A Christmas story

(Note: This story was originally posted on Christmas Eve, 2011. It's about Sylvester Williams, a graduate of Jefferson City High School, as his North Carolina Tar Heels were preparing to play the Missouri Tigers in the Independence Bowl. Thursday night, Williams was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Denver Broncos.)

It's Christmas, the perfect time of year to tell this story.

Actually, this story would be great 365 days a year ... next year, 366.

It's a story of perserverance, beating the odds and winning in the end.

It's a story of success.

Sylvester Williams didn't have it easy growing up, being raised in a single-parent household. He had one brother, three sisters.

His father worked long, hard hours to provide for the family, but these were humble roots.

Williams didn't have the things most of us take for granted.

"He had a rough way to go and put himself into some bad situations," Jays football coach Ted LePage said.

"He had to drop out of school because of his attendance," said Williams' mentor and long-time Jays assistant basketball coach Andrea' Salmon.

Williams was at a crossroads in life at an early age.

He chose the right path.

He's a 2008 graduate of Jefferson City High School --- and for a time, being a high school graduate was anything but a certainty.

"I didn't want to give up on myself and I also had people around me who wouldn't allow me to give up," Williams said. "I always wanted something better than I already had.

"My big thing at first was: 'Let's just graduate high school, let's just graduate high school.'

"That was a big goal for me and I accomplished that goal."

Williams is 6-3, 320 pounds, but he only played football his senior year for the Jays.

"He didn't play much on Friday nights, but he did have a big impact in our practices, because he was such a big body," LePage said.

"As athletic as he was, he didn't have many football skills. But he came to practice every day wanting to better his life, just by being a part of the team.

"At one point in the season, he stopped practice and said: 'I just want to be a part of something great, you guys don't understand. I'm out here to make you guys better and I'll do whatever it takes. You need to, also.'

"I remember that was such a special moment, because he had not had the opportunities a lot of our players had had.

"He just wanted to be part of something."

Graduating high school was just the first step.

"When I did that, it was like: 'Let's get a good job, let's get a good job,'" Williams said. "Once I got a good job (Modine), well, there was a point in my life that I didn't want to be there anymore.

"My father worked in a factory all his life, and I just kinda watched him and I didn't want to do that.

"The next step was going college ... I just took my life step by step."

In late fall, 2008, Salmon took Williams to a Kansas football game to watch former-Jay Richard Johnson in action.

"On the way back," Salmon said, "he turned to me and said: 'Coach, I want to go to college and play football.'

"That's where it started. I told him that was awesome, but it wasn't going to be easy. That's when he gave me his testimony about how he's going to make it happen."

With one year of football experience under his belt, Williams went to Coffeyville (Kan.) CommunityCollege.

He turned into a Junior College All-American.

Williams now starts on the defensive line for the North Carolina Tar Heels, who will face the Missouri Tigers in the Independence Bowl at 4 p.m. Monday in Shreveport, La.

"It rekindles your belief in people," LePage said. "Here's a young man who had no opportunities in front of him, but when given the opportunity, he's excelled.

"It's truly remarkable."

Salmon had a big hand in this remarkable story.

"Some guys will turn their backs on you when you're down and out," Williams said, "but coach Salmon was one of those guys who stuck with me through everything.

"He's like a second father to me. When I was low, when I was going through my down spots, he was there to pick me up."

Rest assured, it was Salmon's pleasure.

"I'm really proud of him," said Salmon, who will attend Monday's game --- a ticket courtesy of Williams.

"I kept supporting him and believing in him, and I kept challenging him. He did the rest.

"He had a lot of adversity growing up as a young person, but he turned that adversity into something positive and he's made something of himself."

The two talk before every game.

"He calls me just before he goes out on the football field, I think that's part of his little routine," Salmon said.

Williams has come a long way since his senior year with the Jays. A raw talent in high school, he's now a noteworthy talent at the Division I level.

On Monday, he'll face former teammate Travis Ruth, also a 2008 JCHS graduate. And when I say face, I really mean they'll be butting heads --- Ruth is the starting center for the Tigers.

"Travis is a great guy and I can't wait to go up against him," Williams said. "I'm going to go out there and do my best to beat Travis on every play.

"But at the end of the day, we're still going to be good friends."

To be sure, Ruth won't see the same player he saw in practice.

"How exciting is this?," LePage said. "Two guys from the same high school who took such different paths to get to where they are today ... man, how much fun is that?

"Good heavens."

On Williams' bio page in the North Carolina media guide, it simply says: Great story of perseverance.

"He's made unbelievable steps and I don't think he's done," Salmon said. "His goal now is to get that college education and get that degree.

"I have no doubt he'll do it."

Nor do I.

Do you?