Billy Williams III crossed the goal line into the end zone and fell to the ground. He’d just scored the first touchdown of his senior year to put his Longhorns up 7-0 over C.C. Winn on Thursday night en route to a 66-0 United victory.
It was a joyous moment — a moment that looked at times like it would never arrive. The embattled senior running back had been suspended from play from the first seven games of his final season after being caught with a controlled substance on his high school’s campus four months ago.
Williams, who was not available for comment after scoring two touchdowns and compiling more than 100 yards combined receiving and rushing against Winn, worked hard to pay his dues and, finally, the last roadblock to restoring his eligibility was surmounted Thursday afternoon, a mere four hours before his team’s 7 p.m. kickoff against Winn.
It was a redemptive moment that came with the help of his coaches, his family and a UISD athletic department that never gave up on Williams, no matter the pressure.
A second chance
One simple principle guides United Independent School District Athletic Director Bobby Cruz’s work with the children of his district.
“We’re in this profession to develop, educate and guide young people,” he said. “We’re not in this profession to throw kids away for a mistake.”
That mantra guided him through the volatile waters of a difficult episode in which outside pressure frequently encouraged him to throw Williams to the wolves.
“Yeah, we would get those calls,” he said. “Everybody has their opinions on what the student should and should not do. At the end of the day, that’s what they are — their opinions.”
Cruz never wavered in his commitment to doing what he felt was right by his student.
“The student made a mistake,” he said. “He owned up to it (and) accepted responsibility for it; he has gone above and beyond everything the coaching staff threw in front of him to get back in their good graces.
“The question is, at what point does he stop paying for that mistake? How much do people want to make him pay?”
The most important factor in Cruz’s eyes was Williams’ efforts to reform and learn from the lesson of the past four months.
“If a student’s just being difficult and doesn’t want help and doesn’t want to comply, then at some point you cut them loose,” Cruz said. “But we’re not here to turn our backs on kids. We’re going to help them, guide them and we’ll just move forward.”
A fair process
Cruz said the lengthy process of restoring Williams’ eligibility was fair.
While he doesn’t agree with critics who say Williams should have been abandoned for his crime, he doesn’t think Williams should have gotten off more lightly, either.
“All of our student-athletes are held to a higher standard because they’re very visible,” he said. “They have to understand all of their actions can have devastating consequences.
“That’s what people, especially our student-athletes, need to take out of this.”
The consequences of this individual case, Cruz cautioned, are hardly done with, and not always obvious to the naked eye.
“He’ll continue to pay for it regardless of what happens this year,” Cruz said. “A lot of (college) schools that may have been interested in him may now be leery. This will follow him and he understands that.”
“Happy” is not a word Cruz would use to describe his feelings on the conclusion of the lengthy process.
“I’m kind of relieved,” he said. “I don’t think we should gloat or celebrate. We’re satisfied, we’re thankful and we’ll move forward.”
One of the best outcomes to have emerged from the whole ordeal might be the precedent established for students to follow if they find themselves in Williams’ footprints.
“It’s an unfortunate circumstance we had to go through, but we wanted to do it the right way,” Cruz said. “The easiest thing would have been to put him on the field and put the team in jeopardy, but we wanted to do it the right way. We didn’t want to hurt the team if there was any question about his eligibility.”
The UIL’s verdict was emailed and faxed to Cruz at 4 p.m. Thursday.
No reasoning for the decision was provided; the notice simply stated Williams had been declared eligible and quoted supporting text from UIL rulebooks on the matter:
“Students who have been assigned to a DAEP (disciplinary alternative education program) for a reason included in TEC §37.006 or those assigned under a separate section of the TEC and prohibited from participating by local policy, may resume participation in UIL activities the first day they return to regular classes after completing the assigned length of time in the alternative education program.” -UIL-TEA Side by Side 2011-12 Enrollment Requirements (Page 10) Question 5.
In the future, there will be no lingering questions about the eligibility of students who spend time at JJAEP or any other alternative education setting in Laredo. The UIL’s verdict on Williams’ eligibility was one Cruz had been expecting, if just barely. He thinks the UIL made the right call.
“You never know what the UIL (will do or) how (it’s) going to rule,” he said. “I think it’s fair because I believe — we believe — alternative settings are extensions of the school.
“The test scores go back to United. For realignment purposes, he was counted under their enrollment as if he was enrolled, and he’s always been at United, nowhere else, since he was a freshman.
“In that way, I was pretty satisfied with the way UIL saw it.”
Despite the extensive amount of time that went into obtaining the final verdict on Williams’ eligibility — time in which he missed participating in several games it’s now clear he could have legally played in — Cruz doesn’t think UIL needs to change any of the wording of its rules or the process by which it determines an athlete’s eligibility.
“I think UIL does an excellent job regulating,” he said. “I don’t think UIL will need to change anything.”