HOLLY HILL — A high school football coach plays many roles for the players calling him coach.
Sometimes he is a father figure, other times he is a mentor. Still other times he is a friend, and at times a disciplinarian.
Chris Carter, former head coach of the Lake Marion Gators and now the Edisto Cougars, was all of the above — including chauffeur and agent, traveling long hours with a young Mike Williams in hopes of finding a program that believed in the young man from Vance.
“The first year that he came out of ninth grade, I literally called at least 12 or 13 colleges and I was begging them to come and look at him. Nobody would come,” Carter said. “I was like, ‘We got a kid down here you’ve got to come see,’ and nobody would come. So, after his 10th-grade year, I told him after his ninth-grade year, get in the car and we’re going to drive to every school and you’ve got to perform.”
And perform he did.
With every stop, at every college, Williams learned he had what it took to compete with the best football players from across the nation.
“Just his ability to dominate kids, and when we went to those camps he had the ability to dominate kids in other states,” Carter said. “Sometimes you have high school kids that are good players in their area, but when I saw how he could dominate players across the country, I saw that he had the potential to be a really good player.
“I always felt like that if he got into a system that got him focused that he would be a phenomenal player, and that once he gets to Clemson, they’re going to be shocked that that was the same Mike Williams that we had at Lake Marion.”
It was a grueling process — resulting in some injuries, a lot of sweat and many long hours in the car with his coach.
But in the end, the process paid off.
“We went to Clemson and he did three days and he got injured a little bit. Then he didn’t want to go to other camps, but I told him, ‘You’ve got to go,’ and he went,” Carter said. “The more he went, he got better and better. I was texting back telling the coaches that you don’t realize the kind of kid that we have. That’s where I started Grind University.
“Mike was the first kid to go through Grind, because he had to go to camps where it would be 100 degrees, getting sores on the bottom of his foot. We had to ride for hours from this place to that place, but he had to do that to get his name out there. It was grueling, but in the end, it all paid off for him.”
It paid off for Williams in achieving his dream of playing college football at the highest level.
It paid off for Williams in winning a national championship.
It paid off for Williams in graduating from college in under four years.
And on April 27, it paid off for him when the Los Angeles Chargers selected him with the seventh overall pick in the NFL Draft.
According to Carter, what the Chargers are getting in Williams is more than just a record-setting receiver. They are getting a leader.
“Big target, but what he’s going to bring are the intangibles. He’s a team player, unselfish, humble, coachable — those are the things that you want,” Carter said. “As the draft was going on, everybody thought Tennessee (Titans), but I whispered to his dad, ‘He’s going to the Chargers.’
“The reason, because the Chargers called me earlier before the draft and asked me a whole bunch of questions … They are getting more than just a player, they are getting a guy that can lead on and off the field.”
For Carter, the moment Williams received the phone call that the Chargers would select him was filled with excitement and reflection as he thought back to the long road for Williams to reach that moment.
It was a moment that had confirmed what he believed all along — that Williams had what it took.
“Just excited for him, because he is the first kid I’ve had to get drafted this high in the draft,” Carter said. “Just the work, and just the things that we did in the beginning, you kind of think back to those things and see this take place for him that’s what makes it so exciting.
“When I first saw him, there were some people that told me that I needed to go talk to a kid in the gym — they didn’t tell me he was a football player, but they said that he was one of the best athletes in middle school. But just watching him on the field, I always felt like he could be a Sunday player. But as time went on and we started going to camps, that’s when I realized that he had the potential to be one of the top receivers in the country.”
Now as Williams begins his new life and a new journey as a receiver in the National Football League, there is little doubt that he has left his mark on his hometown of Vance and the county of Orangeburg as a whole.
It is those children turning on their televisions Sundays in the fall who will have a new hope -- that they too can achieve greatness if they are willing to “grind.”
“It’s big for Orangeburg County, but it’s also big for Lake Marion, Vance, Holly Hill, Elloree, Santee — all the areas around, because he’s a product of this environment,” Carter said. “He grew up here. To have a No. 1 draft pick come out says a lot about the type of athletes they have here.
“He understands where he comes from and he understands what it took to get here. He had to overcome some adversity and he did that.”