It’s never easy for an athlete to deal with the misfortune of a serious injury, or, to feel the shock of a personal tragedy. If both happen almost simultaneously, the trauma can be devastating.
But as UTSA linebacker La’Kel Bass has learned, if you can find a good friend who will make you laugh, take you to church and then cook a delicious dinner, the pain can subside over time.
Two years ago, when Bass was reeling from adversity, he discovered such an ally in Vontrell King-Williams.
Bass said “it was very important” that fate intervened, and the 325-pound King-Williams emerged as his UTSA teammate, roommate and confidante.
“We all need someone to lean on when certain things happen,” Bass said. “I felt like Vontrell was really a blessing. It was like God sent him to me for a purpose.”
Today, King-Williams is a UTSA graduate, and his NCAA Division I eligibility has expired.
He’d like to play again in the fall for the Roadrunners on a medical hardship, but that seems unlikely, with coach Frank Wilson estimating the chances for his return as “slim.”
Bass, meanwhile, will enter next season regarded as one of the best linebackers in Conference USA, a leader on a team expected to contend for a championship.
It’s a remarkable achievement for Bass, especially considering the adverse circumstances that he faced when he arrived at UTSA.
To that end, Bass credited King-Williams as someone who stepped in to make a difference in his career.
“He always motivated me,” Bass said. “He always told me to keep God first. We’d go to church. I’d talk to his father, as well as other (UTSA) coaches and teammates, to motivate me.”
Both former junior college players from the Jayhawk Conference in Kansas arrived in the spring semester of 2015, Bass from Hutchinson and King-Williams from Butler.
Bass shined in spring camp practices, and he knew that if he backed it up in the fall a few months later, he could earn significant playing time in his first season in NCAA Division I.
His dreams didn’t pan out. Late in the camp, the native of St. Louis suffered a foot injury, which was only the start of his problems.
“One day I made a cut and all of a sudden, I couldn’t move,” he said.
Coaches later asked him to take a redshirt for the season, to allow the foot time to heal.
With his head already spinning, Bass learned that his brother, DeAndre, had been hospitalized after suffering multiple gun-shot wounds in St. Louis.
“He got shot, I think, more than nine times,” Bass said. “They had to do a couple of procedures on him … but he’s doing well. It’s always good to hear his voice.”
Bass said he still doesn’t know who is responsible for the horrifying incident. He said DeAndre doesn’t want to talk about it.
“I just tell him I’m here for him, that I’m his big brother,” Bass said.
Looking back on the situation when it played out, Bass said he prayed and tried to find comfort in his new teammates.
King-Williams, a Chicago native, always seemed to be there to listen.
“Sometimes when things got a little hectic, we kind of just chilled out,” King-Williams said. “(We) went to the gym, did a little workout. Or, I got on the grill and barbequed up some meat. Then we’d go up and eat, watch football or basketball. We’d just chill out.”
King-Williams’ dry sense of humor always has – and probably always will -- amuse Bass. In a recent exchange of text messages with a reporter, King-Williams joked that he is clearly a better barbecue cook than Bass.
Asked how Bass could one day step up his game as an outdoor chef, King-Williams replied, “Lol, I’ve never seen him grill. He just seasons the meat.”
Bass won’t argue that his friend holds the upper hand at grilling.
But with King-Williams refusing to divulge the secret of his barbecue sauce, Bass said he doesn’t know why his friend won’t give up the recipe.
“He likes to mix it up,” Bass said, laughing. “He gets a little barbecue sauce. (He) puts a little honey (in it). He likes to try and (experiment with) new things. But his ribs and chicken, they are the best. I really love his chicken.
“He cooked it for me this past weekend, actually.”
If King-Williams never plays again for the Roadrunners, at least the two will share the memories from last fall, when they played for a defense that boosted UTSA into its historic first bowl game at the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
Playing off the bench primarily, the 325-poud King-Williams called himself a “gap stuffer” as a defensive tackle.
He started in the bowl game and helped hold New Mexico, the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing unit, well below its season average in yards and points.
Bass, in his first year on the field for the Roadrunners, emerged at midseason as something of a revelation.
While most of the media attention was directed at freshman linebacker sensation Josiah Tauaefa, Bass finished the year ranked second on the team in tackles with 87.
He led UTSA in tackles five times, surging at midseason with some of his best performances, when the Roadrunners won four out of five games.
“We had a quick start (to the season) by (No.) 55 (Tauaefa),” Wilson said. “Then teams started scheming to keep him out of the game. It allowed La’Kel to be in a position to make a play (when) he was isolated with one on one blocks.”
Bass didn’t miss many opportunities.
A memorable highlight came in the third quarter of an upset victory at Middle Tennessee State, when he sacked the quarterback for an 8-yard loss, forced a fumble and recovered it.
“He was productive,” Wilson said. “From the mid-point to the back end of the season, he played as well as any linebacker in our conference, in my opinion.”
Bass said he hopes to continue improving in several areas in the fall for a team that could be a threat to win the C-USA title.
“I believe we can excel and do some amazing things,” he said. “If everybody buy in and be all in – that’s what we say in the weight room – if everybody do what they need to do … we can excel and, you know, go undefeated. I feel like we’re the best team out there.”
King-Williams, for his part, could very well be playing in the fall for an NCAA Division II program, either at Grand Valley State in Michigan or at Harding University in Arkansas. He has visited both schools.
Wherever he is, one thing is certain. He is firm in his belief that UTSA, with Bass and Tauaefa, will field the best tandem of linebackers in Conference USA and two of the best in college football.
“La’Kel is persistent, and he’s consistent, in everything that he do,” King-Williams said. “Hopefully, I can get to play with (the Roadrunners) one more year. But if not, I’m really looking forward to watching him ball out in his last year, and go on to make some money (in the NFL).”