By Trey Williams
Before he was a man among boys while carrying a football at Science Hill, Van Williams was a boy dreaming of playing in the NFL while sleeping with a football.
And before he knew it, he’d punched his dream ticket with the Buffalo Bills.
“That’s what I always wanted to do from the time I was a little boy,” Williams said Monday evening. “I used to sleep with a football. I didn’t have it in my arms but it was in my bed. The ball was always in my bed. That was my dream, you know, to play pro football.”
Williams ran 4.4 40-yard dashes and he benched 405 pounds by the time he was 18 years old. He became intrigued with weightlifting at the age of 16 while watching Science Hill coach Ray Judy lift. In two years he went from 185 to 405 on the bench-press.
Williams thrived for Science Hill coach Bob “Snake” Evans in the 1975-76 seasons. He was All-State. He won the Hilltoppers Plowboy Farmer Award. He advanced to the state tournament in wrestling.
Williams enjoyed practice almost as much as he did playing. He ran sprints in the field next to the Carver Housing Projects in the early ‘80s, a muscular blur bolting through summer evenings’ sweltering heat.
“I stayed in that Rec field,” Williams said with a chuckle. “I’d go to Science Hill and run also. … I’m flatfooted, and I figured out that running on asphalt weakened my ankles.”
Williams’ work ethic was matched by his natural abilities.
“The athleticism and speed came from my mother (Lucinda Williams),” Williams said. “She used to play softball at the Rec and knock the ball over the fence.”
Williams’ highlights at Science Hill included taking a screen pass practically sideline to sideline before getting downfield for a game-winning score on the final play against Morristown East. He said he’d put the Hilltoppers in the hole before scoring the shot of redemption.
“I was the reason we were behind because I tried to field a punt inside the 10-yard line,” Williams said. “Well, that’s a no-no. You don’t ever do that. I caught the punt and ran back into the end zone to try and break it. If I got around that one guy I could’ve broke it all the way. But he tackled me in the end zone and we got behind.
“I came over to the sideline and Coach Evans said, ‘Just forget about it. It’s over with, done. We need you.’”
And Williams delivered with a surreal 50-yard touchdown reception that seemed like a movie scene.
“We were in the middle of the field and they threw a screen pass to me over toward the home sideline,” Williams said. “It almost hit the ground. I bent over and it was like four or five inches off the ground. I caught it and just stood and looked downfield. And I ran directly straight across the field to other sideline, down the sideline and got into the end zone somehow.
“They (teammates) was all on top of me. Everybody’d done come out of the stands and everything. It was crazy.”
Science Hill quarterback Billy Wise, who went on to start at tight end at Ole Miss, chuckled while marveling about the play four decades later.
“Coach Evans called a screen to Van and I think Van probably ran 150 yards to score the winning touchdown on the last play of the game,” Wise said. “I mean it was just one of the most unbelievable runs. I still don’t know how he did it.”
Longtime Science Hill assistant coach Mike Voitlein, a former ETSU player who has lifted weights much of his adult life, said Williams was equally amazing on a football field or in a weight room.
“He was just crazy on the weightlifting,” Voitlein said. “He couldn’t get enough of that. And he and I used to compete against each other.
“That was an incredible play against Morristown East. He was something else.”
Evans was a positive influence for Williams, who had a habit of bouncing outside on runs that were designed to go inside. Evans insisted he follow the blocks.
“I was a daylight runner and I was getting good yardage my way,” Williams said. “And I was a little bit aggravated thinking, ‘He’s not out here. He can’t see what I see.'”
But Evans called a timeout after yet another bounce to the outside by Williams.
“I got good yardage again,” Williams said, “but I was thinking, ‘Oh no, he’s getting ready to go off.'”
Instead, Evans calmly told him to trust him and hit the hole. And the next time the off-tackle play was called, Williams hit the hole with purpose despite the wrong-colored jerseys being there.
“And I scored a touchdown,” he said. “There were (defenders) in the hole, but they were back on their heels — actually blocked. It was a soft spot like Coach Evans said. But if he hadn’t been so patient with me, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Williams still keeps up with Science Hill. He might tell you his grandson Amare Redd returned a blocked field goal 90 yards to seal a victory against Dobyns-Bennett last year or that his daughter Tiffany was an excellent sprinter for the Hilltoppers.
He’s considering attending the Hilltoppers’ season-opening tilt with two-time defending state champion Elizabethton on Friday at ETSU.
