OXFORD — Sam Williams put his black Dodge Charger in park and let out a scream.
“Why me? Am I doing something wrong?,” Williams bellowed at the dark Alabama sky.
The junior defensive end was pulled over on the side of Highway 22 in rural Alabama on a sweltering July evening 48 days ago. His tear ducts were out of moisture, but the junior Ole Miss linebacker was overcome with emotion at the same time.
Williams’ had just gotten a phone call that rocked his world. His four-year-old niece, Jurnee Coleman, who he held in his arms in that same house two hours prior, was shot and killed inside her home in the crossfire of a gunfight that erupted outside. Two men outside got into an altercation and started shooting.
Jurnee was getting juice out of the fridge. A stray bullet struck her in the head. She was pronounced dead at the hospital a few hours later.
Here Williams was, yelling to no one in particular, wondering why more pain was in store for him.
Your in my thoughts 😭😓. Rest in peace baby girl. pic.twitter.com/w7bIunHCjL
— BIG SAM 💙 (@DegarrickSamuel) August 9, 2019
There’s immediate shock that comes with the death of a loved one, particularly when it is unexpected, but that shock often erodes into anger and confusion when it happens multiple times in close proximity.
“You’d have thought I was crazy if you had seen me,” he said.
Williams eventually got back onto the road and kept driving. He was visiting family in Birmingham and was returning to Oxford in preparation for his first fall camp at Ole Miss. Williams transferred into the program in January as the No. 7 junior college prospect in the country from Northeast Community College.
A Montgomery native, Williams seldom engages in reflection, aside from a few fleeting instances. The moment to himself in the car is about as far as such behavior goes.
His past has shaped him, but he’s made damn sure it won’t break him, which is why he rarely looks back. The news of his niece’s death wasn’t the
first hardship he’d faced in his 20 years on this earth, but grief struck him once again that fateful July evening.
Williams was born in Birmingham into a broken home and a rough neighborhood. He saw things most children don’t see. He once recalled playing on a trampoline with some kids. There was a shooting down the street. One kid went to go see what was up and was run over by a car.
“Where I was from in Birmingham, it is either kill or be killed,” Williams said. “You have to keep your head on a swivel and grow up quick. There’s no childhood in that life.”
He was removed from his mother’s custody at the age of six and was taken in by his maternal grandmother. She died a few years later. He bounced around living with different family members and eventually went to live with his aunt and uncle, Latoya and Sykes Kizito, just outside of Montgomery.
The Kizitos were caring family members and provided everything they could for Williams, and he says there’s no way he’d be where he is today without them. They raised him in the church, at United A.M.E, in Verbena, Alabama, just outside of Montgomery.
The Kizitos had young children of their own. Add in Williams and his younger brother; the house was crowded. It became an overwhelming task.
The instability in Williams’ home life often robbed him of some innocence. As a young teen, he felt like he was a pain to deal with, always in everyone’s way.
“Sam felt like he was a burden as one of the older kids in the house,” said Tiffani Cain, who eventually became Williams’ guardian. “He didn’t want to put any more stress on his aunt. He would say ‘I can’t wait to be able to just go to school so I won’t be a burden to people,’ He didn’t know where his place was.”
AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP
Williams and Tiffani crossed paths because of an unlikely friendship he struck up with Tiffani’s daughter, Sawyer.
Both attended Marbury high school, a small country school outside of Montgomery comprised of roughly 600 students. Williams was a budding star on the basketball team. Sawyer, a year young younger, was the scorekeeper.
The two hit it off. The strife Williams had been through may have robbed him of some level of innocence, but it was unable to cage his infectious personality. What may seem like an unlikely friendship between a star power forward and a manager, isn’t irregular to anyone that knows him.
“He was this big ol’ goofy kid. Still is, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound goofy kid,” as Tiffani describes him.
“That’s just Sam Williams,” said Reginald Brown, his high school coach at Marbury. “He likes to joke around and he is going to talk to everybody. Coaches, scorekeepers, whoever. He’s never met a stranger.”
As the two grew closer, Williams began to stay at the Cains’ house some nights. It slowly became more frequent. He bonded with Tiffani’s husband Mike and their oldest son Garrett. Over time, details of Williams’ home life would slowly ooze out. The Cains always let him dictate where that conversation went.
Big bro 💙 https://t.co/mywMFWqI35
— BIG SAM 💙 (@DegarrickSamuel) August 11, 2019
“Sam would share bits and pieces,” Tiffani said. “We could be an outlet to him when he was feeling stressed and things were going on.”
Tiffani is a Nebraska native, originally from South Sioux City. She was an outreach director where she helped at-risk families before the Cains moved to Montogmery in 2009.
Tiffani is the middle child with an older brother and a younger adopted brother. She had a four-month-old younger sister pass away. Tiffani’s parents became foster parents as a a way to cope, and housed two or three kids at a time.
“I think it was a good way for my parents to heal and help other children who were in tough situation,” she said. “It allowed them a healing process. It was confusing at a young age, but as I got older, I began to understand it.”
