Mary Brown goes all out when she watches her son Lemi Williams play football.
Up in the stands at City Park Stadium, Brown shakes her pom-poms, shouts her son’s number and waves to the players.
“When he looks up and sees me sitting up there, a smile gets on his face,” Brown said. “Whatever he’s going through, he doesn’t focus on that. He’ll bring his ‘A’ game.”
Williams, a senior linebacker for Gainesville High, will face Alexander High School in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs Friday.
When Williams and Brown leave the Friday night lights, they return to a home where the lights were just turned back on two weeks ago. For several days, they had been sitting in the dark, using candles or the lights from cellphones to see.
There’s no hot water since the gas was shut off.
They have relied on the charity of friends, acquaintances and others, but still need another $198 to pay the gas bill.
After doing his job on the field, Williams spends his weekend working the second shift at a local Burger King.
By this weekend, he’ll know whether or not his family, including two younger siblings, Ras and Dekia, will be able to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner.
Still, they’ve been through worse.
So when Williams tells his teammates not to complain when they’re doing up-downs or wind sprints, it means a little more.
“I just want to see my Mama smile when she’s hurting inside,” he said of his on-field motivation. “You’re the only one to know that she’s hurting inside, but I just go for my family.”
Before Williams was putting quarterbacks under pressure, Brown was told by doctors that her baby might be born with Down syndrome, be mentally impaired and may not walk or talk.
Brown said she talked to Williams in the womb, once asking him to look at her during an ultrasound. Not only did Williams turn to face her, Brown said he blinked.
“I knew right then, my child has a calling,” Brown said. Williams was born healthy.
Shortly after he was born in Boston, his father left the family, leaving Brown as a single mother. The two soon moved back to a small home in Cordele in Crisp County, where Brown was born and raised.
Joined soon by Ras and Dekia, as well as a pair of twins in a small housing authority home, Brown barely made enough money to support the family. The lights and water would often get cut off when she couldn’t pay the bills.
The family sometimes heated water in a microwave to get warm water for a bath.
Brown used to work in the lunchroom at a middle school in Cordele, but she slipped one day, severely injuring her back. Williams was in kindergarten at the time. With a slipped disk and a pinched nerve, Brown said she’s scared for doctors to operate on her.
Her doctor hasn’t cleared her to work. Today, she’s limited in her movement and rarely travels out, except to watch Williams at football games.
When Williams was 13, a fire forced the young family into further poverty. According to Williams, his sister left grease on the stove after cooking, and most of the kitchen went up in flames. Most of the bedrooms also were damaged by the fire and ensuing smoke.
The family was able to salvage just four bags of belongings, mostly clothes and a few pictures.
“I wore the same clothes for the next two weeks,” Williams said. “Just mismatching the shirts and the pants.”
Just as he was about to start high school, Williams and his family moved to Gainesville.
‘THRUST INTO AN ADULT ROLE’
It was at East Hall High School where Williams finally got to express himself through sports. He played on the Vikings basketball team in his freshman year. Brown kept a plaque with a picture of the team posing together, with one notable exception.
“Lemi wasn’t there that day. He hurt his ACL, and he missed picture day,” Brown said. “When we had to go, they didn’t want him to leave, they were like, ‘No, you can’t take him.’”
It wasn’t Williams’ decision. The family couldn’t find steady shelter with a family friend and was soon on the streets, left with little money and just a few clothes collected from the school’s clothing bank.
The family lived out of motels, sought help from The Salvation Army and eventually Family Promise of Hall County. According to Brown, Family Promise helped shelter Williams’ family in temporary rooms in at least seven different local churches, all the while searching for a permanent home.
“People I tell about this, they’re shocked, in awe,” Williams said. “Some people who go through the stuff that we’ve gone through, they know what I mean … No 17-year-old should have to go through this.”
Gainesville football coach Bruce Miller agrees. Williams joined the Red Elephants just a couple of months before he and his family finally relocated to a small home on Atlanta Street.
