Juice Williams Departs With Dignity, Class

The Juice Williams era is now over. After four years as a starting quarterback for the Fighting Illini, Williams will no longer don an orange and blue uniform. To some, he is the record-breaking quarterback who led the Illini to the Rose Bowl. To others, he didn't live up to expectations. Regardless, one constant remains. He is a remarkable human being.

Many versions of the Juice Williams story will be written. Isiah "Juice" Williams was the starting quarterback at Illinois the last four years. In that time, he set numerous records including becoming the career total offense leader with 10,594 yards passing and rushing.

He completed 606 of 1135 passes for 8037 yards and 56 touchdowns while giving up 44 interceptions. His pass completion percentage for his entire career was 56%, which includes his meager freshman totals. In addition, he gained 2557 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns in 637 attempts. He led the Illini to a 9-4 record in 2007 and the 2008 Rose Bowl. These statistics are remarkable and will live in the annals of Illini football throughout time.

However, to many he was an enigmatic figure. The man with the powerful throwing arm and strong, quick body never seemed to live up to expectations. He was unrefined when he entered college. While he made consistent progress in his understanding of the game, he was never the highly efficient hero all teams need to win championships.

Looking solely at the statistics leaves one wondering how to define Williams. He was great at times but not most of the time. He had remarkable highs and terrible lows. There is no simple way to define the man upon whom Illini fortunes, and perhaps the job security of his coaches, have rested these last four years.

That is, except for his quality as a person. WIlliams is a remarkable person, one who cares deeply about the university, his teammates and coaches. He has a sparkling personality with an infectious smile that attracts friends like flies to honey. Ron Zook made him the face of the program with good reason. He is a charismatic and evolved soul.

Besides the pressures of leading an offense for four years and trying to defeat defenses designed to destroy his efforts, Williams had to face fan and media scrutiny as the most visible Illini. A few fans even booed him earlier this year, just one of many downsides of the job. Media needed stories and clamored for his thoughts while sometimes ignoring his needs.

But time and again, Williams answered as best he could. When Eddie McGee was threatening to supplant him as starter, Williams talked honestly about the situation and his respect for his replacement. When he was missing his passes or throwing too hard for receivers, he talked openly about his failings. He obliged the media's requests despite wishing to run away and hide.

It was part of his responsibility as quarterback, and he did his job well. After one Rose Bowl practice in the Irwin indoor practice facility, Wlliams was exhausted and had finals on his mind. But he was forced to stay late, waiting for a long-distance phone interview.

As he slumped against a wall, a reporter crouched down to ask him a couple quick questions. Even though he was asked to remain seated, he stood up to face the questioning. It was a time he could have rested, but he carried out his duty faithfully.

Williams had two final media responsibilities this past week. He met with them Tuesday afternoon to discuss his career, and he was center stage after the heart-breaking loss to Fresno State, 53-52. As he had done so often, he carried out his responsibility with the class befitting a champion.

He talked about his thoughts and feelings before and after his final game. He was sad and hurt, but he walked in tall and straight. A big smile dominated his face.

"Yeah, but I'm trying to cover it up. I'm sad on the inside, but at the same time I'm grateful because I get a chance to reflect on my last game, being around all my brothers.

"It was a great time out there today, one of the best games I've every played in. Unfortunately, we were on the wrong end of the score. But it was a remarkable way to finish my senior season. I'm forever thankful for the opportunity to be here.

"There were so many positive things that happened out there. Those are memories we can repeat in our minds 10-20 years from now. That's something I'm looking forward to. Of course, I'm not gonna try to reflect on a loss, but I try to think back over the good times.

Williams took a long time to walk off the field after the game. As many senior do, he lingered to savor every last second.

"It was tough. Not just for the loss, but it was the last time I would walk off as an Illini football player. I was trying to take as much in as possible to store in my memory banks. So many things went through my mind the times I've walked off the field, so a lot was rushing me at the time. I took my time to try to enjoy it.

"A lot went through my mind before the game also. I had a million thoughts. It was the last time for everything. It was the last time I'd lead the team out of the tunnel. It was very emotional coming out for the introduction of the seniors. It's a lot to take in. I've had many great times here. I have to put it behind me."

What are some of his best memories?

"Athletically, there are so many on and off the field. Some of the wins stand out the most. Obviously, the win at Ohio State was huge. It's got to be in the top three. Another would be the win at Michigan State my freshman year, my first win as a starter.

