Last season, Central-Phenix City receiver E.J. Williams made a name for himself with his spectacular play on the football field. His emergence onto the scene is special given the attention that comes with it, but it means much more given the man with whom he shares his name.
The “E.J” in E.J. Williams’ name stands for Eddie Jr. His father, Sgt. 1st Class Eddie Williams Sr., was instrumental in getting his son involved in football when E.J. was about 6 years old. The two held a special bond during E.J.’s youth, and Eddie’s death in 2010 changed the lives of E.J. and his family forever.
Nine years later, Eddie, nicknamed “Potrow,” continues to play a role in his son’s life as E.J. approaches the transition from high school standout to collegiate wide receiver.
“I have a lot of pride in my name because it’s the same as my father’s. I feel as if I have to hold myself to the same standard as he held himself to,” E.J. said. “It's a lot of motivation. He was really the person that got me into doing football. I didn't want to do it, and I wasn't going to play ever in my life until I played flag my first time.”
Vontrelle Williams can’t remember a time when her son wasn’t taller or faster than the other kids his age. But even though E.J. has become an undeniable star in football, Vontrelle remembers a time when another sport captured her young son’s heart.
Vontrelle and Eddie met while both were in the Army, and Vontrelle made sure her children were involved in several sports in El Paso while Eddie remained enlisted. E.J. played soccer in his early years, but his first love was basketball.
That slowly started to change with his dad’s guidance. Eddie – who played football at Mitchell-Baker High School in Camilla, Georgia – urged his son to give flag football a try. Even if his attraction to the game wasn’t immediate, the seed had been planted in E.J.’s mind by his biggest hero.
Vontrelle can still see Eddie and E.J.’s nightly routine clearly in her mind. Eddie would come into his young son’s room before bed, share their special handshake and hug, then leave with a message of, “I love you, big guy.”
The bond between the two Eddies was natural and unmistakable. It was irrevocably altered on August 24, 2010, when Eddie Sr. died at 39 years old during his 18th year of serving in the Army.
Vontrelle was without her husband, and E.J. and sisters Kahlia Lawrence and Kennedy Stewart lost their father. E.J., only 8 years old at the time, shut down.
“He was angry and frustrated at first,” Vontrelle said. “I just don’t think he really understood why he was not coming back and why he was not there. It was very emotional. His feelings, I don’t think he knew how to channel his anger and what he was feeling at that time.”
Lawrence stood up in the immediate aftermath of Eddie’s death and became someone her siblings could depend on as they tried to find their bearings. E.J. soon found two other people to lean on in Aaron and Alvin Jones, twin brothers who went to school with Lawrence in El Paso.
Although E.J. wanted nothing more than to stay inside all day, the Jones brothers were constantly around, begging the younger boy to come out and play. Slowly but surely, E.J. let himself join them and return his childhood to some sense of normalcy.
About a year after Eddie’s death, Vontrelle moved the family to the Columbus area, where Vontrelle and Eddie first met and talked about returning to once they retired from the military. Kahlia soon became an outstanding basketball player, Kennedy shined in volleyball and E.J. showed off his athleticism with the Phenix City Titans youth football team.
E.J. settled into his new environment through football and continued to excel as he reached Russell County Middle School. Prior to the start of his high school years, Vontrelle moved him to Central-Phenix City, which meant he would have to sit out his freshman year of football.
Despite not being able to play right away, it didn’t take E.J. long to make an impression on head coach Jamey DuBose and the rest of the staff. E.J.’s move to Central also helped build another friendship like the one he had with the Joneses.
Justyn Ross was two years older than E.J. and played the same position at Central, and his presence gave E.J. someone to look up to and learn from. Ross took to E.J. quickly and showed him the ropes of playing football in Alabama’s highest classification, which helped E.J. get up to speed as a sophomore and established a friendship that remains strong today.
“It was a great thing to have Justyn in my life as a teammate. He's really like a big brother,” E.J. said. “He was just a great example and a great leader on the football team. That's why I try and be a leader now.”
“Justyn Ross is one of the best teammates and the best mentors for him,” Vontrelle said. “He learned a lot, even when he could not play. I think that learning from such a person and an athlete has also helped him to continue to strive and to be that better person and athlete.”
Ross went from Central to Clemson after the 2017 season, which left E.J. with the challenge of being the Red Devils’ top receiver in 2018. Despite the pressure, E.J. excelled.
E.J. burst onto the scene in his junior season, making 40 receptions for 668 yards and eight touchdowns. He ended the year on a high note, scoring on a 24-yard reception to help the Red Devils capture their first state championship in 25 years.
With the big plays came recruiting attention like never before. There had been rumblings that Central had another stud receiver behind Ross, and E.J.’s play caused college coaches across the nation to send offers his way.
E.J.’s offseason has been one trip after another between recruiting visits or camps such as Nike’s The Opening. Despite the non-stop schedule, he has remained committed to his Red Devils’ teammates as they gear up to chase another state championship.
“He comes in and works hard every day, first of all. He does everything the right way,” Central quarterback Tucker Melton said. “He's huge. In one-on-one situations any time in the game, he's going to make the play. He's got the biggest catch radius in the state. He just makes it easy. You just put it near him, and he's going to catch it.”
E.J. has proven he’s fully capable of handling his business on the field, but he remains close to those who helped him reach this point. He said he still talks to Ross on a regular basis as well as Aaron Jones, who is now a running back for the Green Bay Packers.
Although Eddie has been gone for several years now, E.J. remains determined to honor his life and memory. E.J. will announce his college commitment on Aug. 24, the ninth anniversary of Eddie’s passing.
Eddie helped E.J. find the sport he now loves and the one he has a legitimate future in. Even after all these years, Eddie remains a constant in his son’s mind – especially every time he gears up for another game.
“He never saw me play in pads,” E.J. said. “I know he's watching me now. When I'm playing on the field, he's looking down on me and smiling.”