Miller was struck by Williams’ intelligence and quick recall. Typically, Williams will be the first to answer questions in class or at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting, according to his teammates. The senior said he has a 3.0 GPA and wants to go to college on an academic scholarship to study entrepreneurship.
“He’s a real person … you can see the kind side of him,” Miller said. “A lot of kids put a shell up, but once you get past Lemi’s shell, you can see a great person. He’s just been thrust into an adult role at 17.”
Williams picked up his part-time weekend shifts at Burger King to earn a little money to help pay the bills, while Brown recently finished her GED. Still, the family doesn’t have a car, it relies on food stamps to get groceries, and Williams regularly relies on the kindness of his teammates and friends to get back and forth from football practice.
With long, dark dreads to match, Williams says his football hero is former Gainesville High graduate A.J. Johnson. He and teammate Chris Lyles both like to watch highlights of Johnson, sometimes shirking schoolwork to study film or take notes. The senior plays and practices with an enthusiasm that can’t be matched, according to Lyles.
Williams won a starting job as inside linebacker this season and has 32 tackles this season through nine games.
“I love his energy,” Lyles said. “When I’m out there hyped, he’s always there hyped, too. He’s humble, but he works so hard.”
BEING A MAN
Football isn’t Williams’ true passion. Where he really finds his center is in his music.
The senior loves to rap and has put together several songs that he hopes to combine into a mixtape that will release on his 18th birthday this January.
“I hope my voice gets heard, not thrown away,” he said.
Williams sees popular music today as too obsessed with drugs and partying. Through his lyrics, which he records with a friend with an in-house studio, he wants to spread a message of his struggles and the faith he has to escape a vicious cycle of homelessness.
According to his mother, Williams first picked up the guitar when he was young, and continues to have a “special gift” as a lyricist.
Still, hope goes only so far. What could really help?
“I can win the lottery,” Williams said. “I could really use the lottery right quick.”
Brown cherishes the holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. She enjoys any time she and her children can reunite around the table and talk together.
It also means that she knows they can be safe. Brown doesn’t sleep until all of her children are back indoors, and she constantly preaches for her kids to stay safe when they’re out on the streets.
“I keep the doors locked,” she said Tuesday in her Atlanta Street home. “I’m constantly on the phone with them, ‘Where are you at?’ or ‘Who are you with?’ That’s the biggest thing, feeling safe here. (Gangs, drugs), it’s all out here. You can’t run from it.”
But for as much as Brown wants to plan a happy, warm Thanksgiving meal for her family, she’s still $198 short on her gas bill.
She finds the positives: In Cordele, when the gas was shut off, the water went with it.
“We’ve been content,” she said. “But it’s getting cold, and the cold water when it’s real cold, it’s hard.”
Miller is holding out hope he can help Williams find an affordable college that will provide enough financial aid to help him achieve a degree.
The coach recently paid for his linebacker to go to a weekend training camp at the University of West Georgia. Williams wants to pay him back, but Miller said that isn’t necessary.
“He’s been put in a bad situation, but I guarantee you he’ll come out of it,” Miller said. “How many kids would have stopped and said, ‘I can’t do it,’ and just run away? But he’s stood up and done what a man would do at 17.”
If money was no obstacle, Williams has a dream: Attend college, earn a degree and start his own youth foundation to get kids on the right path. He wants to specifically reach out to the youngest kids he can, to teach them right and wrong. It’s a job that fell to his mother, and now one he wants to take over for others.
“The kids that small, they don’t know right from wrong yet,” he said. “For the older ones, if they don’t know it by now, they’ll never get it. You’ve got to reach out and have them follow the right light.”
On Friday, Williams will suit up for Gainesville in what might be his final hurrah at City Park Stadium.
On Saturday, he’ll suit up for his closing shift at the restaurant.
On Sunday, he’ll hope he can enjoy a hot shower.
“It’s better than Cordele,” he said. “But it’s still the same. Mom always tells us, me and my sister and my brother, we’re all we’ve got.”