"And the win against Michigan this year, seeing how we were able to fight back and kind of get things falling in our direction. Especially for the offense. We were struggling all season, so what we did that game was huge. Those are three moments that really stand out to me. I'm sure as things progress I'll probably think of past events that happened off the field as well."

Is he concerned about his legacy?

"I think that's mostly for others. Obviously, I try to go out there and do as much as I can to improve my legacy. I think your legacy is really dictated by what others think about you anyway. If people don't like what I do, the legacy isn't there. But I think the success I've had in the past created some magical moments in people. I just tried to do the best I can.

"I'm sure I have a few negative comments about my game. Not being a polished passer, not being the Tom Brady of college football. But I think there's a large group of fans out there who really appreciate my game and the things I have done here. Setting records, cracking the 10,000 yard mark in total offense, things of that nature. I still think there's a lot of people out there who appreciate that. Who knows."

Four years ago, did you expect to top 10,000 all-purpose yards for your career?

"If someone had told me that, I wouldn't have believed him. 10,000 yards is a lot of yards. Somebody told me a week ago it was something like five miles of yardage, so that's pretty remarkable.

"All the yards, and all the notoriety I've received, couldn't have happened without the contributions of my teammates and everyone to put me in position to go out there and be successful. They believed in me, depended on me when times were rough. They put me in this position."

Do you feel you have progressed as a quarterback these last four years?

"How I was four years ago was night and day from what I am now. If you look back four years ago, I was 18 years old trying to play in the Big 10. I didn't know what a three step drop was, I didn't know how to throw a touch pass.

"The coaches really worked with me these last four years to develop me into the person I am now. If I was the same player I was four years ago, I'd be nowhere near 10,000 yards. That's a tribute to what the coaches have done for me these last four years.

"I wasn't the Tom Brady of college football, but I was able to do some pretty spectacular things and got some pretty significant wins over these last four years. That's due to the contribution of my coaches and teammates."

Does he have any explanation for the 3-9 audit for 2009? With an experienced senior quarterback and talent at a number of positions, much more was expected.

"It's fairly simple. A lot of the games we lost, it was always one or two plays that determined the results of the game. Even at Ohio State we lost 30-0, but it was a couple plays that really swung the momentum.

"So I think it was a lack of focus at certain times that really turned the tide in each game we lost. It's not really a big thing to try to fix, it's fairly simple. The players have to be determined to stay focused all 60 minutes."

Few realize the immense pressures Williams has been under. Besides having the fate of the team on his shoulders and the image of the University of Illinois to protect, he also had outside pressures affecting him on and off the field.

He and his fiancee have a two year old daughter for whom he is responsible. His family is a large and supportive one that wanted him to succeed. He wanted to represent Chicago well. All this and more weighed on him.

"Absolutely. One of the things I always try to say to myself, regardless of what is going on inside, is not to show it physically. Because sometimes people around me see it, and they're like leeches and carry on the character their leaders have.

"Outside my home, I try not to show any negative feelings at all. Indoors, I've had some long nights, some crying nights. There were times I really felt I wasn't capable of playing college football.

"But all in all, with the coaching staff and Coach Zook around us, my team, those guys continually did a great job of being on my side. I take my hat off to all my teammates.

"Eddie (McGee), the guy who's really been in my corner. Not many people can play behind me for three years. He learned alot and encouraged me as well. You kind of forget about all that stuff when you're out there in the fire. But it's been great dream here, it's been fun."

Zook saw Williams as a pied piper for recruits, and he was right. Not only did his magical charm have a positive effect on future prospects, but Williams had the unselfish willingness to help recruit teammates to help him win at Illinois. He was a big factor in the decisions of Arrelious Benn, Martez Wilson and other top players to sign with the Illini.

"I was rated pretty high coming out of high school, but I can't win games by myself. So I made it a point to get on the phone and recruit all these other guys. As those guys came in, we hosted the younger guys, the guys that were coming behind us.

"We continued to see improvement throughout the years. I think that's the best way to get the talent you need, and not be selfish. Once you're here, you need to give back to the team. You have an obligation when you're here to do that."

The relationship Williams has had with Zook has been a special one and reminds of the closeness between former Illini coach Ron Turner and Kurt Kittner. They have shared a destiny, both for good and bad. It is a relationship that will stand the test of time.

"Me and Coach Zook's relationship started when he came to my high school and gave me an opportunity to play here. Believing in me and my playmaking ability and trying to get the program turned around. Him coming to my school was the start of everything.