Tiffani became Williams’ guardian and he moved into their home. It was a familiar arena for her, and Sam finally had a family.
“I looked at her as a mother,” Williams said. “It’s different than a mom, she’s a mother. There’s a difference. She did what a mother is supposed to do. I felt loved. I felt like I belonged. That’s all I wanted and she did that for me.”
THE ATHLETE: “HE’S JUST DIFFERENT, MAN. HE’S A FREAK.”
It’s fitting Sam and Sawyer’s friendship was kindled over a basketball court. The sport was Williams’ first love. His friends describe him as a dunker and a freak athlete.
Williams could jump out of the gym. He was promoted to the varsity team as a ninth grader and was emerging into a star. One day, while warming up in the gym, Williams beckoned for his coach’s attention and did his best Vince Carter impression.
“He said ‘Coach, watch this,’” Marbury head man Reginald Brown recalls. “ He went up to dunk and put his armpit in the rim. I calmly said ‘that’s nice.’ I was so excited but I didn’t want him to see that.”
Like most people that come into Williams’ life, Brown saw the potential in Sam. He was somewhat aware of what he had overcome, but also knew where he could potentially go. Sometimes starved of stability, Williams’ isn’t short on support. A handful of people have helped steer him through life.
Brown drove Williams home some days and sometimes dropped him off at that little white church. He’d pull him out of class and set him straight when needed. Williams was a smart kid. Most that know him point that out. Like a lot of kids, he needed to be nudged in the right direction.
“I have had kids drop out of school,” Brown said. “I have had kids die. I have had kids in prison. I just have seen Sam going down that road and I would pull him aside and show him his potential.”
Brown also knew Williams’ athletic future beyond high school was elsewhere. At 6-foot-4, Williams wasn’t tall enough to play in the front court at the next level and didn’t possess the ball skills to be a guard.
The football coaches, with Brown’s help, prodded Sam to put on a helmet and shoulder pads. He had briefly obliged but never really stuck it out for a full season. When Williams sets something in his sights, he doesn’t look back. He was hell-bent on being a college basketball player.
Circumstances change, a common refrain in Williams’ life, and he needed a fresh start.
He transferred to Robert E. Lee high school in Montgomery, where Tiffani worked in human resources and helped out in the athletic department.
It was a bit of a culture shock going from a rural county school to an inner city public school with 1500 students. It took time for Williams to adjust.
Tiffani nudged him onto the football field, where his career began to take flight. Williams made friends on the football team, including a kid named Edward Johnson.
Edward’s brother Shaquille was a standout quarterback at Lee, and after a stint at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, was vying to become the starting quarterback at Alabama State in Montgomery.
Shaquille taught Sam a lot about football. The two forged an indestructible bond. Sam often stayed at the Johnsons’ house after late nights or long practices.
When he did, he shared a room with Shaquille. To this day, Williams refers to Shaquille as his brother. They’d map out of their football future. They dreamed of making it big, and more importantly making it out.
“He was the person that inspired me to keep pushing on this football journey,” Williams said.
Former Cleveland Browns defensive end Tyrone Rogers was the Robert E. Lee football coach. Rogers taught his pupil the craft and Williams became a cookie-cutter defensive end with length and eye-popping athleticism. College coaches began to notice.
“He was just different, man,” Edward said. ”He was quick. He’s just a freak, a football freak.”
Offers poured in, but Williams was late to the party. He had less than a full season of high school football under his belt and was still in the process of pulling up his grade point average.
Major programs were interested, but Williams wasn’t going to qualify. The division one doors shut, others soon after. Williams was on a collision course with the junior college route. Northeast Mississippi Community College was after him hard. Head coach Greg Davis was tipped off about Williams from a friend on Illinois’ coaching staff.
“I heard there is this really long, athletic guy who has only played one year of high school football,” Davis said. “When we saw his basketball skills, that’s when we knew he was a freak of an athlete. He can jump out of the gym.”
Tiffani knew this was the best route for Sam. He wasn’t open to the idea at first, but accepted it and never looked back.
Booneville, Mississippi is where Sam Williams began to grow as a football player and as a person.
Keep in mind, Williams’ first full, football-related offseason came after his senior year of high school. He was raw. He learned football. He added muscle to his frame in a college weight program. He lived away from home for the first time and learned the life balance of school and football.
“He didn’t understand how to work in the weight room, how to max himself out to his full potential to be a major college athlete,” Davis said. “This game of football, sometimes it’s about more than just saying go. He’s not stupid. He’s a smart kid. He just had a lot to learn.”
Tiffani was worried sick. She called Davis and other staffers multiple times per day.
“I pulled Sam out of one situation,” Tiffani said. “I didn’t want to put him into another. I was in uber-protective mode.”
Williams blossomed at Northeast under Davis’ tutelage. He recorded 53 tackles, 11 for loss, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries as a freshman. He once again burst onto the recruiting radar. A sophomore year that featured 75 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and four pass breakups earned him first-team All-American honors and MACJC defensive player of the year.
