After dark days, Williams' future bright
Arkansas TE hopes story can help families in similar crisis
D.J. Williams doesn't remember how old he was the first time he saw his father hit his mother.
Unfortunately, he remembers just about everything else.
He remembers the guns. He remembers wondering if the beatings were ever going to stop. He remembers that unforgettable look in his father's eyes, the look of someone struggling with depression and hooked on crack cocaine.
He remembers being a little boy thrust into a world of spousal abuse that turned his Carrollton, Texas, home into a hellish prison.
But most of all, he remembers being scared.
Scared for himself. Scared for his two older sisters. Scared that his mother might not survive the next beating.
"There were times that I just sat down and watched," said Williams, Arkansas' All-SEC tight end. "That hurt the worst. I was so small. There was nothing I could do. I felt so helpless.
"It was the worst situation you could ever imagine. It's still hard to look back on."
Williams does, though.
One of the best pass-catching tight ends in the college game, he's just started in the last year to open up and tell his family's incredible story.
There were so many times when you'd see all these kids playing with their dad and how fun it looked. But most of the time, I was just scared of mine.” -- Arkansas TE D.J. Williams
While tragic, it's a story that offers hope for others in a similar crisis.
And if Williams can help just one family, then it's all worth it.
"When things get tough for me, whether it's on the football field or anywhere else, I just think about what my mom's gone through and the great things football has brought me," Williams said. "Hopefully, I'll be able to give back to her and give back to others.
"I want moms and kids out there who are going through what we went through to know that there is a way out. Look at us. We've come from living in a shelter and wearing hand-me-down clothes to me standing in front of 80,000-plus almost every Saturday just to watch me play football.
"Even when you think all hope is lost, dreams do come true."
Williams is extremely popular with Razorback Nation, but his biggest fan remains his mother, Vicky Williams.
She's the one proudly sporting the No. 45 jersey at every Arkansas game, and according to family friend D.G. New, the one who's finally figured out how to "correctly" perform the Hog Call.
Similar to her son, Vicky Williams looks back and counts her blessings that nobody was killed. Her former husband, David Edward Williams, is presently serving concurrent sentences of 25 and 27 years at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, for separate convictions of attempted murder for shooting an individual and aggravated assault on a public servant while trying to be apprehended by police.
A police record obtained by ESPN.com showed David Williams was arrested for a family offense in Nov. 1992 when the couple lived in Aurora, Colo.
He's eligible for parole in 2013, and both of D.J.'s sisters, Valerie Simmons and Vanessa Williams, still correspond with him.
"When he's sober, he's the best person in the world," said Valerie, who was 18 when the rest of the family fled their home in the Dallas suburbs a decade ago. "I can see how my mother fell in love with him. When he wasn't drinking and wasn't using drugs, he was a great dad."
Vicky, too, says that her first 10 years with D.J.'s father were great, but the combination of his depression and drug use sent him spiraling out of control. She ended up going back to him three different times before leaving for good in September of 1999.
"I wanted it to work so badly for the kids," Vicky said. "The toughest part is that it didn't start out that way, so you try to stick with it. But that's not the way it has to be, and I just hope I can help other women realize that you don't have to go through that. See the early signs and see what the abuse is doing to your children, ... and do whatever you have to do to get out."
To this day, Vicky's pinky finger on her right hand is crooked where it was broken. She said her ex-husband, in one of his violent rages, cracked an iron skillet over her head.
At the last minute, she threw up her hand to protect herself, and her pinky took the brunt of the blow. She was in the hospital for weeks, and doctors told her that shielding herself with that pinky finger probably saved her life.
"It wasn't that I necessarily feared for my life," said Vanessa, who was 12 when the family left Texas. "He never hit me. But I feared for my mother's life. If we hadn't gotten out of there, she probably wouldn't have made it."
They left everything behind, save for a couple of suitcases full of clothes, and fled to a shelter for battered women in Dallas. Officials there thought it was too dangerous and advised them to get out of state.
So they stretched out a map on a table, and Vicky turned to D.J. and told him to pick a place.
