Coach Don Williams (center) and Forest Park wrestlers drink from the cup of victory that they won at the Area 4-AAAA Duals tournament this season. The Panthers won that, the county championship and the Area 4-AAAA Traditional tournament all in the same season for the first time in school history.
Even though victory follows Don Williams wherever he goes, the Forest Park wrestling coach insists it isn’t about him.
He has won team state championships at Eagle’s Landing and Stockbridge, coached 10 individual state champions and guided Forest Park to unprecedented heights short of a state title this season.
But it’s not about him.
Twenty-six years of coaching, more than 400 victories, scores of his former wrestlers who themselves have become coaches ... and now 11 Panthers are headed to the Class AAAA West Sectionals today and Saturday at Northside-Columbus.
This season the Panthers have won the Clayton County championship, the Area 4-AAAA Duals title and their first-ever Area 4-AAAA Traditional title —a trifecta they’ve never achieved before.
But it’s not about him.
Let the Panthers themselves tell you what it’s about, what one year under Williams has meant at a place where self-image has suffered.
“At Forest Park, if you’re a young male student, you’re not used to winning, unless it’s soccer or something,” said Tyrik Ball, who was runner-up at 160 pounds in the area tournament last weekend at Mount Zion. “He gave the seniors a chance to get used to winning.”
Seven seniors who are the Panthers’ foundation point squarely at Williams, the common denominator in a host of successful programs. So do those who wrestled for him and have gone on to their own programs.
“He’s a great motivator,” said Locust Grove coach Nick Fordham, who wrestled for Williams at Eagle’s Landing. “He has the ability to take kids and make them feel like family.”
Fordham will get no argument from Forest Park wrestlers on that one, especially two-time area champion Leon Butts, who describes what Williams has brought to Forest Park as “life-changing” and says this year’s wrestling squad is “the best team I’ve ever played on.”
Williams says they protect each other the way his brother protected him growing up.
“I had a brother and he would beat me, but nobody else could mess with me,” Williams said before pointing at the wrestlers on his team. “Anybody else messes with them, they ain’t rollin’ with that.”
Said Butts: “Everyone on this team loves each other. I look at them as if we all live in the same household. I can go talk to their teachers, make sure they’re keeping up their test scores.”
The Panthers say Williams didn’t bring any big secret to success when he left co-coaching with Kevin Jones at Lovejoy last May and replaced John Patterson.
“He was telling us there’s no magic way, just hard work,” Ball said.
Starting last June, 52 guys thought it would be a nice idea to be Forest Park wrestlers. Then the hard work started and 52 quickly became 21.
“I was sweating through four pairs of sweats,” said senior Kyle Nelson, Forest Park’s area runner-up at 152 pounds. “I thought I was working hard back then (before Williams), but looking back on it now, that wasn’t so hard.”
OK, maybe it’s a little about him.
Jose Paz wrestled at 215 pounds for Williams at Stockbridge and the Tigers won traditional and duals state championships in 2007. Now a community coach with the team, Paz said Williams brought a toughness to the Panthers.
“He makes them push themselves, go beyond what they thought they could do,” Paz said. “They might smash their head and start bleeding, but they’ll clean up, tape up and get back on the mat. He’s building not just physical toughness but mental toughness. They’re becoming tough.”
They’re becoming confident.
“Champions. We’re No. 1, can’t be beaten, undefeatable,” said Devontae Carter, who was just that — No. 1 in the area tournament at 138 pounds. He’s just one example of the belief they have in themselves.
Many of the wrestlers have been together since ninth grade. Jarius Leavy, the fifth-place finisher at 220 pounds in the area tournament, and Nelson have known each other since elementary school. Williams has only helped strengthen those bonds.
“He’s built up confidence in themselves, so they wrestle their match instead of wrestling scared,” said Leavy, who will go to Columbus as an alternate.
Williams, a man of devout Christian faith, is unselfish with his years of knowledge and experience, which is what impressed Jared Gray about him when Gray wrestled at Luella.
“Some coaches are standoffish with wrestlers from other schools, they wouldn’t come up and talk with another wrestler,” Gray said. “But my junior and senior year, he let me come roll with his guys.”
Williams let Gray roll with his assistant coaches, even though Gray said, “I hadn’t been on a mat in four years.”
Nevertheless, Williams has supreme confidence in his assistants — not just Paz and Gray but Daniel Helena and John Bell, too. Even with his team preparing for its biggest event of the season, Williams was confident enough in his assistants that he comfortably went to see his daughter in a play.
“As soon as I got this job, I came knocking on their door,” Williams said.
Now the Forest Park coach is trying to spread the wealth and build a wrestling center for Clayton County youngsters, just like they have in Henry and Fayette counties.
“I want to give these kids the same advantages,” said Williams, who doesn’t know where the center will be, but hopes to open it in March. “Regardless of where we are, we’re going to keep these kids on the mat.”
So ... it’s about them.
But without Williams, it might not be.