Williams visited Kentucky, LSU, Auburn and Tennessee. He wasn’t short on options, but was enthralled when he visited Ole Miss, so much so that he signed with the Rebels.
“He said he just really loved Oxford and I am like ‘Oxford, really? Ole Miss? This is the school you want to go to?” Tiffani said. “Me being naive at the time, I was thinking, ‘This over Alabama and Auburn,” He just kept saying it felt like home and he was comfortable there. I told him that’s the one.”
Sam Williams was headed to Oxford to play SEC football. Those dreams he depicted with Shaquille were playing out.
WHY WILLIAMS WEARS NO. 13
No matter where Williams goes, he doesn’t have to look hard for a reminder of where he came from.
He wears the scars of his past. It fuels him to push onward. There have been countless times Williams wanted to pull the car over and quit driving, scream into the abyss and give up. He’s always gotten back on the road. He’s always kept driving.
Williams was on campus at Northeast on February 4, 2018 — Super Bowl Sunday. Shaquille and Edward were in Montgomery asleep inside their home on a quiet morning on Winona Avenue. Edward’s room is in the back of the house. Shaquille was asleep in the front bedroom. The silence was soon broken around 8:30 A.M. . Someone began to open fire on the Johnson’s home. Eleven shots rang out that morning. One bullet struck Shaquille in the stomach. He yelled for help.
“He said ‘mom, I am shot. Call the ambulance,’” Edward recalled. “Then we heard a loud crash and he’d fallen out of the bed.”
Edward rushed into the room to find Shaquille on the ground. He held him in his arms as blood seeped onto the floor. The bullet traveled up and punctured Shaquille’s heart. He was dying in Edward’s arms, in the same room he and Sam used to share.
“I was just trying to keep talking to him,” Edward said. “I knew he was dying when his eyes started closing.”
An ambulance rushed him to the hospital where he was later pronounced dead. No one has been charged in Shaquille’s killing. The whole thing made no sense. The Johnsons had just moved into the house. They were told the shooting may have been related to someone who’d lived there before.
“No one’s been locked up yet,” Edward said. “They shot up the wrong house.”
Williams was on his way to meet with a coach when Tiffani called him and broke the news. It shattered him.
“It was an absolute breaking point for Sam emotionally,” Tiffani said. “ He’d never dealt with a loss quite like that. In a sense, it made him see a part of himself that I am not sure he knew he had. That extra depth, that sense to drive him to do something. It was very hard.”
Sam Williams lost two loved ones to gun violence in a span of 18 months. Neither bullet was intended for the body it pierced. Williams wears the number 13 in honor of Shaquille, the man he considers his brother.
On game days this year, he plans to wear a sliver of purple, whether it be an arm band or something else. It was Jurnee’s favorite color. Williams carries on the memories of those he once held dear, as he plugs onward.
NEVER LOOKING BACK
The healing process has been hard. He has moments where he wants to pull over, stop the car, look back and cease his journey. But he always continues to move forward. Williams says he hasn’t been back home since Shaquille’s funeral. There’s nothing for him there. He’s long reconciled with the past and some of the more traumatizing events of his life. Instead of breaking him, he’s let it mold him.
“It’s the city we live in. Guys pick up guns instead of fight. There’s nothing for me there,” Williams said. “Don’t let this stop you. Everyone has their “why”. My why is to get my family out of that situation. It’s not one niece, it is all of them. It is not one brother, it is all of them.”
Williams has seen things no 20-year-old kid should have to see. As Tiffani says, he deserves to have those moments of weakness. But he never lets them sink him or break his spirit. Williams is as driven as ever to continue on this journey, one he believes is far from over. He feels both the support and the weight of the ones who care about him and have kept him on this straightened path.
“Those that help Sam out, he wants to please them,” Davis said. “He wants to be as perfect as possible. He is very loyal in that sense.”
Williams still keeps a good relationship and dialogue with his mother. She watched him play football for the first game over the weekend, a 31-17 win over Arkansas.
Her presence brought tears to his eyes. He wants to make his mother proud, just like he does with everyone else in his orbit. There are times where he has to remind himself that he’s supposed to be here, supposed to be doing this. The distance he’s traveled — literally and figuratively still stuns him sometimes.
“It’s like ‘Sam, you aren’t supposed to be here but you are anyway,” Williams said. “If you have a bad day, get back up because you’ve done all of this to get here. You’ve gone further than you thought you’d be, so why not keep going? It’s a dream I am living day-by-day.”
Williams harbors no resentment or regret for the things that have happened to him. He misses Shaquille. He misses his niece. But there’s no time to wallow in self-pity or writhe in anger. Sam Williams is focused on the journey ahead. He has little time to look back.
“I’m alive. Life is a gift,” Williams said. “I have seen teammates, classmates die over stupid stuff. I am still alive and doing well. I’m still here. I was just a hood rat. That’s all I was, but I decided to make something better out of myself.”