Eli Ruiz | Democrat
For Willie Williams III, receiving his degree from SUNY Sullivan last week was certainly worthy of a triumphant sigh.
The biggest rebound of his life
Story by Eli Ruiz
LOCH SHELDRAKE May 28, 2013 "Feels like the biggest weight has been lifted from my shoulders. This is coming full circle."
Those were the immediate thoughts of an elated Willie Williams III soon after receiving his diploma at SUNY Sullivan's 49th commencement ceremony last Saturday.
Having averaged nearly 15 points and as many rebounds in his two years as forward for the Generals’ basketball team, there’s a lot more to come from Williams he’ll be back on the court next season for the Purple Knights of Division II University of Bridgeport (CT.).
Arguably the Generals’ best and most consistent player, Williams was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing postseason for the Generals who entered the 2013 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Tournament with understandably high expectations, only to finish in 6th place. Williams did his part, elevating his game and averaging 25 points and 13 rebounds in three tournament games.
The future didn't always look so bright or hold so much promise for Williams though. In fact basketball wasn't even on the Connecticut native's radar until he decided to try out for his high school basketball team as a junior in Stamford.
Even today, Williams, who graduated SUNY Sullivan with a 3.2 GPA, talks about basketball as more a means to an end than his primary focus.
“Sure I played ball in school, but it was a charter school that wasn't particularly known for that [basketball] and I wasn't known for basketball either,” said Williams “It just wasn't my passion. I just feel very blessed that I can use basketball to finance my education now. It's all about that bachelor's degree now."
Raised by his step-father Gilbert Burgess and his mother Kathy a reverend and minister respectively, Williams had an admittedly idealistic upbringing where school and grades were a priority.
But troubles started for Williams upon his arrival at Central State University in Ohio after finishing high school.
"I basically got there [Central State University] and immediately started making all the wrong decisions," recalls Williams. "I quickly got into the party scene and started hanging with the wrong crowds. I was basically just wasting my parents money and my time."
Williams’ first stint in college lasted, as he puts it, " just barely a semester and I was gone."
With a .63 GPA to show for his time and effort at Central State, Williams would soon receive some disturbing news. "I'll never forget it was a Tuesday and I got a call from the financial aid people," says Williams. They told me that my aid had been rescinded and that if I couldn't come up with the balance owed, I would have to leave campus by that Friday."
That sent Williams into a tailspin. "I was already messing up, but when I found out that my aid had been cut and that I had to leave school I got worse. I just really stopped caring at all."
Days before his departure from Central State, Williams was walking through campus and noticed a large group of students partaking in a snowball fight. Joining in on the fun,Williams for reasons still unknown to him decided it'd be wise to target a passing state trooper vehicle. Unfortunately for Williams, though, a campus public safety officer was right behind him and saw Williams' ill-fated throw. "He was right behind me and saw the whole thing," said Williams. "I still can't tell you what possessed me to do such a stupid thing."
For his troubles, Williams spent the next four days in lockup charged with two serious violations; criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. "They couldn't get a judge to see me right away and they were also asking me about other area crimes they thought I might be tied to," offers Williams.
Eventually cleared of any involvement in the other incidents, Williams would be released to his biological father Willie Williams II, who would make the 10-hour drive from Pennsylvania to bail his son out of jail. "I was humiliated," affirms Williams III. "He brought me to my dorm, made me pack all of my stuff and brought me back to my mother in Connecticut." The two charges against Williams would subsequently be dropped, but the lesson was far from learned.
With his record cleared and back home with his family, Williams would give college another shot, enrolling at Norwalk Community College, a stone’s throw from his childhood home.
"I still wasn't ready and basically just picked up where I left of at Central State," says Williams. "It was just more of the same."
More of the same indeed, as Williams would only pass one class of the 16 credit hours he'd enrolled in that semester the notoriously easy one- credit freshman seminar course all new students are required to take. "School just wasn't for me at that point," offers Williams. "I just wasn't serious about it at all and all I really wanted to do was party with my friends."
Williams would linger in his hometown for a short period before making the decision to move to Pennsylvania with his father. "School wasn't even on my mind anymore," says Williams. "I wasn't even considering going back."
With his father, the owner of a Reading transportation business, Williams figured he'd work for his dad and try to make the best of things. But as he explains, "the Reading area is actually where my true downfall began."
With connections at the Reading Community College basketball program, Williams' father persuaded his son to give college another shot. "My dad knew the coach of the basketball team at Reading and he talked me into applying there,” recalls Williams.
Accepted to Reading, Williams tried out for and made the Ravens’ basketball team. A glaring omission on his admissions application to Reading would soon come to light, though. "I neglected to mention on the admissions application that I'd attended two other schools," admits Williams.
Once his prior college attempts were discovered by the school, Williams was told he could not play basketball for the school. "They wouldn't let me play," said Williams, who adds, "Right there I lost it. I had my sanity but my desire to do anything school-related was now nonexistent."
Now with a total of three disastrous semesters at three different institutions to his credit, Williams says he just stopped going to class.
Eventually finding work with an agency dealing with the developmentally disabled, Williams readily admits that his own father didn't even trust him enough back then to offer him a position with his company. "I wasn't a good son to my father back then," Williams recalls. "He just didn't think he could depend on me to work for him."
With his father's patience already wearing thin, Williams just got worse. "I would borrow his cars and never put gas in them,” said Williams. “I'd come home really late and really high and I was stealing money from him. I knew where he kept large sums of money and I would just clip some here and there."
During his short stay with his father, Williams also crashed three of his father's vehicles the last accident the result of him falling asleep at the wheel because he was drunk and high, garnering him a DUI charge.
