For Nick Williams, this football season was all about proving something – to himself, to his teammates, to the Erie-Prophetstown fans … and to his late mother, Becky.
Four years ago, Williams grew up faster than any kid should have to when his mother and father, Shane, were in a motorcycle accident. While Shane recovered from physical hurt, the emotional pain the family felt for Becky, who suffered a head injury, took precedence over everything.
"It was real tough, obviously, and I missed probably 2 or 3 weeks of school going through all of it," Nick said. "She ended up being hospitalized for a couple months, and we just had to pull the plug because she wasn't going to improve any."
With his mother never far away from his thoughts, Nick Williams wanted to make sure she lived on vicariously through her only son. His best way to pay homage to her, he realized, was to live every day to the fullest, especially when it came to the gridiron.
"We were talking at the beginning of the season, and he said, 'Dad, I'm going to dedicate this year to Mom,'" Shane said. "That was a little hard for me to hear, but not in a bad way; the fact that he was thinking of her so much when he was out on that field really got to me. Seeing him use something like that in a good way, as a little extra push or whatever, instead of letting it beat him up … as a parent, that's amazing to see."
Before every game, Nick repeated a little mantra to himself over and over. While other guys were getting psyched up with loud music or physical exertion, Williams spent a brief quiet moment talking to his mother.
"I just thought, 'I'm going to do this one for my mom,'" Williams said. "I wanted to show her that she has a son capable of doing so many good things. I wanted to prove to her that I can really step up and be the man that she wanted me to grow into and be."
Williams did just that in earning Sauk Valley Media Player of the Year honors. With 2,097 yards and 24 touchdowns on 262 carries, the bruising, athletic fullback led the Panthers to the playoffs for the second straight season, and the co-op's first playoff victory.
With his late mother's memory driving him in everything he did, Nick Williams' transformation from a complementary halfback to the go-to fullback started in an emotional capacity.
While he described himself as "lazy" when it came to work ethic and offseason attitude, Williams realized last summer that he had some big shoes to fill in place of Zach Inskeep, the do-everything fullback/linebacker from the Panthers' run to the Class 3A playoffs in 2012.
"Everybody was probably looking at me and thinking, 'Oh, I don't think he can do it, I don't think he's going to step up and be like what Zach was' … and I might've wondered a little bit, too," Williams said. "I'd never really been in anyone's shadow before, and I was adamant about trying to step up and show people that I really could compete with what Zach had done."
All Inskeep had done was finish third in the Sauk Valley in rushing, with 1,125 yards and 17 touchdowns on 190 carries.
Even with his "laziness," Williams still played a part for the Panthers. He racked up 422 yards and six TDs on 37 carries from his halfback position in 2012.
"He just kind of rode on his natural ability," E-P coach Chuck Milem said, "and he's got a lot of God-given ability, there's no doubt about that.
"But I thought he was a pretty good leader for us this summer – definitely not in his younger years – but even if he was tired or sleepy-eyed or whatever, he always made it to everything."
Williams has been spreading the word of how much he wishes he could go back in time and show more dedication in the offseason, telling the younger players during Senior Week of what he might have been capable of had he worked hard all 4 years instead of just his final one.
Shane Williams credits that to his son's evolving maturity.
"He and his sisters went through something no kids should ever have to," Shane said, "and they had to grow up quicker and mature faster than typical kids. I'm about as proud as any parent can get with how my children have dealt with everything; they're so strong and proud and humble and respectful.
"Those are important traits when it comes to life … and to football."
Like many young athletes, Nick Williams is much more comfortable giving credit to others than he is at accepting accolades himself.
And like any good running back, Williams gushes about his fellow backs and linemen – especially his linemen – as he calls this a team award.
"All my linemen and blockers deserve the highest award," Williams said. "The big guys in the trenches were really the heart and soul of this team, and it was them doing everything they could that allowed us backs to get our yards.
"This award is all about my team, because without them pushing me and helping me realize what I could do with their help and support and ability, I couldn't have gotten anything."
Still, the 2,000-yard barrier was nothing but a pipe dream for Williams. With his focus on helping the team realize its playoff dreams for a second consecutive fall, he followed the lead of his coaches and captains … and tried to lead a little bit himself.
More of a leader by example than vocally – "I guess I can chew some people out and get on them if I need to, but I hope people see me doing something good and follow my example," he said – Williams never really worried about the numbers he was putting up.
He averaged 8.0 yards per carry and 190.1 yards per game, and as his focus stayed on helping his team, he crept ever closer to some rarefied air. No other Panther has ever rushed for 2,000 yards, and he's only the second Sauk Valley rusher to clear that mark since 2005, joining Morrison's Josh Vos in 2009 (2,115).
"I never even expected to get anything over 1,000 yards," Williams said, "and to double it is a huge feat. I'm really excited and proud that I was even capable of doing it.
"But looking back, the bigger thing to me is what we did as a team. We have done something that no other team in Erie-Prophetstown history has done – win a playoff game – and we're real proud to be the guys that set the bar way up there for the teams to come."
Being forced to grow up faster than a normal kid has helped Nick Williams appreciate youth. One of his favorite things is working with children, coaching them in football and wrestling camps.
His joy in helping the next generation is leading him toward a possible future in teaching. He hopes to attend UW-Platteville to earn his degree, while also playing football and wrestling at the collegiate level.
But no matter what his journey leads to down the road, Williams' main goal is to continue to honor his mother in everything he does.
"I just hope that someday people look at us and say, 'There's Shane and Becky's kids, I'm proud of what they've done with their lives,'" Nick said. "I really hope it shows through in everything I do."
Sports: Football, wrestling
Parents: Shane and the late Becky Williams
Sisters: Angel (21), Katelyn (16), Sierra (15)
College: Hopes to play football and wrestle at UW-Platteville
Future plans: Teaching & coaching
FYI: First player in Erie-Prophetstown program history to reach 2,000 yards. … Finished with 262 rushes for 2,097 yards (8.0 yards per carry) and 24 TDs, with 14 tackles as backup LB. … Helped lead Panthers to first playoff win in co-op history.