Williams rushed for 173 yards and two TDs on 15 carries in a rout of the Cyclones as a junior in ’75. He recalls good rivalries with Elizabethton and Dobyns-Bennett, hard-hitting Tennessee High linebacker Don Duff and athletic Unicoi County running back Clark Duncan, who was one of Johnny Majors’ first recruits at Tennessee and a freshman All-American.
“Tennessee High had a linebacker named Duff,” Williams said. “Man, that dude was bad. He would hit. …
“I watched a lot of film on Clark Duncan. I could tell when he was gonna carry the ball and I told our defense. … I used to sit and watch film for hours. He’d be down in his stance, and the hand that would hang down – he would flex his fingers every time he got the ball.”
Duncan, now the coach at South-Doyle, reconnected with Williams last year thanks to one of his players, who told Duncan he used to attend Williams’ church (Grace Temple) in Johnson City.
“Van was something,” Duncan said. “In my day there were three of us that were the fastest guys around. One of ‘em was Van Williams at Science Hill and the other was Ronnie Horton at Dobyns-Bennett.
“Of course, Van was intimidating. He always had that hair braided and he was blown up (muscular).”
Science Hill alum Phil Stuart started for Majors on UT’s offensive line in 1988. Watching Williams as a kid helped pave the way.
“We grew up in the same church and I always, always, always had nothing but the utmost respect for Van,” Stuart said, “because I would always, as a kid, watch him play and I’d always see how hard he would train and how hard he would run. … He was a great inspiration to me growing up.”
Williams produced an inspired debut at Carson-Newman as a true freshman in ’77 (138 carries, 644 yards). So he transferred home to East Tennessee State after a season. But he couldn’t stay on the same page with head coach Jack Carlisle and eventually returned to Carson-Newman thanks to assistant coach Mike Turner’s persistence.
“I had quit ETSU and was working at (Mor-Flo Water Heaters),” Williams said. “I was done with football. Coach Turner came down to see me and tried to talk me into playing. He came about three or four times, and after about the last time, I said yes. He came to my house down in the projects and talked me into Carson-Newman.”
Turner, who coached Science Hill to the quarterfinals with players such as Terry Copeland and Jeremy Owens in 1993, was the offensive line coach for new head coach Ken Sparks when he sold Williams on returning to Jefferson City in 1980.
“Van Williams had speed and power, brother,” Turner said. “He was blessed with so much talent, but worked hard, too. Van was a guy you’d always see warming up before practice and working on things after practice — running, agility, stretching.”
Turner and Sparks were a godsend, says Williams.
“Coach Sparks was good to me,” Williams said. “He was a wise man. What I learned spiritually growing up in church, he reinforced that for me. At the time I wasn’t really interested in church or anything like that, but he reinforced what my mother taught me. He was a blessing. He was like a dad to me. …
“I asked him one time, ‘Why did you put up with me?’ I was crazy. … He said, ‘I just knew the Lord had his hand on you.’”
Sparks also knew Williams was going to have his hands on the football. Williams made a sudden impact in his first couple of games in 1980, including Sparks’ victorious debut against Central Florida in the Citrus Bowl.
“I was just getting started and had of all of these big option plays I was going to run, and we did run some,” the late Sparks said in 2016. “But we ended up running the sprint draw to Van Williams about 25 times for 200 yards and won the ballgame. I became a big Van Williams fan real quick. …
“You could build a program around a guy like Van Williams. He could run over you or run around you, and he could see the field. He was a bell cow and you could tell (potential recruits), ‘We’ve got one of the great running backs in the country, so why don’t you come here.’”
Unfortunately, Williams’ second recruitment to Carson-Newman had a hiccup. Two weeks after the Central Florida victory, Williams was ruled ineligible for the rest of the season due to a lack of credits.
“It was tough because I knew I was going to have one year to (audition) for the NFL,” Williams said.
He made the most of 1981. Williams became the Eagles’ first 1,000-yard rusher, finishing with 1,285 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns. He made the NAIA All-America team.”
Williams likely would’ve had a similar career at ETSU. He ran 66 times for 401 yards (6.1 ypc) in six games before leaving a Buccaneers squad that finished 7-4. Williams said he broke training, but despite paying his debt to the team, including a healthy diet of running the stadium steps, he didn’t seem to ever completely reconnect with Carlisle.
And, of course, there was a fleet of capable running backs at ETSU that season.