"I was high and drunk and the car had no radio so I was rapping to myself to help keep me up, but I ended up falling asleep and hitting a parked truck and a moving van on Main Street in Reading. He [his father] told me to never touch another of his cars again."
With a tendency to sleep when he was supposed to be working, Williams eventually lost his job, which precipitated his stealing. What started as stealing small sums of cash on occasion, soon got worse, as he admits,
"At first, I was just taking twenty or fifty dollars here and there. Then it started to become one hundred or two hundred dollars more often."
In fact, Williams claims that at that point, he was essentially financing his entire lifestyle with his father’s hard-earned money.
"I was using the money I was stealing from him to buy everything weed, alcohol, clothes and sneakers," says Williams. "I knew he was staring to catch on to what I was doing but I just couldn't stop," he adds.
Williams' ruse wouldn't last much longer, though, as on his last attempt to plunder his father's savings, he'd be caught red-handed.
"He woke up while I was going through his pants and wallet," offers Williams. Though Williams came up with a pretty good lie for his father "I told him I was looking for his cellphone to use," Williams said, he didn’t realized that a $20 bill had fallen out onto the couch.
His father, though, notice that $20 bill. Williams explains, "He saw the twenty that I'd dropped and started counting his cash. I'll never forget what he said when he realized what I was doing. He was like: 'Oh yeah. Oh yeah, you're going back home to your mom's tonight, boy.'"
Williams recalls the phone conversation with his mother that morning, "She was just really calm. She was calm and said: 'You're coming home Willie, and when you get here we're going to get you back on track."
Williams' father gave him a week to say goodbye to his friends and get his affairs somewhat in order before sending him back home to Connecticut. "He's a very good father and regardless how angry and disappointed he was with me, he gave me some time before I had to leave, “ said Williams.
Upon his arrival back in Connecticut, Williams says his mother sat him down and had him come up with some goals: getting back in school and begin paying off his student loans. And as a long-term goal, Williams decided he wanted to play ball again.
"Moving back to Connecticut was what changed my life," affirms Williams. "I'd done enough to hurt and disappoint my parents and family, and it was time to grow up and be a man now. It just hit me when I moved back. Reality, I guess.”
With an eye toward improving himself and his situation, Williams, through a temp agency, secured a job at Home Depot and then at UPS. In the spring of 2011, he re-applied to Norfolk Community College. Not yet eligible to carry a full course load, Williams eased his way into Norfolk starting with two classes. "I needed to get back into the rhythm of things and I also had to work to pay back my loans," he explains.
That first year Williams made a decision that would cement his future and all that would happen thereafter: he joined the Eastern Connecticut Basketball League.
It was during one of those league games that the head coach from Farmingdale Community College noticed him. The coach, says Williams, was there to watch one of his assistants play and after the game came up to him.
"'Man, what are you doing?'” he asked. “Do you want to come back to school?'" Williams’ interest was again piqued and he began looking into the possibility.
Since he'd been out of school more than four months at the time, Williams was be required by NCAA rules to make six consecutive monthly student loan payments before he could even be considered for college, let alone to play basketball again. In the summer of 2011, that same coach who first spotted him in the league game referred Williams to a junior college school named Sullivan County Community College.
"He referred me to Sullivan. He was friends with coach [Kevin] DeVantier and told him my entire situation," says Williams.
That same summer Williams attended workouts at SUNY Sullivan and discussed his complicated plight with DeVantier. This time, though, he wouldn't leave anything out.
"He [DeVantier] just told me that I have to be really disciplined and not only pull some good grades at Norfolk, but also make those six months of student loan payments,” said Williams.
Williams accepted the challenge and with a new attitude and a goal to work towards, he received an A and a B in the math and English spring semester courses he was taking at Norfolk.
"I did it," exclaims Williams, adding, "it wasn't easy but I knew I had a lot to prove to a lot of people. I was tired of living like I was. I was tired of letting my family and myself down."
Now eligible for, and ready to head off to SUNY Sullivan, Williams had one more thing to experience before the change in him was complete. The summer prior to his spring classes at Norfolk, Williams had signed on to volunteer at the YMCA. Through the Y, an opportunity to travel to Germany on a mission came about. The trip took place just before Williams headed off to his first semester at Sullivan, and a reflective Williams offers, "The trip was transformative. I got to see how people live in other counties and I leaned leadership skills and bonded with other cultures. It has to be one of the best things that ever happened to me."
Last Saturday a jubilant Williams walked onto the stage at SUNY Sullivan's 49th graduation commencement ceremony and, with the receipt of his long-awaited associates degree, shed the demons and shame he carried with him after all the years of "screw-ups and letdowns."
And talk about coming full circle. Williams will now be attending college and playing basketball just a 10-minute drive from the home he grew up in.
Says an emotional Kathy Burgess, "What my son has been able to accomplish these last two years, it makes me...it makes me so proud. I'm what you can call a happy mother right now. He did it.
“Every game everything he did there [at SUNY Sullivan], he gave it his all, and I couldn't be prouder of my son. I've talked to the dean and I've talked to his coach at Sullivan and the thing that stands out to me and means the most are the things they say about his character.”
Said his father: “I just couldn't be a prouder father right now. My son did indeed have a very rough time here in Reading and I find it very satisfying to see him change his life these past few years. Sometimes in life you have to hit rock bottom in order to move forward.
“He's met some really great and positive people at SUNY Sullivan and I think that his experience up there had a big part in his transformation. I'm a big believer in the idea that all of us have good in us, sometimes it just takes a bit of time to find it within us. I think my son has found himself and I'm very exited to see what the future holds for him.”
WILLIAMS at SULLIVAN
The career stats of Willie Williams III at SUNY Sullivan:
Games played: 57
Points per game: 15.03
Rebounds per game: 13.9
Blocks per game: 1.8