By Bob Thomas
Associate Sports Information Director
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The 2013 Florida State football season was a life-changing experience for senior Karlos Williams, yet it had nothing to do with him moving from safety to tailback, nor the Seminoles’ march to the BCS National Championship.
Figuratively speaking, it was much bigger than that, although literally, the change came in the form of a 6-pound, 9-ounce, 21-inch package; delivered Aug. 23, just 10 days before the season-opening kickoff at Pittsburgh.
Karlos Jermell Williams, Jr. – or KJ, as he is known to all around the Moore Athletic Center – was brought into the world by his mother, Miranda Wilhelm and doting dad, Karlos Williams, Sr.; a pair of Florida State students who are committed to raising their son together.
And it didn’t take long for Williams to publicly express the love and devotion he has for his son in a unique way. By the time Williams hit the field at Heinz Stadium for the Sept. 2 opener, the nameplate on the back of his No. 9 jersey had been changed to Williams, Sr.
“I was home one day right before we left for Pittsburgh,” Williams explained. “I was holding him and just looking at him and [thought], ‘Wow. I’m a dad. This is my first-born child. I’m only 20. He’s really here. I’ve been waiting for him for nine months and he looks just like me. He’s a Junior and I’m a Senior. I’m a father.’ I wanted to put it on my back so everyone knows I’m a father; that I’m handling my responsibility. …
“I wear it as a remembrance, so when my son gets older and he sees my jersey hanging up, and sees that it says ‘Williams, Sr.’ on the back, he knows that his dad is very proud to be a father.”
That jersey will be on display Saturday at NC State (3:30 p.m., ABC), where the top-ranked Seminoles will put their 19-game winning streak on the line against a Wolfpack program that has been tough to beat at Carter-Finley Stadium. NC State has won three of the last four meetings against FSU on its home turf.
Last week the Seminoles needed overtime to register their 16th consecutive ACC victory, 23-17, over Clemson on Williams’ 12-yard touchdown run. This week the Davenport, Fla. native can become the 41st 1,000-yard rusher in FSU history with 93 yards on the ground. The milestone itself is not nearly as unique as the notion that he could achieve it in just his 17th game at tailback.
What is not unique is the rate of pregnancy and parenting among collegiate student-athletes. Citing a 2008 study, the NCAA said the estimates of pregnancy rates for men and women in athletic departments were between 10- and 15-percent.
What is rare is Williams’ bold embrace of fatherhood in the public domain. A query of NCAA Division I football sports information directors turned up just two others – Texas A&M’s Floyd Raven and UNLV’s Tajh Hasson – who like Williams, proudly wear Sr. on the back of their football jerseys.
KJ’s arrival, the presence of a young daughter, Kylie Ann Hall-Williams, and the pending December arrival of another son, Krash, have had a profound and positive impact on Williams.
“The questions he asks have shifted,” said Dr. Kacy King, FSU’s assistant athletic director for Student-Athlete Academic Support and director of Educational Services. “They aren’t about him anymore. It’s much broader. ‘How can I have a better life for myself and my family? What is the best way to help KJ in this situation?’ It has changed our relationship because he asks me questions about how I raise my children, and I’ll ask him questions back, because I know we’re doing it differently. He doesn’t have a day care option.
“He also has more attention to life beyond football and life after FSU…‘How am I going to be a good father? What am I going to do when I don’t have football anymore?’ That’s a really good question for him to think about now, to take advantage of his academics and take advantage of what he has offered to him at Florida State, instead of just thinking about football. It has really broadened his ability to think about life after FSU, because it just doesn’t stop.”
Williams was not a model student when he arrived at FSU, but over the last year, has made dramatic strides in the classroom.
“He comes and speaks to class I teach each summer, which is athletes in a college success class,” King said. “He talks about the poor choices he made as a freshman and how they still impact his overall academic record. How buying into having support, is when he realized that if he lets people help him and he comes for help, he’s going to do better. Every year, that’s the best class I have when he tells them, ‘Here’s how this works and if you buck the system, it’s on you. You have all these people around you who are willing to help and if you don’t want their help, that’s on you. But at some point you’re going to realize you need and it’s OK to need it.’”
That kind of self-awareness was missing not that long ago.
“I love the school and I love having the free education,” Williams said. “I love being able to play the sport that I love…but the love I have for my kids and my girlfriend – my family comes first. My mom definitely taught me that. She showed me that family comes first.
“Family is what holds everything together. Not money and cars. Family is concrete. It doesn’t break. You lose people, but family is always there.”
Williams’ mother, Velzina Williams, has been the rock in his life since his parents divorced when he was still an infant. And while she and his step-father Mark have been weekly visitors to Tallahassee since his linebacker-playing brother and 2012 graduate Vince began his career, there were things Williams and Wilhelm needed to sort out on their own.
Seeking help has been a necessity for the couple, who have been together going on three years. They share their apartment with KJ while juggling class schedules, academics, child-rearing duties, the daily demands associated with football, not to mention just growing up.
“Having to adjust to being not only being a father, but also a man to the person who is the mother to my child, was very difficult because being in college you want to have fun,” Williams said. “But [Miranda] is a great mother…and wants to stay home and be a family. We’ve grown a lot more.”
