was convinced to stay by his mother. By the next season, new offensive coordinator Jeff Durden made sure to make the burly back a bigger part of the plan.
"When I got here, Keon ran more like a 5-10, 180-pound scat back," Durden said. "He needed to change his running style and be a big, physical back.
"I took a more positive approach with Keon. I didn't want him to worry about screwing up or making mistakes. Just focus on the next play. I think that freed him up to play faster. Sometimes expectations mean everything, and once he knew what we expected from him he took off."
A recharged Williams ran for 687 yards and nine TDs last year before missing the final four games with an injury. He's followed that with his all-conference season, and Wednesday afternoon he was named SoCon player of the month after rushing for 458 yards and seven TDs in four wins in November.
Plenty of opportunities
Although he doesn't dwell on his past mistakes, Williams refuses to hide from them, and he continues to use the lessons he learned.
Even after a big win, Williams chooses to celebrate by relaxing with his girlfriend, "like an old man would." And when he overhears younger teammates talking about parties or anything he thinks might lead them down the wrong path, Williams is quick to use his own experience as a cautionary example.
"It was a hard lesson, but I saw how one mistake can change how a lot of people look at you," Williams said. "That bothered me a lot, and that's why I try to talk to a lot of adults and kids now when I'm out so they can see what I'm really like. I want people to know I'm not that guy that got into trouble a couple of years ago. I didn't want people to think I was a bad guy just because I made a bad decision.
"The most hurtful thing was I had a little kid message me and say how disappointed he was because he had looked up to me. It really hurt me. It hit me hard that somebody out there looked up to me and I let him down."
For the past two years Williams has worked hard not to let anyone down -- teammates, coaches, family, professors and his adopted community. Last summer he signed up to work with the city's Zoo-abilities camp at Warner Park, designed for individuals with disabilities. From playing ball in the swimming pool and making arts and crafts, to dressing up and taking part in the camp's talent show Williams said he believes he took more from the experience than the campers.
"He was really great with the kids and became their buddy," said Elaine Adams, the Therapeutic Recreation Coordinator for the city and director of the Zoo-abilities camp. "That was cool because sometimes you think of football players being these big, tough guys, but he let his guard down and let the campers and parents get to know him and trust him. You could tell he really invested himself in it and connected with everybody."
Williams will be counted on heavily to help the Mocs control the clock and establish the physical style they want to play as the playoffs begin Saturday against Indiana State.
And regardless of when his senior season ends, there remains the possibility that his football career will continue past college. NFL scouts who have watched UTC this year have privately informed coaches that if he's healthy when the combine rolls around, Williams will be looked at closely.
"That's my dream, and I would love to have a shot at the pros," Williams said. "But I know not everybody gets that. I don't want to think I have to make it in football and not have a plan in case I don't.
"I feel like I've helped us turn things around here in football and I'm happy to be a part of something good. But I kind of turned things around for myself too while I was here. And now I've got a lot of opportunities out there for me."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.