Carl Williams changed lives, made memories through youth sports

Carl Williams Jr. with one of his Northside football teams. Williams has been a lifelong supporter of youth sports and an inspiration to his son Trey.

By Trey Williams

Maybe there’s a Harry Chapin song in here somewhere, but every day has been a Father’s Day of sorts while making a modest living at sporting events.  

And there’s plenty to be said for being a chip off the old block.

Carl Williams Jr. spent a quarter of a century working for the Johnson City Parks & Rec (1962-84) and the Red Shield Boys Club (1965-68). He drove young players to ballparks in the back of his father’s ancient Chevrolet truck and crammed them into his land yacht of a gas-guzzling Oldsmobile.

Williams raked and lined off the initial Steve Spurrier Little League Field, coached against and worked with Spurrier’s high school teammate, Lonnie Lowe, and befriended the likes of former San Francisco Giants shortstop Ernie Ferrell Bowman, who was giddy when his nomination led to Williams’ Johnson City Parks & Rec Wall of Fame induction in 2016.

“Carl has more business in there than half the people in it, including me,” Bowman said the night Williams was elected.

Williams began keeping score at basketball games at the Legion Street Rec in 1962, the year after he graduated Science Hill. He worked until the mid-80s for Parks & Rec director Howard Johnson and his successor, Lowe. Williams, who became a school teacher at North Junior High in ’68, worked in concessions at Cardinal Park, Memorial Stadium and the Little League field. He was the playground director at Town Acres one year, officiated games and, most memorably, coached youth sports for 14 years. It all was done to help make ends meet, but was a labor of love.

“Nobody was getting rich working for Mr. Johnson,” he said with a chuckle. “He ran a Spartan budget. But he was always fair to me. He and I got along good, because I needed the work and he needed somebody that would.”

Williams began working at the Boys Club when it integrated with the Jackie Robinson Boys Club. He helped Jackie Robinson director Paul Taylor – also a teacher – carry equipment from one club to the other when they combined.

The majority of regulars at the integrated club were African-American and many went on to contribute significantly for Science Hill athletics.

“Vernon and Sherman Simpson were twins born, I believe, in January and I think their brother Gordon was born in December of the same year,” Williams said. “They were all three about the same size by then (Boys Club-aged) and Gordon (favored them). You wouldn’t believe how many times I heard, ‘That wasn’t me man, that was my brother.’”

Not long after he started at the Boys Club, Williams found himself orchestrating the two-week long outdoors excursion at the Optimist Camp at the base of Unaka Mountain a couple of miles southeast of Unicoi. Some 50-75 boys would participate each week at the end of July and beginning of August. There was fishing, swimming, hiking, sleeping in tents – all of which was Greek to Williams.

But club director Herb Lawson wasn’t keen on being out there much and activities director Joe Arrowood was coaching the Johnson City Major Little League All-Star team a lot of the time.

Williams “didn’t know beans about much of it (outdoors activities)” but grew to love the experiences, which included a concert from The Epics – with drummer Ronnie Hammett – one year. The biggest hike each year was perhaps four miles and concluded at the Laurels picnic area, where a Salvation Army bus awaited to return the boys to camp – but not before they got to eat a bologna and/or peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“Kenny Russaw, Johnny’s brother – everybody called him Shady – he had the best line probably the second year we walked over there,” Williams said. “They passed out that lunch and he looked at it and said, ‘My lordy, we walked seven miles for a baloney sandwich.’ …

“A lot of good ones came down there to the Boys Club. Fonzo Gillespie was a regular. He played football. Speedy Patton. Melvin Stevens. Biggie (Gary) Carpenter was a great athlete. He doesn’t get his due. He was a heck of a baseball and football player, and shoot, he was a good basketball player. His brother Jerry was taller than Biggie, and he was a good player too.”

Jerry played with Williams the night their squad upset the ETSU Lettermen’s Club (T Club), which was led by 6-foot-8 Charlie Fox and guard Wayne Miller. Both were former ETSU players. 

What the 6-foot-3 Williams lacked in quickness, which was plenty, he made up for with skill, particularly deep perimeter shooting and passing. Another quality shooter, Bobby Wilburn, a former Langston standout, might’ve led Williams’ squad in scoring in the upset.

“Bobby Wilburn was a great shooter, and he could get his shot off about all the time,” Williams said. “The T Club beat most teams by Charlie Fox getting the rebound and throwing long outlet passes to Wayne Miller. So we played a prevent defense on ‘em.”

Williams coached 11-12-year-old football and basketball at North Side the vast majority of his time coaching (1968-80). The North Side Cowboys and Henry Johnson Redskins were archrivals. 

He also coached 13-15-year-old slow-pitch softball for several years. 

