TAMPA — Mike Williams took the news hard after reading about Middleton High freshman Hezekiah B. Walters’ death in June.
The former Plant High and USC standout knew of Walters through a family friend. Williams was so moved by the tragedy that he packed two duffel bags with the intent of leaving his head coaching job in California to come home.
“The wheels started turning,” Williams said Wednesday. “I had been in Los Angeles long enough. This gave the nudge to go where I needed to be.”
Initially, the goal was to work with youth league football players in West Tampa. That was before the Middleton varsity job became available.
Suddenly, Williams’ plans changed.
“I always wanted to come back to coach, but it had to be the right school, the right fit,” said Williams, 35. “The demographics didn’t matter. I just wanted to be where I could have a presence and an impact. I didn’t need a place that was already established with the gravy train and biscuit wheels. I wanted something I could build.”
Williams was hired last week to take over the Tigers. He replaces Fred Reid, who was removed from his position and transferred to another school as part of the disciplinary measures taken by the Hillsborough County school board in response to Walters’ death, which came after he collapsed during a summer workout.
Williams’ resume is impressive. The former first-round pick of the Lions started coaching in the high school ranks in California after his seven-year NFL career ended in 2011. There have been several stops, all with diverse backgrounds. Williams coached middle schoolers in Brentwood, a swanky Los Angeles suburb, then took on jobs in Compton and Watts.
He also had several big-time coaches as references, including the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll and former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow. In fact, Chow joined Williams’ staff when they coached together at Van Nuys, the school Williams left to come to Tampa.
Those experiences helped prepare Williams for his biggest challenge yet. At Middleton, he has to deal with players still mourning the loss of a teammate. And his handling of everyday procedures will be carefully scrutinized, especially after a district investigation found several student-athletes at the school lacked proper paperwork.
Practice for the regular season officially kicked off this week, but Williams has yet to hit the field with his new team. He spent the first three days in the cafeteria and classrooms meeting with coaches, parents and the new staff. His best player, Florida commit Johnnie Brown, has yet to show up.
“We’re doing a lot of introductory stuff and making sure every kid is cleared and ready to go,” Williams said. “These kids are learning a whole new system. These first few days have been good to get feedback, too. You can’t always be on the output. You got to be on the input. I’m just listening to the kids to get an understanding and trying to see what needs to continue at Middleton, what needs to stop and what needs to start.”
Williams gets his point across by telling stories of his days growing up in West Tampa. On Wednesday, he talked about his childhood friends, including former NBA star Gilbert Arenas, who all stayed clear of the drug dealers in the neighborhood to achieve athletic stardom.
“Coach has brought an energy to the team that’s really helped bring excitement for the season,” Middleton quarterback Gabe Weldon said of Williams. “He is a great role model and has already put his focus on teaching us to protect the team and be leaders on and off the field.
“I think he really likes talking about growing up in Tampa sometimes because he’s excited to be back in his city and he’s really trying to make a difference. Some of the stories he tells help get a point across that we can persevere regardless of any situation.”
Williams also knows how to deal with tragedy. Two years ago, his wife, Giavonna, died in her sleep from heart complications.
“We all have our struggles that we have to find a way to move past and still be who we are called to be,” Williams said. “It’s tough, a delicate thing (Walters’ death).
"Me, as a coach, I’m here to challenge this group to honor Hezekiah in the proper way. He stood for what a Middleton Tiger should be and lived a life that mattered.”