CLEVELAND — The summer after Garrett Williams’ sixth grade year in the Leland School District, he knew he needed a change of scenery. So Williams packed up and moved in with his father outside of Rolling Fork — about 30 miles away.
“The guys that I was hanging around, I knew I wasn’t going to make it too far,” said Williams, a senior defensive back at Delta State who will lead the Statesmen in the Division-II national championship game Saturday against Minnesota-Duluth.
Williams enrolled in the South Delta School District his seventh grade year where he picked up football — and “it just went from there,” Williams recalled.
The “there” Williams speaks of is his transition from a troubled kid on the streets of a poverty-stricken city to an All-American football player. Thursday, it was announced that Williams’ team-leading 115 tackles and eight interceptions earned him Associated Press Little All-America Third-Team honors.
Williams’ eye-popping numbers, however, are shocking compared to his first three years at DSU. Williams played only sparingly through his first three seasons, registering just 55 tackles — including 30 last year playing outside linebacker.
“When guys have those type of years.....I don’t know if you can say I expected it,” said DSU coach Ron Roberts. “You hope for those guys, you think they have a chance to have a great year.....(But) I didn’t expect it.
“I knew he had the potential to be great. I knew he would be a great player for us.”
Williams’ coach at South Delta High, Derrick Hooker, remembers a polite kid who was quick to answer “no sir and yes sir.” He “never shied away from anything,” and quickly adjusted to the various position changes he went through in high school, Hooker recalled.
“Scooter” — Williams’ nickname since he can remember — played tailback as a freshman; switched to quarterback as a sophomore; and made the transition back to tailback and safety his junior and senior year. Williams rushed for, Hooker estimates, for 1,500 yards and “20-plus” TDs his senior year and had over 100 tackles on defense.
“I thought he could have played (Division-I) football,” said Hooker. “I knew he could play at any position — he’s that kind of kid.”
Williams was recruited as an athlete and has played on both sides of the field during his tenure in Cleveland. He started out as a receiver before moving to cornerback and then to the secondary — where Williams plays the Nitro position, a mix between a safety and linebacker.
Williams said he came into the season just wanting to compete. But the 5-foot-10, 190 pound defensive back, who was repeatedly told while growing up that he was too small, has put up numbers that has even him scratching his head.
“I wasn’t expecting this kind of year,” said Williams. “It’s been an awesome year. I just wanted to come out and compete.”
Saturday’s national championship game in Florence, Ala. is expected to have a crowd full of DSU fans, especially those rooting for “Scooter.” Williams said he expects about 25 family members to show up, and Hooker added that he may be in the stadium cheering his former athlete on as well.
The “Let’s go, Scooter” calls from the crowd will likely be louder than they’ve ever been in Williams’ final game. But that begs the question: Where did the name Scooter come from?
“I’m not sure,” said Williams. “People have just always called me Scooter. It came from my dad’s side of the family.”
No one calls him Garrett, said Williams — not the coaching staff, not his teammates, not even teachers.
“I don’t think I’ve ever called you Garrett,” DSU defensive lineman Matt Melton joked at Monday’s media conference.
“I guess,” Williams added, “I’m just blessed with the name.”