"Since I've been here, the trust has always been there between the two of us. He's been in my corner ever since, good, bad or indifferent. He's always been there for me. I have to take my hat off to him because not a lot of people would put themselves and their career and reputation on the line for one guy. He's one of the guys that really stepped in and put everything on the line for me.

"That connection we have is not just for here. Obviously, I've been playing for him. But I'll always give Coach Zook a call, and I'm pretty sure he'll do the same for me. That connection will be ever-lasting."

Zook finds it hard to hold back the tears when reflecting on what Williams has meant to him and the program.

"He came here when maybe it wasn't the normal thing to do. I was telling Justin Green yesterday (after he played a great deal against Cincinnati), 'Justin, you're acting like you could hardly breathe.' He said that it's difficult when you're playing a lot of football.

"How do you think Juice felt four years ago when he was the starting quarterback? I remember walking to the training table, and I was physically worried about the guy."

Zook was correct to recognize how Williams could put his Illini program in the national spotlight, however briefly.

"It's funny, wherever we went, Puerto Rico, Mexico and a lot of other places, everybody knows who Juice is. He did a lot for not only the University of Illinois but for the football program."

Are Zook's feelings toward Williams unique?

"No, I get close to all the guys. We hadn't maybe done some of the things that I wish we would have for (Juice). They all have had to go through some tough times, but he's kind of the guy that when it's been good it's been good, and when it's been bad it's been bad."

"There are six people in the history of the Big Ten conference that have gotten over 10,000 yards. He's the first one from University of Illinois. I'm not comparing him with all the great players that have played here. I'm just saying I think he's a guy that people will remember."

"To me, the thing you'll remember is how he handled the bad times. He never shied away. He took every interview. He took it like a man."

What is next for Williams?

"After Saturday, I hit the real world. Whether that's getting into the NFL, whether that's getting into the job market, the reality of life really kicks in. You won't have anyone giving you a free education just to play football, you have to go out there and earn it.

"That's the road I've been preparing myself for and being able to accept. Not making it to the NFL, that's something I'm learning to prepare my mind for in case it doesn't happen. The business side of life is really gonna kick in."

He will make every effort to impress pro scouts.

"I expect to train in January to get that going. I plan the toughest 6 weeks of my life in preparation. Hopefully, I will do enough to impress some NFL scouts and see what happens.

"I anticipate playing quarterback. But if the only opportunity I have is to play another position, that's an adjustment I need to make. Some say receiver, some say some position on defense.

Former quarterback Michael Robinson became a productive running back in the NFL.

"Yeah, I think I could do that. Just in case the transition does happen, that's a guy I like his style. He was a great Big 10 quarterback at Penn State, and now he's a phenomenal running back. He's done a great job of handling that transition. That's one guy I'd lean on as a mentor to make the transition if it was to happen."

What will he do if his NFL dreams fade away?

"That's where my major kicks in. My major is communications, and I intend to do something along the lines of sports commentator. That way, I can still be in the sports world even without the pads on. I've kind of got it mapped out, but I'm not exactly sure how it's gonna work out. For sure, something good will come of it."

Is coaching a possibility?

"Unfortunately, not right now. I see all the hours the coaches put in game planning, making sure the guys are in the places they need to be. That would be kind of tough with a two year old daughter, and she needs a lot of my time. Coaching is not a part of my plans, but who knows in the future."

Centers get to know their quarterbacks intimately. Senior Eric Block points out how important Williams has been to him and the team.

"Juice has been the face of the program for four years. He's been great. He's sixth all-time in Big 10 total offense, something crazy like that. He's had a great career here. He's meant a lot to the guys. He's been a great teammate and great friend. I can't say enough about Juice Williams."

So you believe his long term legacy will be a positive one?

"I think so. He's meant so much to our team. People are down on him, but everybody who's come across Juice knows better. As soon as you meet him, you can tell he's special. He's just a great person. I think his legacy will be a great one."

Illinois will be firmly entrenched in Williams's heart throughout time.

"I'd say I'll remember Illinois as a rescue valve, a place that really gave me a chance to turn my life around. It introduced me to alot of things I wasn't wise to. I come from a very rough background, rough neighborhood and school. Illinois gave me an opportunity to surpass those things, learn things as a young man and father. It's helped me a lot."

Zook knows quality when he sees it. He knows he recruited a great person.

"What he's done, has he been great? No, not all the time. But I'll tell you something. He's a winner. He's a competitor, and he'll be successful in whatever he does. There's no doubt in my mind."

More than anything else, wherever Williams's path takes him, he will be taking the University of Illinois with him. He will be one of the best representatives any university could have. He will be missed.


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