“I wasn’t a softball coach, wasn’t even a good softball player,” said Williams, who once broke dear friend Ken Lyon’s heart by hitting into a walk-off triple play in a tight game with Lyon standing eagerly in the on-deck circle. “But the first year we won the championship. We beat South Side for the tournament championship, and South Side was coached by the Grand Prince of Softball – Lonnie Lowe. We beat his team something like 6-5 at Cardinal Park in a game that lasted about 40 minutes.”

Williams eventually worked for Lowe, who might’ve had more self-confidence than Spurrier. But they had a good relationship.

“Carl, you’ve gotta go see ‘Sharky’s Machine,’” Lowe said one day while lining up a shot in a game of 9-ball with Steve “Quarterhorse” Carver at the Legion Street Rec. “Burt Reynolds is tough.”

From left, Harley “Skeeter” Swift, Trey Williams, Ferrell Bowman, Gary Carter and Carl Williams.

Williams recalled Lowe’s lack of mental toughness while costing their rec league basketball team another potential victory against the T Club. Lowe and Williams were out of the game with the team nursing a late lead, and Lowe told Williams that he needed to sub either of ‘em in for free throw shooting.

Williams elected to sub in Lowe, who promptly threw an errant inbounds pass to Charlie Bailey of the opposing team.

“Charlie waved his arms like he was on his team and Lonnie threw it right to him,” Williams said. “We had the lead and the ball and there wasn’t much time. Lonnie threw it to Charlie in the side backcourt, and Charlie had a clear shot to the goal. We lost.

“Lonnie could shrug that stuff off. I don’t believe anything was ever his fault. Nah, but seriously, I liked Lonnie. He was good to me.”

Lowe was coaching South Side one year in football when Williams’ North Side tied it, 6-6, on a muddy field. It was South Side’s second blemish of the season, having also played Tommy Spain-coached Henry Johnson to a scoreless tie. North Side finished undefeated with one tie.

“We were losing 6-0 to ‘em until the last few seconds,’” Williams said with a chuckle. “Jody Willis got behind their defense and caught a touchdown pass. I’m pretty sure Garrett ‘Scrappy’ Wyatt threw the pass that tied the game. We beat Henry Johnson in a later game 35-7 on a dry field.

“Lonnie said, ‘We gave up six points all season and came in second place.”

Comical lines and funny moments have stood the test of time better than victories in many instances.

“Davy Bowling was a good athlete that played softball,” Williams said. “I remember he was on base and he said, ‘Hey, coach, is it okay if I do a Pete Rose?’ I said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and do one.’ And sure enough, hear he comes trying to score and he took that big head-first dive into home plate and they tagged him out because he came up about a foot short of the plate.”

Mike Evans, the son of former Science Hill head football and track coach Bob “Snake” Evans, played for Williams at North Side. He went on to play at Science Hill and started at linebacker at Memphis State.

“We won the city championship in the sixth grade in football,” Evans said. “We were undefeated and so was Stratton. I believe it was the next to the last game or the last game of the season. It was winner take all. Even some of the other teams showed up to watch. Even our PE teacher, Coach (Jeff) Watts, came for that game. 

“They were moving the ball on us in the first half and Coach Williams changed up our defense at the half. We shut them down in the second half and won the game. It was a good coaching move by Coach Williams. It was a lot of fun playing for him in football and basketball.”

Williams and Evans both rave about Evans’ North Side teammate, Michael Greenlee, who moved to Flint, Michigan when he was 12 and ended up starting at quarterback at Northwestern High School in Flint.

“The thing about Michael Greenlee was he had every bit as much heart and maybe more than anybody I believe I ever coached,” Williams said. “He just did not want to be stopped. He did not want to lose. I mean, you can’t coach that.”

Greenlee and Evans were essentially assistant coaches for Williams.

“Michael Greenlee and Mike Evans got out of school at North Side at 3:15 and I got done teaching at North Junior High at 3:25,” Williams said. “By the time I’d get there about 3:45, they’d already led the team through all of the warm-up exercises. That’s exceptional for kids at that age. Of course, they had the muscle on their side, too.

“Mike Evans was solid built and athletic. He was actually a pretty decent basketball player. He played good defense, could handle the ball and he’d stay cool. And he’d give a hundred percent.”

A memorable moment in basketball for Williams came when a young Steve Crowder, who went on to set Sullivan Central’s career scoring record while playing for Dickie Warren, seemed to be rattled against Henry Johnson. So Williams subbed in David Strickland, a solid if not supremely talented veteran whose ensuing contribution was one of the primary keys to a hard-fought win against the Redskins.

