As a child, David “D.J.” Williams tried to sleep while his mother endured repeated beatings by his alcoholic father.
As a teenager, he lived in a shelter and was jeered by his classmates when the bus dropped him off at an abandoned gas station.
In high school, his world changed. On the football field, he pulled down passes and ran over linebackers like few others could. Jeers became cheers, and accolades poured in. Williams’ gridiron prowess led him to the University of Arkansas.
The 22-year-old tight end helped his Razorbacks finish a 10-2 regular season and land a spot in the prestigious Sugar Bowl against Ohio State on Jan. 4.
He won the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end, and earned third-team Associated Press All-America honors. He entered the Sugar Bowl with 49 catches for 589 yards and four touchdowns in the 2010 season.
As the awards pile on, Williams continues to live by the words typed under his picture in his high school yearbook, “Baptized into Christ.”
,“I want people to know that when it’s all said and done, I’m a son of Christ and I’m baptized,” said Williams, a member of the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock, Ark.
Reflecting on the struggles he has endured, Williams remembers a brutal scene from the film “The Passion of the Christ,” when Jesus is knocked to his knees before his crucifixion. Despite the punishment, the Savior finds the strength to stand one more time.
“He still had a little bit left — to stand back up on his feet and show the world, ‘With all these lashings I’ve taken, I still have a little bit more left to show for my father. I’m going to stand back up and receive a worse beating,’” Williams said.
“In football, when you’re tired, when you’re down and you feel like you have nothing left, you have to find some way to stand back up.” STRUGGLE AND FAMILY
Police reports tell the struggles of Williams’ early life. His mother, Vicky, was a Dallas high school cheerleader who fell in love with the captain of the basketball team.
Vicky Williams, who is white, withstood the cold shoulder from her family and friends — and even a death threat — because of her black boyfriend, who had offers to play Division 1 hoops at Duke, North Carolina and other big-name schools, she said.
“I ended up getting pregnant, and he wouldn’t leave to go to college,” Vicky Williams said. “We stayed together.” The couple had two girls before D.J. was born.
Life was hard, but Vicky was happy. Then her husband lost two close relatives. He started drinking — and beating her, she said.
Today, Vicky still wears the scars of those attacks — a finger that she said healed crooked after her husband hit her with a frying pan. One of her daughters called the police when it happened, but Vicky didn’t press charges, she said.
“I grew up in the Church of Christ,” she said, “and I thought (that), once you are married, you are always married.”
Eventually, she left her husband, but later they reunited and the abuse started again, she said. “I knew if I didn’t get out then, I wouldn’t have another opportunity,” she said.
At a basketball tournament where D.J. was competing, Vicky picked up a flier for a shelter.
The night after her son’s 10th birthday, she left her husband for good. Less than 24 hours later, she learned that he was in jail for shooting someone. He remains incarcerated.
Counselors advised Vicky to leave Dallas. She got out a map and showed it to her children.
D.J. pointed to Little Rock, Ark.
Life in Arkansas was difficult for the single mother and her three kids, who lived in a shelter near an old gas station. D.J. was quiet and withdrawn. He wrote all of his thoughts in a journal. He rarely smiled.
He found solace on the basketball court, where he excelled. He got a new pair of shoes through a program for at-risk youth launched by Keith Jackson, a Little Rock native who played college football for the University of Oklahoma and nine seasons in the National Football League.
Jackson’s position: tight end.
Vicky Williams, meanwhile, began working with Doug Childress, an elder of the Sylvan Hills Church of Christ in Sherwood, Ark. Childress and Ritchie Brown, a member of the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ, put together a summer basketball team. Most of the players were students at Central Arkansas Christian Schools in Little Rock, a K-12 school associated with Churches of Christ. Childress asked D.J. to join them.
Brown and his wife, Tina, became close friends with D.J. and took him to church.
“When you are around kids from troubled backgrounds, sometimes they think that all you want out of them is to be an athlete,” Ritchie Brown said. “We love D.J. for who he is and not because he is an athlete.”
The Browns were a big part of D.J.’s life, his mother said.
“It was neat for him to see what a family was supposed to be,” she said.
In ninth grade, D.J. enrolled at Central Arkansas Christian. At first he was interested only in band and basketball, but football coach Tim Perry eventually persuaded him to try out for the team.
By his senior year, D.J. was “all-everything — all-district, all-state” in sports, Childress said. Under his yearbook picture, he could have listed paragraphs of accolades.
Instead, he chose to list only one piece of information — the date of his baptism at the Pleasant Valley church.
“That’s been his mantra,” Childress said. TROPHIES AND FORGIVENESS
At the University of Arkansas, D.J. has climbed into the record books for all-time receptions and receiving yards. He likely will be the first tight end taken in the NFL draft, according to scouts.
More importantly, he has become “a poster boy for what is right in college football,” wrote Wally Hall, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart said: “D.J. Williams exemplifies what it means to be a student-athlete and a Razorback.He demonstrates high character, both on and off the field, and has turned unfortunate circumstances into opportunities to help and educate others.”
As he looks forward to a career in professional football, D.J. said he hopes to be able to provide new opportunities for his family.
“I want to make sure my sister doesn’t have to worry about paying for her college loans,” he said. “I want to make sure my mom gets her dream house on the beach. I want to make sure my other sister can put her two children in a home that they’ve never had before.”
As for his father, D.J. said he hasn’t spoken to him in years.
“One big thing that’s in the Bible is forgiveness,” he said. “We have been forgiven for our sins, and it wouldn’t be right of me to not forgive my father for his. I pray every day to be able to forgive him.”
When the Razorbacks named him Most Outstanding Offensive Player, D.J. signed his trophy and handed it to a young boy in a wheelchair on the sidelines. The smile on the boy’s face “meant more to me than the trophy,” Williams said.
Williams has become a role model for hundreds of young believers, said Stuart Cash, an assistant football coach at Central Arkansas Christian.
“I can’t put into words how proud I am of him and how many people he has touched because of his Christian walk,” said Cash, young adults minister for the Pleasant Valley church. “It brings tears to my eyes to see how he has become such a positive light.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING: