Notre Dame commit Williams survives, excels

BOB WIENEKE
South Bend Tribune

BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. -- Long before the football dream existed, before offers and visits became a part of Jhonny Williams' lexicon, the aspiration was to excel in either basketball or mixed martial arts; the hope to become the next Kobe Bryant or Anderson Silva.

Those dreams were diverted to football once the coaches at Berrien Springs were able to convince Williams that his breathtaking athleticism could be put to good use on the gridiron.

Along the way, he became really good, got noticed and gave verbal commitments to Toledo, then Missouri, and finally Notre Dame, the school with which he will sign a national letter-of-intent on Wednesday.

"It's been a long road," Williams said Monday. "A really long road."

Long. Laborious. And during a painful stretch a few years back, lonely.

Why lonely? Because Williams, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound outside linebacker whose job one day will be to menace opposing quarterbacks as a pass-rusher, was faced with living life on his own while his mother tended to a brother waging a fight with cancer.

The discovery of cancer in Williams' older brother, Gregory, came in an odd form. Stationed in Germany in the Air Force, Gregory was called out to help settle a domestic dispute, and, while there ended up getting hit in the chest with some sort of object. He was checked out at a hospital, but a few days later, while on a run, collapsed. The X-rays brought terrible news.

"His whole upper torso was just completely covered in cancer," Williams said.

Gregory was immediately sent from Europe to Bethesda, Md., for treatment. Jhonny's mother and younger brother moved there to care for Gregory.

"It was bad," Jhonny said. "The doctors told us it was a really slim chance."

Meanwhile, Jhonny was living by himself in Berrien Springs. Daunting enough was the life-threatening battle his brother was fighting, but there was also the task of having the teenager rug yanked from under his feet, replaced with responsibilities that not many high-schoolers face.

"How did I handle it? I handled it," said Williams, who made trips back and forth to visit his brother. "I don't know how, but I got through it."

So too has Gregory, who remains in the D.C./Maryland area. Jhonny called Gregory's current situation "really, really better," and said Gregory now is undergoing outpatient chemotherapy and hopes to return to the service.

With his home life stabilized, Williams was able to dedicate himself to football. In the three years that he has played, Berrien Springs coach Bill Bergan has seen Williams grow and learn and prosper, and marvels that a guy Williams' size was able to place fifth in the state in the shot put and seventh in the high jump.

Others noticed those things last summer when Williams attended a camp at Michigan State. That camp occurred on a Sunday afternoon, and while Bergan was sitting at home, his phone began chirping.

"I just kept getting these texts and texts and texts from Mid-American schools with offers for Jhon," Bergan recalled.

Williams soon took a trip to Toledo. The proximity to home was a selling point, and Williams liked what he saw, so he committed.

Once the season started, though, others began to notice, including Missouri. The allure of the SEC proved enticing, and Williams switched his commitment to the Tigers.

"And then all of the sudden we get the call from Notre Dame," Bergan said. "Would he be interested to listen? I said 'Sure, he'll listen.'

It took off from there."

An official visit for the BYU game in November was soon followed by a verbal commitment to the Irish, and the process becomes complete Wednesday when Williams signs his letter. Playing big-time college football, along with being about a half-hour from his mother and younger brother, is huge, but Williams is far from content with landing at Notre Dame.

"I don't want to get too satisfied," Williams said. "I think it's the best university in the world, but I don't want to be satisfied and I want to stay hungry. I want to keep going. I want to be better than what I am now."

With only three seasons of football under his belt, the chances of Williams flourishing seem strong. Bergan, for one, salivates at what Williams could look like in four or five years with advanced coaching and weight training.

"I have no idea," Bergan said. "I imagine he's going to be a monster."

Bergan saw glimpses in practice during the daily battles waged between Williams and teammate Nick Padla, a Michigan State offensive line commit.

"They'd want to fight because it was so competitive," Bergan said. "It was good for both of them."

Outside of a ceremony at school, Williams has no elaborate celebration planned, reason No. 1 being that he has school the next day. It's a sign of the maturity he's gained, and he marvels at the turn his life has taken in just a few years.

"Two years ago, where did I think I was going to be?" he pondered.

"Two years ago, I was just trying to survive."

 Berrien Springs' Jhonny Williams, right, has had a long journey to get to his committment to Notre Dame. (Tribune photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)