At Ft. Campbell, football is escape for players with parents deployed (cont.)
Williams, who would have been a senior this season, remains a Falcon. He still has a locker. When Berner called roll before a recent practice, he called Williams' name. The entire team responded, "Here!" Williams' parents, Bill and Kim, remain a fixture at football practices and games. Earlier this summer, Kim hosted a pasta dinner for the varsity players. Then she met Bill at the freshman team's game. Kim takes dozens of photos at each Fort Campbell football event, and Bill posts them on the team's Facebook page.
Why do Bill and Kim subject themselves to so many reminders of their son? "This is the only way," Bill said, "to show them that you don't quit." Bill, who returned from a 15-month tour in Afghanistan shortly before Tim's death, has tried to pitch in for other fathers who serve on the other side of the world. Recently, the quarterback of Fort Campbell's freshman team approached Williams with a question. "Mr. Bill, do you like Chinese food?" asked the boy, whose father had just been deployed to Korea, ending a tradition of father-son trips to a local buffet. "My mom doesn't. Would you go eat Chinese food with me?"
Tim Williams' locker sat empty on Aug. 27 as the Falcons prepared to face Kenwood. As usual, the Fort Campbell's resource officer gave the pregame pep talk. Unlike most schools, Fort Campbell's resource officer isn't a local cop. Fort Campbell's resource officer is Gerard Counts, who retired from the Army as a command sergeant major. At the time of his retirement, he was the highest-ranking enlisted man on the post, and he answered only to a two-star general or higher. With his close-cropped hair and ice-blue eyes, Counts looks like G.I. Joe would if G.I. Joe had any guts. Though Counts actually appeared as a Russian soldier in Stripes, he shook his head last week when asked if he'd seen Blackhawk Down. "It's all up here," he said, pointing to his temple. Counts served in the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in October 1993. During five years of pep talks, he has told several stories from the battle. After one fiery speech, several Falcons punched holes in their locker room ceiling.
Counts told the tale of a lieutenant colonel who lost a leg trying to clear a live grenade from a training field on post. After recovering at Walter Reed hospital, the soldier wanted to return to active duty. To do that, he would have to pass a physical test that included a timed two-mile run. The soldier taught himself to walk on a prosthetic leg, Counts told the players. Then he taught himself to run. He made his time. Counts wanted the players to remember that one setback can't keep them from accomplishing their goals. A week earlier, Christ Presbyterian Academy had snapped Fort Campbell's 20-game winning streak with a 23-21 victory. The Falcons realized a fourth title wouldn't come so easily after losing 18 seniors from the 2009 team. Counts wanted the Falcons to rise up and start a new streak against Kenwood.
After his speech, Counts led a call-and-response that works as well on football players as it did on soldiers.
Counts: "Am the god!"
Players: "Am the god!"
Counts: "Of hellfire!"
Players: "Of hellfire!"
Counts: "And I bring you!"
Players: "And I bring you!"
The Falcons, clad in new black jerseys, walked out of the locker room for their first regular-season game on their new turf field. A paratrooper delivered the game ball from a Blackhawk Helicopter floating 10,500 feet in the air. Kenwood, still burning after a 57-0 loss to Fort Campbell last year, wasn't impressed.
Running behind 6-5, 372-pound center Greg Hughes, running back Maleek Hall cracked the 200-yard mark. Meanwhile, Fort Campbell quarterback Aaron Hills threw a costly interception that allowed Kenwood to break the game open in the fourth quarter and roll to a 52-34 win.
After the loss, Hills crouched with his head in his hands. When Hills rose, Kim Williams -- whose son, Tim, should have been blocking for Hills -- threw her arms around him. Back in their office, Fort Campbell coaches watched the carnage again and prepared for the following week's matchup with Nashville's Pearl-Cohn High. (Fort Campbell would lose to Pearl-Cohn on Sept. 3 and rebound with a 28-26 Army Bowl win against Fort Knox on Sept. 10.) The Falcons have played the first four weeks without one of their best players -- senior receiver/safety Tre Powell, who is scheduled to return in October from a knee injury -- but they refuse to make excuses. "We're going to get this fixed," defensive coordinator McKillip said after the Kenwood loss.
They certainly will try. Because the Falcons desperately want to win that fourth title. They want to win it for themselves, to prove they learned from the champions who came before them. They want to win it for Tim Williams, who will always be their teammate. They want to win it for the 101st. They want to win it for the Night Stalkers. They want to win it for all those parents who take up arms for their country in a foreign land and can't watch their sons play football.
"Those guys in the NFL are fun to watch," Berner said, "but my heroes are their dads."
Sgt. Robert Von Dette listened to the Kenwood game from a two-man container at Camp Cole in central Afghanistan. He hated to hear the Falcons lose, but he believes they'll turn things around -- just like they did in 2007. "The boys will find a way," he wrote in an e-mail. "They always do."
A few hours after the Kenwood game, Von Dette responded to an e-mail from a reporter requesting an interview. Unsolicited, he offered the following analysis of the Fort Campbell program. "The coaching staff is more than a coaching staff," he wrote. "They are my extended family. At times, their job is harder than mine."
Von Dette added one request.
"If you see Chance or Annie again," he wrote, "tell them I said hi and I'll see them in October."