COLUMBIA, S.C. – Brett Williams knew he wanted to commit to play baseball at South Carolina in late December, telling his head coach Charles Assey he “felt like it is where I need to be.”
Less than two weeks later, South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said the same words to Assey, the Lexington White Knoll baseball coach, when Assey delivered the news that Williams was in the intensive care unit. Holbrook left practice behind to join Assey at the hospital, where Williams, 16, tragically passed away on Tuesday.
“He was a good one,” Assey said. “It’s not easy. If you asked me three weeks ago, ‘If you ever lost a player, what would you think?’ It has been a lot harder than I would have envisioned. You care about them and they become yours. This has really hit home.”
Williams passed away Tuesday afternoon after coming down with flu-like symptoms over the weekend. He was a sophomore in high school with good grades and a lot of skill on the diamond, which led him to commit to South Carolina on Jan. 5, ending a recruitment that garnered interest from Clemson and Coastal Carolina.
Assey called Williams “that All-American boy” with character to match his budding baseball talent.
“He was a tremendous player,” Assey said. “You don’t get offered and commit as a sophomore in high school in your fall semester to a Division 1 program without having some good quality attributes. If you have been offered like this, you’ve got a lot of special about you and it’s not just as a player.”
Williams played with White Knoll’s ‘B’ team as a seventh-grader before making the JV team as an eighth-grader. He moved up to varsity as a freshman, playing first base and pitching from time to time. He consistently played a level above his age, but never struggled to earn the respect and admiration of players of all ages.
“Over the last couple days, as my current players are mourning and talking and telling stories and laughing or looking at pictures, he was a goofy kid,” Assey said. “Really funny, really bubbly personality that we didn’t always see sometimes on the field because when he was out there it was about work. …
“Even as a tenth grader, just very, very well liked. Older guys looked up to him because he just did things the right way. I think it speaks volumes that he is committed to a major university to do something, then he obviously is doing a lot of things well on and off the field.”
Assey also had Williams in class, a baseball block at the end of the day. Williams texted Assey Saturday to let him know that he was not feeling well and called him Monday to give a heads up that he would not be in school Tuesday. Williams’ condition worsened Tuesday and his father called Assey, who was at the hospital the rest of the day.
Assey gathered his players together Wednesday morning along with guidance counselors. There were “a lot of tears, a lot of questions” and the team had another meeting in the afternoon during their baseball class.
“The biggest thing I wanted them to understand is it is very overwhelming and it has been that way for me, too,” Assey said. “I just told them we have to be where our feet are and that is here today and take it as it comes. I’ve got 28 other guys in the program. There’s probably about 7 or 8 that were varsity players with him that he played with close and they are really struggling. As a whole, the ninth graders looking up to him in the weight room and on the field, they are all hurting. I’m 36 and I don’t know what just happened.
“The guy was at practice Friday, hitting the cages and throwing a bullpen. Then he’s in the hospital and this happens on Tuesday.
White Knoll still is talking about ways to honor Williams this season, with possibilities from the Williams family throwing out a first pitch to retiring Williams’ number being discussed. The district athletic director, Dean Howell, is providing No. 22 decals for all five schools in the district to wear on their batting helmets this year.
South Carolina also will have plans to honor Williams and his memory this season, Holbrook told Assey. The South Carolina coach has stayed in touch with Assey since Tuesday, checking in to see how the White Knoll coach and Williams’ family are doing.
“He has told me he is going to do some things to honor Brett and to help the family out,” Assey said. “The thing that pops into my mind is he did not have to come to the hospital. Yes, Brett was coming to school there, but a guy in that position has a million things he could have done, but he came right there for two, two and a half hours. I just think that is first class and shows a lot about him and what he stands for.”