“Steve could play, but he was a little younger then and they got in his head,” Williams said. “He might’ve been a fourth-grader. And David went in and wound up scoring 10 points. And 10 points in a Midget League game was a good number of points unless you were a superstar.

“David Strickland was a good kid. David would sit there and he would be listening to you. You could tell, he had the eye contact.”

Walter Bradley, who went on to score 1,000 points at Science Hill and Milligan, recalled practices being more stringent when Henry Johnson was next on the schedule.

“Coach Williams always prepared (hard) for Henry Johnson,” Bradley said. “Practice the day before was Bull in the Ring.”

Bull in the Ring was a grueling drill that would bring out the physicality in a team. The Cowboys prevailed against the Redskins when Bradley played.

“We did win,” Bradley said. “They were a good team, though – very athletic.”

Rhea County basketball coach Brien Crowder, also a big scorer in basketball at Science Hill and Milligan, played for Williams at North Side. He recalled one taxing drill in football practice.

“If someone would not block for a teammate coach would put us in punt formation and punt to the one who wouldn’t block,” Crowder said. “And he would have to catch it and run without any blocking. We would cream the guy. Then, magically, he would block the next play and from then on.”

Crowder recalled a time when Williams was irritated with official Searl Robbins during a football game. Robbins had called a holding penalty on receiver Tommy Norris. Williams and his assistant, Charles Walton, had been trying to get Norris to be more aggressive while blocking. So despite the penalty, they were pleased to see his blocking enthusiasm.

“Searl threw a flag for holding and Walton said, ‘That’s okay, Tommy, keep doing it, keep working at it,’” Williams said. “And Searl said, ‘No, it ain’t alright. Every time he does it it’s a penalty.’ Well, Charles was just trying to get Tommy to block. So I looked at Searl and said, ‘You’ve already called the penalty. You don’t need to go over there arguing at my coach.’ He said, ‘That’s another 15 yards.’ I said, ‘If you’d handle the game and let us coach’ and he said, ‘Another 15 yards.’ He penalized us about 45 yards.”

Crowder chuckled at the memory one day when his Antioch High School team was en route to a runner-up finish at the Arby’s Classic.

“I think North Side ended up with the ball on the 1-inch line,” Crowder said. “He just kept picking the flag up and throwing it back up in the air.”

Williams didn’t lose any sleep over it.

“I probably shouldn’t have been mouthing at Searl,” he said, “but Walton was just getting Tommy to do exactly what we’d been trying to get him to do, like, ‘Keep doing it.’ Of course, he didn’t mean keep doing the holding. The referee doesn’t have to get in that discussion. Some referees have big egos too.”

Williams enjoyed coaching the likes of Heathy Sayers, Steve Fields, Warren “Coconut” Copney, Robert Shade, Kelly Hodge and Robert Love. 

Sayers seemed like a superhero when he was in the fifth and sixth grade, but punctuality was his kryptonite. Williams left North Side for a basketball game at the Legion Street Rec without Sayers one day. Sayers was tardy for departure, but showed up at the game in the second quarter.

“I said, ‘Did you come to play,’” Williams recalled. “Heathy said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, come on over.’ And I started him the second half.’ 

“Heathy was by far the best. He could move with the ball or without the ball well. He could play.

“Tony Shade was a good player. He played with Jeff Forney. Tony played quarterback for me in football and he was a good basketball player. We won it with him in basketball. Tim Perry was another good basketball player.”

Copney, who’d wear one sweatpants leg up to his knee and had a pick in his hair, was the key cog in a football title.

“It was hard to get all of his afro in a helmet,” Williams said. “He was tall and he was slender and he could take those pool-room, roach-killing shoes – Italian dress shoes – and outrun anybody on the team. We didn’t lose a game that year. He looked like a man among boys out there. You couldn’t believe how fast he was in street shoes.”

Fields became Science Hill’s first 1,000-yard rusher, but he was behind Robert Shade in the backfield at North Side.

“Robert was bigger, and I believe at the time, every bit as fast,” Williams said. “Of course, he might not have been as fast. I saw Steve Fields take one a long ways in the stadium one night.”

One of Williams’ most memorable games was a loss to Henry Johnson in 9-10-year-old football in the outfield at Cardinal Park (TVA Credit Union Ballpark). Kenny “Boo” Bachman scored a touchdown for North Side and Haynes Watson got loose for a TD for Henry Johnson. Anthony “Stink” Whiteside barely powered across the goal line for a PAT conversion run for the Redskins while Chuck Bowling barely came up short on the Cowboys’ PAT.

Henry Johnson prevailed, 8-6.

