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November 10, 2010

Williams shows character through tragedy

Williams highlights

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - When Ishaq Williams visits Syracuse, Notre Dame and a handful of other schools in the next few months, the nation's fourth-ranked weakside defensive end will make sure to pack a jersey.

Not his own, but the one his younger brother wore at Abraham Lincoln High School.

Emmanuel Williams was 15 when he was shot and killed on April 23. Nearly seven months later, Ishaq still feels his sibling's presence.

"The jersey is symbolic," he says. "It makes it seem like he's right there with me. We always said we were going to get to the next level together. Now I'll have to do it by myself."

At this point, it'd be foolish to doubt Williams, whose character off the field is even more impressive than his accomplishments on it.

Williams, for instance, recently asked Lincoln coach Shawn O'Connor to give him his recruiting letters in private instead of making a scene in front of the entire team.

"He was embarrassed by the attention," O'Connor says.

During an unofficial visit to Penn State two weeks ago, Williams noticed an elderly lady struggling to carry a carton of bottled water to a tailgate. Shaun Williams says his son darted across the parking lot, took the water from the woman's arms and walked with her to her destination.

Academically, Williams is a B student who did enough coursework to graduate after this semester and enroll at a university. He earned a 990 on the SAT, which is amazing considering he took the test the morning after his brother's funeral. "In my mind, I didn't have any choice," Williams says. "It was something I had to do."

Williams' maturity and levelheadedness hasn't gone unnoticed. He'll play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl game on Jan. 8 in San Antonio, and after that he'll begin his college career at a yet-to-be-determined school.

The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Williams has plenty of choices. Hanging on O'Connor's office wall are letters from 30 colleges containing scholarship offers. Along with Syracuse and Notre Dame, Williams' list of five finalists also includes Penn State, Alabama and USC.

"I'm doing as much research as I can," Williams says. "I want to make sure I don't make the wrong decision."

It would certainly be out of character for a kid who seems to do everything right.

Support runs both ways

When Ishaq and Emmanuel Williams were in elementary school, the woman who supervised their after-school program shared a funny story with their father, Shaun.

Apparently a few kids were picking on Emmanuel, and Ishaq made sure they knew it was a mistake.

"Picking a fight with him," Ishaq told the group, "is like picking a fight with me."

Needless to say, the bullying stopped.

Sure, they had their petty arguments. And, yes, they were competitive with each other in everything, as siblings often are. Still, anyone who spent time around Ishaq and Emmanuel Williams knew that the brothers were close. Very close.

The Williams family won't talk about the details surrounding Emmanuel's death. Reporters are instructed not to even ask. Whatever the case, the events that occurred in the aftermath of the tragedy made it obvious that, much like his older brother, Emmanuel had earned respect and admiration from those who knew him during his short time at Lincoln High School.

Busloads of Emmanuel's classmates were transported to his funeral. O'Connor said about 2,000 people filled the standing-room-only church. A few days later the Williams home was bombarded by students who spent the afternoon with Ishaq, making sure he was all right.

"I needed that," Ishaq says. "I don't know how I would've been without that (support)."

Comforting as his peers may have been, the best advice Ishaq received was from his father, who is a guidance counselor at York College in Queens.

"We had a conversation about it," Shaun Williams says. "I told him there are things that happen that we can't control. The only things we can control are our attitude and our next move. That's what he did. He prepared for the next stage in his life.

"It was a terrible loss. I still don't understand why it happened. Ishaq is doing his best to let it make him stronger."

Ishaq says he doesn't know if his younger brother considered him a role model, but one thing's for sure: When it came to football, he always set a good example.

Shaun Williams said he sensed Ishaq had a "gift" after watching him on the field as a 7-year-old and immediately began doing anything he could to "nurture that gift."

Shaun said he began reading books about what the fathers of NFL players had done to train their sons at a young age. By the time Ishaq was 10, Shaun was throwing passes at him at high speeds so his hands would toughen while his chest got used to the sting of the ball.

"That way, when his peers threw him the ball, it was really simple to catch," Shaun says.

Shaun had Ishaq run stairs to develop quickness and hills to lengthen his stride. As Ishaq got older, Shaun forbade him from playing street football because he didn't want him to develop bad habits. He also told Ishaq to keep his body tattoo-free, which is rare among today's athletes.

"I don't want him walking around with his pants hanging low or his hat to the side," Shaun says. "He doesn't use language that you couldn't use in a classroom or an interview. Ishaq has never been a follower. He's a leader."

Arguably the best thing Shaun did for his eldest son was enroll him at Lincoln High School, where O'Connor has developed a reputation for helping high school players earn scholarships. Nyan Boateng played at Cal and was in the New York Giants' training camp last summer. Lansford Watson played at Maryland and Khalif Staten signed with Iowa.

Ishaq said he takes two buses and two trains to get to school each morning. But the hour commute is worth it to play for O'Connor, who tabbed Williams as the most "polished" athlete he's ever coached.

"From the first time I saw him play," O'Connor says, "I knew we had something special in the works."

Football in a basketball world

With the biggest game of his senior season just days away, Ishaq Williams is asked to describe the buzz that circulates the halls of Lincoln High School.

He laughs.

"I haven't heard anything," Williams said. "Most people here don't know anything about football. I'm not going to waste my time talking to them."

Indeed, New York is anything but a hotbed for high school football prospects. Despite its large population, less than 10 players from the entire state are expected to sign with BCS programs on National Signing Day in February.

O'Connor said Lincoln is the only high school in the New York City-area with lights. Before they were installed, crowds for the Railsplitters' games usually topped out at around 200 people. And remember, this is one of the top programs in the area.

"Everyone around here just loves basketball," Ishaq says.

In some ways it's understandable. Finding an empty slab of concrete or a wall to put up a basketball goal is easy, but locating enough space to build a football field in hustling, bustling New York City is darn near impossible. As a result, kids spend most of their childhood shooting hoops in the streets instead of catching passes on a field.

Ishaq Williams was the same way.

His mother, Anastasia Lewis, played basketball at Syracuse but was insistent that he try his hand at both sports.

"I used to cry when she made me go to football practice," Ishaq says. "I wanted to play basketball."

Williams did exactly that during his first two years at Lincoln, which is the alma mater of former NBA draft picks Sebastian Telfair and Stephon Marbury.

Eventually, though, Williams began to realize his future was on the gridiron. He gave up basketball after his sophomore year at Lincoln so he could spend more time in the weight room. The decision paid off when college recruiters began showing up in O'Connor's office to watch tape of the relentless defensive end.

"Some of our other players would hear what coaches were coming to visit, and they'd sneak by my office and pop their head in," O'Connor says. "I'm hoping this situation (with Williams) will influence them to work hard.

"Kids across the city are starting to figure it out. There are a lot more opportunities - a lot more scholarships - for kids who play football."

One of them will be going to Ishaq Williams, although he's still not sure which school he'll pick. Right now he says his only focus is his team at Lincoln, which will take a 9-0 record into its first playoff game Saturday.

Win or lose, Shaun Williams says he couldn't be more proud of his son, who - believe it or not - still finds time to be a kid. On his one "off-day" each week, Ishaq usually picks up some buffalo shrimp and strawberry cheesecake from Junior's, his favorite restaurant, and spends the afternoon watching movies or playing video games.

"So much has happened - and is happening - in his life," Shaun Williams says. "But I don't think he's overwhelmed. Ishaq is the strongest person I know in terms of strength of character and bravery. He embodies a warrior.

"He's humble, he's chivalrous, he honors authority - and then he goes out and raises all kinds of hell on the football field."



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