Marshall: Chette Williams A Positive Story

Since I read the <i>New York Times</i> piece last Monday on Auburn team chaplain Chette Williams and his ministry, I have wondered what I should write about it here. The column, written by Auburn graduate Selena Roberts, made accusations backed only by innuendo.

Chette Williams is one of the more impressive men I know. Whether you share his faith or not, you'd have to be impressed with his compassion for his fellow man. He has made an unbelievably positive impact on the lives of Auburn athletes and Auburn coaches.

As I contemplated what to write, I looked back more than four years to when I wrote a Christmas Day story in The Huntsville Times about Williams and his ministry. I decided the best thing to do would be simply to reprint it here. Here is the story as it was written on Christmas Day 2000:

***

Chette Williams is talking, softly as always. The Auburn football players in the audience, most of them wearing orange sweats, listen intently as he reads from the Book of Revelations.

It is early on a cold Sunday morning. With finals over, the Auburn University campus is all but deserted.

"From a spiritual standpoint, where is you relationship with the Lord?" Williams asks. "Stay together, pray together, work hard and believe in each other."

The service in the Auburn Football Complex auditorium is short. Soon, players and coaches are filing out, going to get ready for their final on-campus practice before going to Orlando, Fla., to get ready to play Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.

Williams smiles as he watches. He was there once, wrestling with the demands of learning to be an adult and playing college football at the highest level. That he is, at age 37, speaking to another generation of Auburn football players about spirituality is, he'll tell you, nothing short of a miracle.

Williams is Auburn's team chaplain. He's a calming voice, a willing listener in times of stress and times of joy. He is, fullback Heath Evans says, an advisor, a spiritual leader and a trusted friend.

"I think he's the one who originally set the tone for this team," Evans says. "He showed most of the guys on this team a different kind of Christianity than we had seen. A lot of people in this life claim to be Christians, but their lives never really show it. Chette lives it every day.

"Chette came in here and reached out to black players, white players, coaches, everybody. He showed true love and concern. He cares about people."

It wasn't always that way.

As Williams awaited his sophomore football season at Auburn in 1982, it's not a role anyone would have predicted for him. He was an angry and unhappy young man.

AU football head coach Tommy Tuberville (left) talks with Chette Williams (right).

Williams had walked on at Coach Pat Dye's invitation in 1981, joining his brother, Quincy. He'd arrived with great hope and enthusiasm, but his life began to spin out of control. His parents had divorced. He was drinking and smoking marijuana. His grades plunged.

"For almost a year and a half, I never smiled," Williams says. "I was just a mad, upset, mean person."

Halfback Kyle Collins, now an executive with Colonial Properties in Huntsville, and Williams used adjacent lockers. The black kid form Douglasville, Ga., and the white kid from Gadsden were thrown together by fate.

"We couldn't have been any more different, how I grew up and how he grew up," Collins says. "Chette was probably the single most bitter person I've ever been around. I never saw his teeth for a year because he never smiled. In the Bible study group I was in, they asked me who I was going to pray for. When I said Chette Williams, they said, ‘Hey, pray for somebody that has a chance.'"

Collins didn't listen. He began to talk to Williams, telling him he was there if he needed him. Williams paid little attention. One fateful night, assistant coach James Daniel knocked on Williams' door.

"It was about 11 o'clock," Williams says. "Coach Daniel came in my room. He said, ‘We just had a meeting about you. Coach Dye wants you to leave Auburn.' He started talking about how my attitude had changed and the bad example I was setting for younger players.

"He said, ‘Think about it,' and left."

Williams was desperate. Finally, not knowing what else to do, he went to see Collins. Before the night was over, Williams and Collins were on their knees praying together. On that night, Williams' life changed.

"I'm not saying God opened up the clouds and spoke to me or anything like that, but I could feel something I'd never felt before," Williams says. "I had all this stuff on me--school, being kicked off the team, my dad's problems, everything. I could just feel it leave me that night."

The next day, Williams went to see Dye.

"I was ready to leave, but I had to go see him," Williams says. "I had to tell him what happened. He said, ‘Let's just take it a day at a time, son.' That's all I've been doing ever since."

Williams says he has not had a drink or used drugs since that night. The black kid from the city and the white kid from the country became like brothers. That was something of a miracle in itself.

Collins and Williams each say the other is his closest friend. Each was in the other's wedding. Williams baptized Collins' wife at Chewacla State Park. It all started on that night in 1982.

"I wasn't a little bit prejudiced," Collins says. "I was a lot prejudiced. It was something I had to work through in my life. He walked into my room that night. The next day--the very next day--the guy was a different person. I'm not saying I had anything to do with it. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."

Williams graduated from Auburn, went to seminary in New Orleans and became a minister. He pastured churches in New Orleans and Mobile. He and his wife, Lakeba, were running a ministry for at-risk children in Spartanburg, S.C., when Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville called in the summer of 1999.

Tuberville had taken over as Auburn's football coach. He wanted to know if Williams would be interested in being the chaplain.

"I'm thinking, ‘Lord, what are you doing here?'" Williams says. "This is like full circle for me. This is where it all started for me. We came because we felt the Lord's call, because God had given me the opportunity to do for somebody else what Kyle Collins did for me and because I love Auburn."

It was a concept Tuberville brought with him from Ole Miss. Williams, who is paid with private funds, is also the Auburn campus director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the state director of urban ministries for the FCA.

"I knew when we first talked to Chette he'd be the right guy," Tuberville says. "He played here, went through tough times, had a change of attitude and turned out to be a minister. He enjoys working with young people. He felt like this was his calling. He accepted the challenge and has been a tremendous help."

Williams says his life is a testament to what hope and love can do.

"He's something special," Evans says. "The fact that's he's been here, played here, been on the practice field, been through everything, he's our reliable source. He's been from starter to almost being kicked off the team. He knows what it's about. He's a Godsend."

Williams hears the deepest secrets of Auburn players. In their troubles, he sees some of himself. Everyone's story doesn't end as happily.

"Nobody is beyond redemption," Williams says. "You want them to turn that switch as soon as you talk to them. It doesn't always happen. You see them going through the same things you went through, and they don't have to. What really breaks your heart is when one has to leave.

"Some people dismiss that side of it. I can't. Those guys are who I'm here for."

***

Four years and a couple of weeks later, Williams is still there for Auburn athletes and their coaches. Dozens of them will tell you of the difference he has made in their lives.

It's not hard to find negative stories in college athletics, but Chette Williams isn't one of them.


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