“Boyce Green was at Carson-Newman with me,” Williams said. “He went to the Cleveland Browns the year after I left for Buffalo. But the group of running backs we had at ETSU was the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m talking about the pros and everywhere – teams that I played with. We had probably five or six running backs that could’ve started anywhere. We had Earl Ferrell. Ricky Reeves.”
Ferrell played in the NFL. Reeves had a career average of 6.9 yards per carry. Richard Dill was also one of the backs in ’79. He rushed for 997 career yards.
While discussing some of his more talented teammates from all levels, Williams quickly mentioned former Science Hill teammate Gary Carter, who went on to be a 1,000-point scorer at Tennessee.
“Gary is a year younger than me,” Williams said. “He was quarterback my senior year. I mean Gary was good at anything he did. He could play baseball, basketball, football. At all of ‘em he was good. He was an all-around athlete.”
Indeed, Carter won the football toss in the conference preseason jamboree his junior season with a throw of 63 yards.
“He could knock you down with a football,” Williams said.
Williams and Carter played together in elementary school for Kenny Arrowood’s Henry Johnson Redskins.
“We were undefeated,” Williams said. “So we played the All-Stars from each team. We played in Memorial Stadium. And we lost, 8-6. I ran a touchdown but we missed the extra point.”
Memorial Stadium was like a cathedral for Williams. He said descending down the ramp into the stadium moments before kickoff produced a feeling like no other.
He liked the stadium’s bowl design and how you entered the stadium at either end above the field. He was even awed by how the late summer and early autumn twilights majestically ushered in Friday night lights.
“When we’d all get together and start going down into the stadium before the game, man, there ain’t no feeling in the world that describes that,” Williams said. “I loved that field at Memorial Stadium. I loved to run on that field. I hated when they tore it down, I did.
“Right before games I would almost start crying. I would be so emotional but I wouldn’t say nothing. A lot of times everybody’s together and they’re hitting each other and they’re going off and making a lot of noise and stuff like that, but I wouldn’t. I’d be real, real quiet. I would just hold it all in until the game started and just let it out then.”
Williams had to wait a year to let it out in the NFL. He stretched ligaments in his left knee during a scrimmage, and although surgery wasn’t required, he missed his entire rookie season.
“The first week in camp we went to Cleveland for a rookie scrimmage,” said Williams, who counts Eric Dickerson and Tony Dorsett among his all-time favorite running backs. “I broke a long run, about a 65-yarder. I came back and ran a couple more times after that and a linebacker hit me from the inside on my knee when I was making a cut and it twisted it. They said I had stretched ligaments.
“So I had a cast from my crotch all the way down to my ankle for about 10 days. They took the cast off and I didn’t play anymore that year.”
Williams was no worse for wear. He ran his first-ever sub-4.4 40 (hand-held) the following summer.
So he returned 25 kickoffs for a 22-yard average in 1983 and 39 kickoffs for a 21-yard average in ’84. His longest returns were 65 and 60 yards.
Perry Tuttle, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after making the game-winning catch in Clemson’s national championship victory against Nebraska in ’81, was Williams’ teammate in Buffalo. While on a visit to Johnson City in recent years for a speaking engagement, Tuttle was surprised to learn Williams lived in Johnson City. And he was stunned to see Williams show up some 20 minutes after learning Tuttle was in town.
Tuttle lipped “wow” when the muscular Williams entered the room.
“We were rookies together,” Tuttle said with a big smile. “I remember when I first laid eyes on him I thought ‘This guy is chiseled. He looks like he could bench-press this whole gym.’
“And he was such a nice guy. We came in together and we just kind of hit it off. The guy was just a stud of a runner.”
Williams played two games before getting hurt in 1985 and played three games with the New York Giants during the strike-marred ’87 season.
He had 21 rushes for 62 yards with Buffalo and made six catches for 53 yards, including a TD. He added 29 carries for 108 yards for the Giants and five receptions for 36 yards.
“To come from where I came from at Science Hill and Carson-Newman,” Williams said, “and then walk out in front of 80,000 people in an NFL stadium — I can’t put that feeling into words.”
Not long before his death – and when he knew death was nearby – Sparks noted being thrilled about Williams playing in the NFL, and even more thrilled that he made a passionate return to the church. Williams said he believes “The Lord blessed me to play pro football” so he could have a platform to help mentor area youth.
“I knew Van always had a good heart,” Sparks said. “Like all the rest of us, he wanted to do it his way — the world’s way — instead of the Lord’s way for a while, but we’ve all been guilty of that. I always felt confident the Lord had big plans for Van Williams.”