Photo By Gabriel Stovall / Coach Don Williams is hoping that a focus on faith will help foster an attitude that keys a resurgence to a once proud Forest Park football program.
When 43 of coach Don Williams’ football players reported to camp on Tuesday, they may have felt like they were in the wrong place.
No helmets or pads were present. You would’ve been hard pressed to find a Forest Park playbook lying around anywhere. Even footballs were a scarce commodity.
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As a football camp, it seemed vastly different from the hustle and bustle of 7-on-7 passing leagues at state runner-up Lovejoy, or the high-tempo weight room workouts at Jonesboro. Different even from the sometimes physical t-shirt-and-shorts workouts that new Mt. Zion coach Ervin Starr has used to prepare his squad.
There were team bonding drills, competitions involving basketball and even a race featuring athletes leapfrogging over each other down the Forest Park practice fields and then sprinting around the track, relay style with small rubber balls.
And plenty of Bibles — different indeed.
It’s a good thing that “different” was what Williams was going after.
“We’ve been saying that we want to give these kids an experience they’ve never had,” Williams said. “This week these guys have been busting their tails, working hard to not just be better athletes but better men. And it’s all working together.”
Such has been Williams’ steady message during his first offseason stint at the helm of a much-beleaguered Panthers football program.
Williams believes that getting his kids to seek after something bigger than themselves and football will ultimately help them put forth a better product on the field.
And his players seem to be buying in fast.
“This team is grown to be more like a family than anything,” said rising senior linebacker Tirael McLemore. “This camp has been a true blessing. We’ve had a chance to bond with each other, to grow closer to each other and to grow closer to God.”
Rising senior center Carlton Dixon agrees.
“This experience is bonding us. It’s gluing us together,” Dixon said. “And if we can come together like this off the field, then when we get on the field there should be no problem.”
Williams — a devout Christian — said he has not been shy about sharing his faith with his players. And although he doesn’t force any beliefs on them, he said he has found plenty of openness to his message of football and faith.
“We couldn’t have done this camp without the help of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes,” Williams said. “We took a lot of these guys up to FCA’s camp in Black Mountain [North Carolina] and 24 of our young men gave their lives to Christ. This week eight more have done the same.”
One of those is freshman Justin Hines who eagerly spoke about the way this camp has impacted him, both on and off the field.
“Before this camp, I knew God but I didn’t really believe in him as much,” Hines said. “But what Coach Williams and this camp has been showing us is how much God wants to help us as teammates, as a football team and as growing men. He helps a lot, and I needed help. I asked for God’s help in all areas of my life and it just feels much better.”
Nino Alessandro, a rising senior whose family recently relocated to Forest Park from San Marcos, Texas, said he has never seen anything from a football team quite like what he’s seen from his brief Forest Park experience.
“We had a big booster club and big fan base back in my school in Texas,” Alessandro said. “But the sense of community here, the bond everything here is just so much stronger than anything else I’ve ever been around. It’s family.”
Part of that family has been the increase of involvement from Forest Park alumni and the Forest Park community at large — much to Williams’ delight.
In addition to the FCA, Williams has received help from other churches and businesses in the Forest Park area — including First Baptist Church of Forest Park and Chick-Fil-A who provided most of the meals throughout the camp.
Williams said he dared not devalue the role that strong community support can play in the revival of a school’s football program.
“You’ve got to have that alumni and community backing,” Williams said. “You’ve really just got to have it. And our alumni has been absolutely great.”
Count Larry Kennedy as one of those in the Forest Park community that’s happy to see what Williams’ presence is bringing.
“I prayed every day that our principal would hire Don for this position,” said Kennedy who’s seen his two children and two grandchildren graduate from Forest Park High School. “He’s building attitudes around here, and it is attitudes that are going to bring the victories.”
As Kennedy talks, he grabs the shoulders of rising senior Ronnie Thompson and cites him as an example of what Williams and the camp have done for the players.
Thompson said he knows specifically when the changes began in him.
“June 11 at 6:01 p.m.,” said Thompson, referring to a day when he and his teammates were at the Black Mountain camp. “That’s when I gave myself back to Christ.”
Thompson said he can recognize the intangible changes made in his teammates since Williams’ tenure because the same ones have taken place with him.
“I’m seeing it, not just with individuals, but with the entire team,” he said. “For a lot of teams it’s speed and talent that give them an edge. But with us, our edge is going to be our character and our determination. Our edge is going to be in our hearts.”
At the close of the camp, athletes were picking up brooms, dust pans and trash bags, helping to clean the area that they’ve spent the last three days and two nights in.
Nobody complained. Some were even trying to find more work to do. Chalk it up to the selfless attitude Williams said he teaches and tries to model.
“This isn’t about just wins and losses,” Williams said. “It’s not about me. It’s about Christ. It’s about these kids. It’s about this team turning into men.”