The Williamses gambled when they left their crime-ridden neighborhood of Toledo, Ohio, in search of a better life for their kids. Weeks of homelessness, nights spent sleeping in their truck and the days spent worrying about the future now seem worth it.
Genise Williams was overcome with emotion the night she first saw her eldest son on TV, dressed in Washington State’s crimson and gray uniform, walking onto the field with his teammates.
At 5 feet 11 and 199 pounds, with lightning-quick feet, instincts you can’t teach and an unquenchable desire to improve himself, James Williams II had a breakthrough performance in a 56-6 win over Idaho on Sept. 17, when the redshirt freshman rushed 14 times for 126 yards and scored his first collegiate touchdown.
Home in Burbank, Calif., and watching their son’s big game from Barney’s Beanery, where WSU alums gather to cheer on the Cougars, Genise and James Williams were struck by the magnitude of what they had pulled off in a few short years.
The gamble they took when they left their crime-ridden neighborhood of Toledo, Ohio, to move 2,000 miles away in search of a better life for their kids had paid off. The weeks of homelessness, nights spent sleeping in their truck and the days spent worrying about the future — suddenly, it was all worth it.
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“Whenever she sees him on TV, she almost cries,” James said of his wife. “We know what we went through to get there, and we persevered to get through.”
Every time James Williams II touches the football wearing a Washington State jersey, he justifies the choice his parents made six years ago, to give up everything in search of a better future for their children.
Getting out of Toledo
The original James Williams was a 17-year-old high-school junior in Toledo, Ohio, when he found out his girlfriend, Genise, 18, was pregnant.
“His mom was very strict, and we were kinda scared to tell her because she had high hopes for her son, and having a baby wasn’t part of them,” Genise said. “She pushed for him to go to college.”
James wanted to go to college, too. A natural athlete, he was recruited to play basketball and football at Defiance College, a Division III school about an hour from Toledo. So in August 1998, buoyed by small scholarships and financial aid, James enrolled at Defiance and started playing football.
He didn’t stay long.
Four months into the school year, Genise, who was pregnant with their second son, Darnell, took 3-year-old James II to Defiance to visit his father for the first time since he’d left Toledo.
“She put him in my arms and he looked at me like he didn’t even know who I was,” the elder Williams said. “He didn’t want to come to me, or he’d shy away. And I was like, ‘I can’t have this. I can’t have him not knowing who I am.’ ”
Raised by his mother in a rough part of central Toledo, James had never known his father and couldn’t stand the thought of his son growing up the same way. Yet he struggled with the prospect of dropping out of college because he knew that was his ticket to a better life, away from the drugs and violence of the dark city of his youth.
James’ desire to be a father to his son won out. He left Defiance before the start of basketball season and returned to Toledo, working at a warehouse. He and Genise got married and later had their third child, daughter Mari.
Over the next few years, two things become clear to the Williamses: Mari had tremendous talent as a dancer, singer and actor, and their three children were floundering in Toledo’s bad public-school system.
The family’s house was broken into on more than one occasion, there were murders on their street and the sound of gunshots was not uncommon. By the time James II was in seventh grade, he already had been to the funeral of one childhood friend felled by violence.
At one point, James II started wearing mostly red clothing, and in a neighborhood rife with gang violence between the Bloods and the Crips, his parents took that as a bad sign.
“I wanted him to be around kids who were like-minded, not around kids breaking into houses and stealing and stuff like that,” James said. “We were sick of the violence.”
Meanwhile, by age 6, Mari already was a talented performer. In 2006, the Williamses took her to the International Modeling and Talent Association audition in New York, and the talent scouts all told the Williamses the same thing: They wouldn’t sign their daughter unless the family moved to Los Angeles.
The Williamses took a vacation to the Los Angeles area. They scouted public schools, talked to talent agencies and made a decision: They were moving to Southern California.
“We made the decision to get her to California to get her to show business, and I knew that California was a hotbed of football talent, which could be good for James,” James said.
Over the next few years, James worked long hours at a warehouse while Genise stayed home with the kids as they scrimped and saved toward their California dream.
Heading to California
In April 2010, the Williamses took everything that would fit into their 2006 Chevy Trailblazer and hit the road with about $2,500.
The plan was to stay with some cousins in Van Nuys until James and Genise found jobs and could get a place of their own. But taking in a family of five proved to be too much for the relatives, who reneged on their offer to provide lodging.
James and Genise suddenly found themselves 2,000 miles from home with three little kids, very little money and nowhere to stay.
“We literally panicked,” James said. “We went and filed for assistance, and they gave us a voucher for two weeks to stay in a motel until we found a place to live.”
But James and Genise refused to give up and go back to Toledo.
“We thought we would rather struggle out here than go back to nothing,” Genise said.
