COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gerald Walton was a Georgia fan until he met Jamyest Williams.
The 19-year-old student at Mary Persons High School in Forsyth, Ga., used to be a Georgia fan, but one that tended to flip to any team that beats the Bulldogs on a Saturday.
But these days, Walton is a South Carolina fan, fully on board with the Gamecocks.
Everything changed for Walton, who has intellectual and developmental disabilities, on March 3 when Williams, a South Carolina signee, came to speak at Mary Persons. Williams was there to speak at the school’s third annual “Respect Rally,” a school-wide assembly to celebrate students with special needs.
Prior to the rally, Williams spent time talking with Walton’s class, getting to know the nine students and hearing Walton talk about his love for football and wanting to play running back and wide receiver. There was a little bit of playful Georgia-South Carolina trash talk before Williams rolled a Gamecock football wristband off his arm and handed it to Walton, who wore it throughout the class.
And much to Walton’s surprised delight, Williams told him to keep it when he left to head for the assembly.
“He makes me happy,” Walton said. “It is my favorite football team.”
Williams is a football star who shines brightly in classrooms filled with students who aren’t destined for athletic stardom. He has been in the national spotlight plenty in the past few years, but finds even more happiness more in the confines of a classroom filled with students whose faces light up when they see him.
“I know most people who see me just think I’m Jamyest this football player,” Williams said. “But I have a different side.”
An auntie’s influence
The Friday at Mary Persons was the culmination of years of Williams’ heart pouring into students with disabilities.
Williams spent all four years in high school devoting time outside of football to working with students with special needs. It started at Duluth, continued at Archer and stayed the same at Grayson.
But really it started when he was younger. Williams’ aunt, Bernadette Williams, was hit by a stray bullet, which left her blind in one eye when she was only 18 months old. Williams spent many days with his aunt growing up until her passing when he was a 6-year-old.
He remembers an outgoing lady who taught him to be himself and a lady he didn’t know had anything that made her different from anyone else.
“You would never know there was anything wrong with her,” Williams said. “She just did anything she could for me. She used to keep me when my dad used to go to work. I would hang out at her house and walk to the store and do different things like that.”
The impact of his aunt on his life remains felt today and it helped compel him to get connected at three different high schools to work with students who have special needs. He joined the Best Buddies Club, an international organization that seeks to improve the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
During his freshman year at Duluth, Williams went to the special needs classroom to play games and activities during his lunch period.
He ate breakfast with students every morning at Archer during his two years. Then when he arrived at Grayson for his final year of high school, he hit the ground running.
Dance, dance, dance
Tana Shackleton met Williams at an open house before Grayson began classes in the fall of 2016. He approached Shackleton, who has taught in the special education department at Grayson for three years, and her co-teacher, Kim Edwards, to find out who led the Best Buddies Club at his new school and how he could get involved.
He plugged into the Best Buddies Club right away, but that scratched the surface on Williams’ involvement.
Every Friday morning at 8:30 a.m. through football season, the students would have a mini-dance party. Williams ducked out of his forensics class and headed for the classroom, where he would dance with the kids to whatever music was playing that day.
“They don’t have the same abilities that we have, so they are just dancing and having fun and making it fun,” Williams said. “I like letting them know that there is nothing with what they are doing and to just enjoy themselves.”
At the fall homecoming dance, Williams again was dancing with Shackleton and Edwards’ students. Shackleton described a scene where Williams came over and one by one took the time to dance with each one of the boys and girls in her class, spending a half-hour or so away from the night to make their night.
He has made a football fan out of Edwards, who wasn’t much of one before Williams came around. But it’s things like the way Williams would step aside from the craziness of celebrating a postgame win to be interviewed by one of their students, answering the questions and going through a postgame interview just like he has so many times before.
“It means the world to them,” Shackleton said. “Their goal is to be typical and that makes them feel that. It makes them feel special and thought about and they get very excited when they see them. They love running into him in the halls. They put a pep in their step just to get to him.”
It’s that fact that most typifies Williams’ heart for students with special needs. It’s never about needing an opportunity to interact at a specific time, but truly wanting to interact at any given time.
“Sometimes, I walk away in tears,” Shackleton said. “It’s great to see that because his talent on the football field doesn’t go unnoticed. But with things like this, it can go unnoticed. But he is so much more than a football player. He is a well-rounded person, especially for his age.”
There’s a two-fold dynamic to Williams’ involvement in the Best Buddies Club and beyond. He knows there’s an impact he is making in the lives of other people, which matters greatly to him.
Through it, he gains plenty as well. Williams has a deeper appreciation for his football abilities and the opportunity to play football like he does because of being around students who don’t have those same opportunities that he has been afforded.
When he’s on the field, he pushes harder with that knowledge in mind.
“The biggest thing I have gained was they don’t have the same opportunities as I have,” said Williams, who signed with South Carolina in February. “It is a blessing for me to go out and do what I do. So I just embrace it every chance I get.”
But the most important impact on Williams comes off the field. The time he spends with the students at Grayson brings him to a different place. He knows when he goes into that classroom that he is seen as Jamyest Williams the person, not just Jamyest Williams the football star going to South Carolina.
“I like being a normal kid and not being just Jamyest that football player,” he said.
Williams is himself throughout those moments, with Shackleton saying she sees no difference in the way he talks to her students and the way he handles himself in every moment.
“It’s just like he is hanging out with his friends,” Shackleton said. “That’s what they are. They are your friends. There is no difference. Well, there is differences, but everybody is a person. He befriends them. He doesn’t point out any differences or anything like that. It’s an inclusive thing.
“I think it’s good for both of them. I can see the joy in him as well. You can see when he is dancing with our kids, as much as they are smiling — and they are smiling ear to ear — so is he.”
Williams jumped at the opportunity presented to him to speak at Mary Persons in early March. His friend and Southern California football player EJ Price spoke at the Respect Rally a year earlier and Williams was happy to be the guest speaker this time around.
“It is a blessing and a huge opportunity for me to come express myself and make other people around me better,” Williams said. “Just embracing that it’s okay to talk to people that are different from you.”
It marked a fitting cap to the four years Williams has spent pouring time and energy into working with students with special needs. It’s the other side of Williams that people don’t see, but one that matters equally as much to who he is.
He wants to continue working with students with special needs when he gets to South Carolina, hoping to squeeze the time out of a demanding student-athlete schedule.
“It was a huge blessing because I feel like I brighten these kids’ days,” Williams said. “I feel like people feed off me and just not with this situation, but also with football. People always told me I make people around me better. That’s what I feel like I’m doing by being a normal kid and going to spend time with them.”
On a sunny spring Friday, Williams stood up in front of 1,200 students assembled in the dimly lit school gymnasium, sharing the message that it is okay to be friends with people different from you. A few dozen students sat on the court and listened as he spoke, all of them decked out in blue shirts from the Best Buddies Club.
Walton was among those students, legs crossed on the gym floor, playing with his Gamecocks football wristband as the latest South Carolina fan in a room filled with Georgia fans.
So what happens next year when South Carolina and Georgia play on Nov. 4?
“I am going for South Carolina — and for Jamyest Williams,” Walton said.