Coach Jeremy Williams led his Greenville High School Patriots to an undefeated regular season in football this year—an accomplishment in and of itself that deserved recognition—but this wasn’t about his win-loss record. The reason Williams was named the West Central Georgia FCA Coach of the Year was because of his unyielding, unending desire to share Christ’s love with others, even as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) slowly and methodically destroyed his body.
“Jeremy Williams has become a leader and ambassador for the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said FCA Fayette County Area Director Randy Bruno. “Through his roles as coach, speaker, encourager and community leader, he has transformed so many lives.”
So much so that, earlier this year, area residents (both friends and strangers), swarmed to Greenville and volunteered to assist Ty Pennington and ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” team in completely renovating the Williams’ family home with a goal of providing comfortable, accessible housing for Jeremy, his wife, Jennifer, and their two children, Josie and Jacob.
“There were thousands of volunteers,” said FCA Area Representative Marty Durden, who serves in the West Central Georgia area. “It was even the talk of Columbus where we live, and that’s 40 minutes away.”
According to Gerald Fowler, chaplain for Jeremy’s Greenville Patriots, the Williams’ new home will be a blessing beyond imagination.
“Jeremy’s family is important to him and he wants to take care of them in every way,” Fowler said. “Jennifer says that every time they turn into the driveway, Jacob thanks Jesus for their new house. That just warms Jeremy’s heart, and I’m delighted that he has one less thing to worry about.”
Jeremy Williams started going to FCA Huddle meetings during his time as a four-year starter on the University of Memphis football team. Even today, he regularly speaks at camps, churches and other events in the area. His faith and his desire to glorify God no matter what the circumstances have inspired football fans of all ages.
Williams pictured with his family
Fowler tells a favorite story about Williams.
“Jeremy gave his testimony at a football camp three years ago, and it was very emotional for everyone there,” he said. “When he sat down after speaking, Jeremy wrote down the names of five guys on our team that he wanted to make decisions for Christ. Later, when the invitation was given, those five went forward, plus one freshman. Afterward, as he shared that with the team, he told the freshman that he was a bonus from God.”
According to Bruno, Williams’ ability to demonstrate the fruit of the Holy Spirit consistently and to show compassion to his players while holding them to high expectations is helping to establish core values in each of their lives. Specific values being born in the players are those held as core by the FCA ministry: integrity, serving, teamwork and excellence.
Those traits—nevermind Williams’ ability to help rebuild a once-dormant Patriots football program—are what quickly endeared the Williams family to residents of the 1.8-squaremile city of Greenville, a quiet community located about an hour southwest of Atlanta. He’s coached the Patriots for eight seasons and, more recently, also begun to serve as the school’s athletic director.
It was back in 2005, though, that Williams’ life took the turn that has seemed to culminate in 2010.
While breaking up a practice-field scuffle, he injured his thumb. The injury never seemed to heal properly, and, while he waited, he also began to experience numbness in his arms, loss of muscle control, and difficulty in gripping and throwing a football—something he’d done easily his whole life.
Over the next several years, the Patriots’ coach saw several doctors to no avail. Then, in June 2008, Williams received confirmation that he was suffering the effects of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease—a fatal, progressive and thus far incurable condition that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord while interfering with the ability to control muscle movement.
Williams soon learned that walking, talking and other seemingly mundane tasks would gradually be stripped away by the debilitating disease. But until that day, the affable coach has vowed to continue making a difference in his students’ lives, whether in the locker room or at Greenville’s flourishing FCA Huddle.
“I tell my guys all the time, ‘Don’t be knee-deep Christians,’” Williams said. “Picture yourself at the River of Life. Jesus is that river, and you walk out and get knee-deep. You’re feeling it. You walk out, and you feel that current, but you are still knee-deep. You’re still in control. I tell my guys, ‘Go get a mouthful. Go out there, get neck-deep and taste it a little bit. Once you get that mouthful, you’re not going to want to come back. You’re just going to get in that river and say, ‘Jesus, take me where You want me to go.’