For the next two months, the Williamses alternated between sleeping in their truck for a few days and springing for a couple of nights in a cheap motel room so they could shower and freshen up.
After nights in their truck, the family would drive to the public library in the morning to use the bathroom and keep the kids occupied with books as James and Genise applied for jobs.
James said they never went hungry thanks to public assistance, but between lodging, gas and food, the Williamses’ meager savings quickly dwindled away.
“It was tough. My worst fears all came true at the same time. Not having a job, them being homeless,” James said. “Nothing was going our way. We were doubting ourselves. It was literally a nightmare.”
To give the boys something to do as he and his wife tried to get on their feet in Burbank, James signed them up for Pop Warner football.
James II had shown promise in Toledo as a tough little linebacker, but when Burbank Vikings coach Don Ashley set his eyes on James II, he decided the kid would make a perfect running back.
At 13, James “had the body of an 18-year-old,” Ashley said. “He literally looked like a little man.”
But it wasn’t just James’ size that got him noticed.
“It was his twitch. His speed,” Ashley said. “Every single sprint, every exercise, he would give 110 percent. He never would come in last in anything. Every run, every rep was at full speed.”
Despite James and Genise’s resolve, after weeks of homelessness, their circumstances began to wear on them. While sitting in a park one summer day with Genise feeling slightly ill after having just thrown up, she finally told her husband that she thought they should go back to Toledo.
“It just didn’t seem like we were gonna make it out here,” Genise said. “I looked around and was like, ‘We don’t know anybody out here. I don’t want to put the kids through this no more. I think we should just pack up and go ahead and go back.’ Giving up everything felt so overwhelming. But being homeless for a minute is like a lifetime, a nightmare.”
That evening, as the Williamses were getting ready to leave California, their luck finally changed. Alan Akobian, another Vikings coach, called and invited the family to stay at his house for the week.
“I don’t know why they did it,” James said of Akobian and his wife, Shaya. “But they were just real Christian people.”
The Vikings coaches had all found out about the family’s living situation, and they rallied to the rescue. One coach was a hiring supervisor at FedEx, and he helped James get a job. Through Akobian’s pastor, the Williamses got into a program that provides homeless families with housing at churches.
The Williamses shuttled from one church to another for about eight months before they saved up enough money to get an apartment.
“That’s when stuff got a lot better,” James said.
By 2014, things had stabilized for the Williamses. While juggling jobs, James and Genise went back to school. He earned five personal training-related certificates from the Southern California Health Institute, and she got a certificate in massage therapy.
Money was still tight, but they had food and a roof over their heads.
“Literally, we couldn’t afford nothing. Everything I made and everything she made we had to save for rent,” James said. “There were stretches where the lights or gas got cut off, but that didn’t faze us. We’d been worse off.”
A better life
Until 2013, when James II rushed for 1,469 yards and scored a school-record 22 touchdowns to lead Burbank High School to a 10-3 record and a semifinal playoff berth, it had been at least 40 years since Burbank produced a Power Five-caliber football prospect.
The summer between James II’s junior and senior years, a multitude of college coaches stopped by the high school to evaluate the kid nicknamed “Boobie” after Permian High School running back Boobie Miles of “Friday Night Lights” fame.
But James II tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee while returning the opening kickoff in the second game of his senior season.
Already committed to Washington State, James II assumed the worst after his injury: “Football is over for me,” he thought. “There’s no way they’ll let me keep my scholarship.”
But to his surprise, Washington State stuck by him, honoring his scholarship and redshirting him during his first year.
“A lot of the misconceptions of some people and some parents is, ‘If my son was hurt, they would drop him.’ We would never do that,” said WSU running-backs coach Jim Mastro, who recruited James II. “He was too good a kid, and we gave him our word.”
James II is already repaying WSU’s faith. He led the Cougars in rushing against Idaho and will be a big part of their game plan in their Pac-12 opener against Oregon next weekend.
It’s been quite the ride for the Williamses, and James and Genise sometimes marvel at how well their children have done for themselves.
The credit, James II said, should go to his parents.
“When we first moved to California, my parents basically sacrificed everything,” he said.
In many ways, this family’s journey is only just beginning.
James II, 20, wants to graduate from WSU and make it to the NFL.
Darnell, 17, is a junior running back for Burbank High and is attracting college recruiters.
Mari, 16, got her first Hollywood opportunity last year, as the voice of a main character in the animated movie “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Tough Love.” This summer she landed a spot in a Samsung commercial.
“We want them to have careers, not jobs, and to do what they love,” James said. “She loves to dance and act and sing, and James too, he’s doing what he loves. Seeing him on TV and knowing he’s at a major Division I college, it’s not even real.
“Nothing people throw at him is gonna bother him. He knows what it’s like to work for something.”
|A new power for WSU?|
|The Cougars’ James Williams II, a redshirt freshman, had a breakout game against Idaho last week.|
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