“I don’t think we had a bad thought in our mind after the loss, to be honest,” Williams said. “Ken Lyon (an offensive lineman at Science Hill when Spurrier was the quarterback) walked out there after the game and said, ‘There wasn’t a loser in that game. It was played nose to nose from start to finish.’

“If you play the best you can and lose by one point, you don’t have to lower your head one bit. We may not have been an underdog, but we weren’t favored. That was a great game. Sometimes the fans take it a lot harder than the coaches and the players. Half a yard one way and half a yard the other way, and it would’ve been reversed.”

Another inspirational moment that occasionally comes to mind happened when so-so right fielder Willie Benson robbed Jackie Cook of a home run in 13-15-year-old softball at Optimist Park.

“Jackie Cook smashed one to right-center,” Williams said. “Willie Benson was a good kid but he wasn’t much of a player. When he was a senior he was the head drum major in front of the Science Hill band. He died in the last couple of years. 

“But Willie was playing right field and ran over into right-center and stuck his glove up. That ball was going over the fence and the ball wedged into the web of his glove. He caught that ball and he started hollering. He ran about three steps and jumped up like a cheerleader, spreading both arms going up. He did that about every three steps coming in from right field. And, of course, all the boys were pounding him on the back. That’s what’s good about sports. Willie wasn’t athletic or anything. He saved us, though.”

Williams enjoyed his time overseeing the old Science Hill gym during Rec League basketball. His assistants included colorful custodian Willie Mustain and an 11- and 12-year-old Jeff Forney, who went to play baseball in the Cincinnati Reds system and coached for Notre Dame and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“Jeff was a fine young man,” Williams said. “Willie was a character.”

The trio might’ve eaten Long John Silver’s, which was located next to North Side at the time, with part of the gate a time or two.

“One night Willie said, ‘Boy, how would you like some fried chicken,’” Williams said. “I said, ‘I don’t believe I can go get it tonight, Willie.’ He said, ‘No, I’ll go get it.’ He said there are some chickens out there in that grassy court … and he came back with fried chicken. I said, ‘You killed that chicken tonight and fried it?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ It was good, though.”

Mustain casually offered Williams a shot of whiskey one night while they were on the clock. The late Forney once said you knew if it started getting cold at the gym that Willie’d had a nip too many, nodded off and let the fire in the furnace burn out.

One night Williams left Jeff and Willie in charge while he went and coached at the nearby Legion Street Rec. An insurance salesman took issue with the gruff, elderly Mustain demanding 50 cents for his admission and pulled a knife on Mustain. So Mustain responded by pulling a gun, which got him hauled up the street to the jail.

“I got back and Willie was gone,” Williams said. “I said, ‘Where’s Willie, Jeff?’ He said, ‘The police came and got him.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘He pulled a gun on a guy.’ 

“A cruiser brought him back shortly before we were done for the night. Willie said, ‘Everything’s taken care of. My good friend Tom Helton said he’d take care of it and I’d get my gun back when it cools down.’ Tom was the chief of police in Johnson City. Willie was something else.”

Williams worked with the late James Ellis for decades, watching his climb from a kid taking up money to Parks & Rec director. He dealt with Ellis a lot while getting officiating assignments and saw him a great deal when they’d be shuffling between concession stands at the swimming pool, Legion Street Rec, Cardinal Park and Memorial Stadium.

“James was obviously – and I wouldn’t have known this to start with necessarily when he was young – he was obviously very intelligent,” Williams said. “And he was dedicated to the progress and serving the public, and he didn’t mind stepping on employees’ toes and going nose to nose. But when you’re the boss you’re gonna tick people off if you’re doing your job right. He always treated me fair.”

Some 14 years after he’d given it up, Williams returned to coaching after a tragedy in 1994. Liberty Bell Middle School basketball coach Anthony Conley, 33, died on New Year’s Day. His wife Sonja gave birth to their daughter BreAnda five days later.

“Anthony Conley was a nice, pleasant guy,” Williams said. “They practiced one day right around New Year’s and he went home and died. It was tough.”

Williams hated it for everyone who was close to Conley. Perhaps that’s why he unretired to coach the remainder of the season.

“They’d tried to get me to coach before – Charlie Bailey, especially,” Williams said. “Some of ‘em wanted me to get into the fraternity. I guess I didn’t think I had the same pedigree to do that. And to start with, I probably would’ve had to take a cut in pay. 

“But I coached the last half of that season. I had the big ole blonde-headed Miller kid – Brian (played football at Central Florida). He was a talented kid – football and basketball.”

But Williams didn’t catch the coaching bug again.

“I had fun working with the kids,” he said. “I enjoyed most of it and got paid for all of it. And we won some games. Of course, I’ll tell you sometime about the game my coaching caused us to lose.”

Hopefully, there are many more Father’s Days to come.


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