“That’s where I’m at,” he continued. “I’m in that river. I’m not fighting; I’ve done that before.”
It wasn’t the first time the Williams family had faced a grim medical diagnosis headon.
After sharing his story at an FCA Camp in 2008, Williams was covered in prayer by the entire audience.
In 2002, Jeremy and Jennifer were told that Jacob was going to be born with spina bifida and severe disabilities. Abortion, the couple agreed, was out of the question, so they proceeded with the birth. Now, Jacob—like his dad—lives as an inspiration to those around him, even cheering on the Patriots from the sidelines on Friday nights in the fall.
Despite ALS now playing a larger role in his day-to-day life, Williams guided his team to a 9-0 regular season in 2009 before falling to the eventual Georgia state champions from Wilcox County High School in the second round of the state playoffs. For his efforts, though, Williams’ peers honored him as the Georgia High School Association Class A Coach of the Year.
As more symptoms began to show, Greenville fans raised money to buy a golf cart for Williams so he could get to and from the sidelines more easily. His players started to listen intently to hear their coach’s increasingly quieted voice—an effect of Williams’ ALS—over the roar of the Greenville crowds.
“He has made such an impact on those players,” Bruno said. “With all the challenges Jeremy was going through personally last season, he and his coaching staff never lost their focus, which was to glorify God.”
According to Durden, the Patriots’ success stemmed from their ability to play at an inspired level.
“They played for him,” Durden said. “Jeremy’s whole life and calling is wrapped around his testimony and these kids and trying to make a difference in their lives. His players feed off of him and his courage. We all do.”
After the season, one of Williams’ young Patriots was diagnosed with cancer. In light of his own circumstances, the coach was able to lend a wise word and encourage the athlete as he faced an uncertain future.
“Jeremy simply told him to put his faith in God—to just walk ahead doing everything he could and trusting God to do the rest,” Fowler said. “Simply put, the kids love him because he cares about more than their football abilities.”
“Everyone who goes near Jeremy comes away different. He’s not just an inspiration to his team; he’s an inspiration to everybody: fellow coaches, those at the school and people in the community.”
Early in 2010, the inspired community went to work on behalf of Williams and his family through “Extreme Makeover.” With Jacob already confined to a wheelchair and Jeremy’s need for one pending, accessibility was a key need.
|“His players feed off of him and his courage. We all do."|
– FCA’s Marty Durden
During the construction, the Williams family was treated to a vacation at the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte, Colo., with no idea what was happening to their house.
In their absence, local residents were given a unique opportunity to give back to a family that had given so much to them. But this time, the show’s crewmembers—like the man they were honoring with their work—went the extra mile. Not only did they remodel the Williams’ house, they also upgraded the Patriots’ team uniforms and athletic facilities, including Greenville High’s newly named Jeremy Williams Field House.
“Everyone knows about Jeremy and what he’s done in the lives of these kids,” Durden said. “It was unbelievable just how appropriate and deserving it all was.”
At present, there’s no known cure for ALS, but Williams’ perspective hasn’t changed. It’s the same as it was when he received his diagnosis: no matter what, he will glorify the Lord. He’s been placed in Greenville for this time and with these circumstances—of that he is sure.
“I have ALS, and, to me, it’s really not that much of a big deal,” Williams said. “All this really means is that in two, four, 10 or 20 years, I’m going to die. But really, that’s no different than anyone else. Romans 8:28 (NIV) says, ‘…In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ That was easy for me to say four years ago, but it’s even easier now because I have the peace that He is in control. No matter what happens, He’s going to take care of me and my family.”
For Williams’ friends, students, fellow coaches and neighbors, it’s an undeniable—and unavoidable—testimony that only draws them closer to Christ.
Williams named 2010 National Coach of the Year. Click here to read the article.
“When I have problems, they just seem really small,” said Durden, his voice cracking with emotion. “Here’s a guy who doesn’t know if he’s going to be here next week. That’s the way we should all live our lives. We all have so many blessings and so many good things happening to us; but God can take us any day, and it would be a promotion. That’s how Jeremy looks at it. He just truly wants God to have all the glory.”