His finger landed on Little Rock.
"I cried most of the way there," Vicky recalled. "It was so emotional, but I knew there was no turning back."
As they tried to locate the shelter in Little Rock, Vicky said, she took a wrong turn and happened upon Immanuel Baptist Church. She's still not sure why she stopped, but she did.
It was the start of a lifelong friendship with New, who was on staff at the church and would go on to become the family's guardian angel. She helped Vicky get a job, the same job she still has. She helped them find a house, and she helped guide Vicky in her quest to put her family's life back together.
"I remember gathering my things to leave that day and in walks this lady with two kids," recounted New, who travels with Vicky to Arkansas road games. "She looked so tired and helpless and hopeless at the same time. And then there was D.J., his eyes wide open when he saw the basketball court at our church. He just wanted to know if he could go shoot some hoops.
"The thing I remember most, though, is him looking back at his mother to make sure she was OK. Even at such a young age, he had such a selfless attitude about him."
They slept in the shelter for months before finding a house they could afford to rent. It's the same shelter (Women & Children First) that Vicky still volunteers at to tell her story and help abused women.
For the longest time, Vicky said, she was petrified that her ex-husband would come after her once he's released from prison. Valerie has told her that he's found Christ in prison and has changed, but the thought of him possibly being free in four years is still unnerving for Vicky.
Vicky's way of dealing with it is diving even deeper into her passion of helping other battered women.
"She's such a brave woman," D.J. said. "It's amazing what she's done, moving to a strange place with no money and two kids to care for. She had to watch us go through Christmases without opening up any gifts.
"But she never gave up and was always there for us. She's there now for other women who've been abused. Everything is going to come back to her. I can promise you that."
WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST
|The Center against Family Violence was founded in 1978 to provide shelter and services to battered women and their children. A safe house was opened that year and has been operating for the past 25 years.
Women & Children First
The entire family has flourished.
Vanessa, now 22, earned a 3.98 GPA at Arkansas State and plans to attend graduate school. She wants to pursue her doctorate in physical therapy.
Valerie, now 29, is married and has two sons. She still lives in Texas and has managed to maintain relationships with both her father and mother.
"I tell D.J. all the time that our past doesn't make us," Valerie said. "It molds us into what we're going to be in the future."
D.J.'s future couldn't be any brighter. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said he became a more complete tight end as a blocker this spring and was already dominant as a pass-catcher. His 61 receptions last season were just shy of J.J. Meadors' school-record 62 catches, set in 1995.
But as big a heart as D.J. plays with on the field, Petrino said it's even bigger off the field.
"In every aspect of his life -- whether it's the training room or the weight room, with his faculty advisors or with the women's basketball coach -- he becomes great friends with them," Petrino said. "He's just a great young guy who appreciates life and makes it easy for everybody.
"If you didn't know he was a star football player, you never would because of the way he conducts himself on campus. That's what is so special about him."
D.J. said his Christian faith teaches him to forgive everybody, but he admits that he's struggled with that concept when it comes to his father, whom he says never hit him but was verbally tough.
"That's something I go back and forth on every day," said D.J., whose given name is also David. "My sisters stay in touch with him and write him letters. He sends me letters from prison quite a bit, but I've never written back and most of the time don't even read them.
"It's not our decision to judge anyone, but it's hard for me to envision him ever being back in my life. I just don't know. My sister [Valerie] tells me that he's proud of me. But once again, it's hard to listen to a man you watched hurt your mother over and over again."
And that's not to mention the emotional scars that D.J. suffered through the whole ordeal.
"There were so many times when you'd see all these kids playing with their dad and how fun it looked," D.J. said. "But most of the time, I was just scared of mine.
"That's a terrible feeling, to be scared of your own dad."
Those fears were eventually drowned out, though, by hope, fortitude and faith.
The latter is tattooed on one of D.J.'s arms in the form of praying hands.
"Without that faith, I don't know where any of us would be," he said. "Probably not here."
Chris Low is ESPN.com's SEC football blogger. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.