Perhaps more importantly, that growth has not come at a cost, especially academically and athletically.
“During the spring I was able to bring [KJ] to tutoring with me,” said Williams, who was warmly welcomed by King and staffers Deena Ruggeri and Adrienne Allen. “He’s very, very disciplined. I’ll give him something to eat, give him a toy and he will sit there. He’s very, very smart. …
“He’s comfortable being around them. They know him and he knows them. I thank them for that. It means a lot when you can have somebody who just loves your child. When they see him, their faces light up. He loves people. He definitely gets his personality from me.”
King remembers those early visits well.
“Karlos could hold him in his arms and type with his other hand and get his work done,” she said. “It was amazing to see he was truly balancing what he had going on in his life, which is huge.
“He really wants to be a part of [KJ’s] life, so that’s very hard for him to figure out where you manage your fallout; what’s going to have to give and take. He’s figured out a way to have Karlos Jr. up here in a way that’s not distracting to everyone else, which I really appreciate.”
Williams also appreciates the time he spends alone with his son, especially in the mornings after Miranda leaves for class. A typical morning begins with KJ rising around 9 a.m., which immediately puts the 6-foot-1, 225-pound tailback motion. The morning diaper change is followed by breakfast.
“He eats like a grown man,” Williams said. “If I’m eating he has to eat.” Breakfast is usually followed by one-on-one playtime and some television.
“He has to watch Mickey Mouse House Club, and when the Hot Dog song comes on at the end of the show, he will cry until you take him out of the chair, because he has to dance,” Williams said, chuckling. “I know that for a fact.”
It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child and Williams’ village within the FSU athletic department has no shortage of volunteers when it comes to contributing to both his own and KJ’s well-being.
Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher provided his support of Williams, beginning with his insistence that he be there for KJ’s birth.
“The support I got from Coach Fisher was amazing,” Williams said. “He told me to take those days, spend them with my son, get to see him born, enjoy it and come back ready to play football. He asked me how much he weighed, how long he was, who he looked like. He was very excited for me…He understands about being a father.”
In return, Fisher could not be happier to see the growth Williams has shown over the past 13 months.
“You see a lot more from him responsibility-wise,” Fisher said. “A lot of the typical college kid stuff has gone away. He’s a lot more attentive to everything, and life in general; just knowing he has people depending on him that he has to take care of.”
Football athletic trainer Julie Kruessel has been one of Williams’ guiding influences and a key figure once the excitement of becoming a father gave way to the realities of fatherhood.
“It kind of hit him all at once when it all came together, realizing what it takes, not only on his end but with his support system,” Kruessel said. “That was the biggest challenge for him to grasp. Right now he’s still a student-athlete, and in order to provide for his family, he still needs to take care of his academics and take care of football. If he doesn’t have either one, then he can’t potentially provide for his kids and his family.”
The desire to spend as much time as possible with KJ, while taking care of his academics, his own health and well-being and football, was a difficult juggling act.
“One thing we worked on him a lot was focusing on the quality of time he spends and not so much with the quantity,” she said. “Even the coaches brought that up to me, too. That’s one thing they have to live by when it comes to time with their kids…It’s the quality of time they’re going to remember, not how much time dad spent with me.
“I think he’s really grasped that. Last season that was the hardest time for him because it was when KJ was first born. Moving into the running back position, too, was something new to him. He was pulled in a lot of directions.”
In addition to King, Kruessel and the coaching staff, Williams knew he could find refuge in the coaches’ suite where office and administrative assistants Daphne Williams, Nicole Lamar and Joy Beech, were willing listeners and when need be, dispensers of advice.
“Whenever something is on his mind, he comes up,” Daphne Williams said. “Mostly he comes to talk and get it off his shoulders and I give him my honest opinion. I think that’s why he likes coming to me. Whether it’s something positive, or something he just needs to hear, I just tell him.”
That’s a long way from where he began as a freshman.
“He has grown a lot,” Daphne Williams said. “You’d see bits and pieces from when you first meet him. Now that his brother has gone and it’s just him, especially this year, he’s just sky-rocketed. He knows exactly what he wants to do. His kids are very important to him and you can see that. That’s one of the things you admire about him…You’ve watch a young man grow into a real man.”
In the training room, Kruessel and the staff can now count on Williams showing up for not only treatment, but preventative work as well. That’s a far cry from the non-compliant freshman version.
“He had to learn from his own mistakes,” Kruessel said.
“Of the things they get out of this program, that’s what I want them to get most,” Fisher said. “There are things in life that are bigger than you. That you have a role and a responsibility to the people you’re going to provide for and come in contact with you in your life that are going to depend on you.
“To me, the accountability, the responsibility, the dependability – all those things – that’s what I want them to get out of the program, no matter how ball goes.”
Kruessel recalls a scene not long ago in the training room, which still resonates with her.
“[Karlos] was in here getting some treatment…and was laying down on his back,” Kruessel said. “He put KJ right on his stomach and KJ just sits there. He was having a ball just playing with him. That interaction they have together, they have a strong connection. You can tell how much KJ loves him and how much Karlos loves him; someone who wants to take every moment with his son. That speaks a lot about him and the type of relationship he wants to have with his children.”