OVERCOMING OBSTACLES: Type 1 diabetes can't prevent Temple senior cornerback Williams from excelling
SUCCESS STORY: Temple senior cornerback Keon Williams was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was in third grade, and through the years he's learned how to manage the chronic condition. The two-year starter is having a strong final season, leading the Wildcats with six passes broken up and ranking sixth with 30 tackles. District 12-6A champion and playoff-bound Temple (8-1, 6-0) plays its regular-season finale against the Killeen Kangaroos (2-5, 1-4) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Keon Williams has to take care of all the same things as his Temple football teammates: attending school, keeping up with homework, lifting weights, studying film, practicing and, of course, playing games. The senior cornerback also works a part-time job at Academy Sports + Outdoors to make extra money, some of which he spends but most of which he saves.
There is, however, one thing that makes Williams, a two-season starter, quite a bit different than his Wildcats comrades: His daily battle with Type 1 diabetes, the chronic condition he's lived with and managed since he was diagnosed during third grade.
Type 1 diabetes, once commonly known as juvenile diabetes, occurs when the pancreas produces little to no insulin, a hormone needed to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy. Its symptoms include fatigue, extreme hunger and unintended weight loss, and the condition can cause life-threatening complications if not handled properly and consistently.
Just as he welcomes the daunting challenge of defending the opposing team's best wide receiver, the 5-foot-11, 166-pound Williams has embraced the even more difficult task of learning how to thrive – not simply survive – as a football player who's also a Type 1 diabetic.
“I just took it as, it's part of me, so I've got to deal with it every day. I got used to it,” the good-natured Williams said Tuesday morning as District 12-6A champion Temple (8-1, 6-0) prepared for its regular-season finale against the Killeen Kangaroos (2-5, 1-4) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. “I've been very consistent with it in high school.”
Having battled Type 1 diabetes for approximately half his life, the 18-year-old Williams derives inspiration from NFL wide receiver and kick returner DeAndre Carter, previously of the Houston Texans and now of the Chicago Bears.
“The person I use for my motivation is DeAndre Carter. He's just always motivated me, because he has Type 1 also. If he can do it, I can do it,” said Williams, who leads Temple with six passes broken up and ranks sixth on the team with 30 tackles to help propel the Wildcats to their eighth straight playoff berth and their first outright district championship in the state's highest classification since 2007.
Temple head coach Scott Stewart has immense respect and admiration for how Williams – the latest player in the Wildcats' run of outstanding cornerbacks in recent seasons – has continued to perform at a high level on the field while doing his best to control Type 1 diabetes.
“I think when people have to deal with (something like) this as a young person, a 'Why me?' type deal kicks in,” Stewart said before the bald-headed coach used self-deprecating humor to offer a personal example. “I'm not going to lie to you. I was 26 years old, losing my hair. And that's not even a disease; it's just unfortunate genetics.
“I really respect kids and people in general who have to deal with hard situations like that, that were no choosing of their own. How do you not let it affect you? How do you function on a daily basis and keep the enemy from talking you into being mad and upset and all the things that come with that sometimes?”
Although Williams has persevered and overcome the constant obstacle that is Type 1 diabetes, he's certainly experienced some bumps in the road.
“Keon's come a long way with learning how to take care of himself. There's been a couple of times he hasn't taken care of himself and and can't function a whole lot,” Stewart said. “If he goes a while without eating, his body will just start to shut down. It's that kind of diabetes. He'll get himself in trouble in a hurry, and unfortunately that's happened a couple of times. He does a pretty decent job of managing it, but he still has to be on point with that.”
Williams expended a huge amount of energy last Thursday night at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium, where he and Temple's defense made a late stand to seal a 27-24 victory over a dangerous Killeen Shoemaker squad, clinching the Wildcats' second straight 12-6A title and first outright league crown since 2015.
On Friday morning Williams still was feeling the effects of that grueling duel, with his recovery process made tougher by diabetes-related factors.
“After the Shoemaker game, he went home exhausted. You go home after a game and you're exhausted and you just want to go to bed, then you wake up and mentally can't function very well,” Stewart said. “His mom called us Friday and told us, 'Hey Coach, his blood sugar was low this morning, so we're going to get him some food.' They've got this sugar-shock-type stuff that gets some calories in his system really, really quickly.”
Without much fanfare, Williams explained the daily regimen he must go through to ensure he stays healthy and on the field. He gives himself one insulin shot in the morning, then another at night. He makes sure he eats plenty to keep his blood sugar at the right level.
Among his favorite foods is waffles, washed down by apple juice. He's a big fan of the pasta dish Temple often eats for a pregame meal and of postgame chicken tenders or pizza.
If Williams makes his everyday process sound simple, perhaps that's just because he's been doing it for such a long time now.
“If we practice in the morning, I take my medicine before practice and I eat breakfast and I'll be good,” he said. “Some days I just have to make sure I eat a lot. Other days, I can just sleep. I'll always snack.”
A lifelong Temple resident, Williams was in third grade when one day he felt very sick, prompting a hospital visit that led to he and his family receiving the life-altering diagnosis that he had Type 1 diabetes.
“I've always been skinny, and I just wasn't feeling well one day and then we went to the hospital and got checked for it, and I had it,” said Williams, whose older brother, Merrick Williams, is a 2018 Temple graduate who was a Wildcats receiver. “My mom and dad were there with me. I would say they were nervous, but I don't think anybody was scared about it, because (diabetes) runs in our family. My grandparents have it.”
In his early years of living with Type 1, Williams experienced some difficult trials.
“One day after pee wee football practice, I forgot to take (the insulin shot) and my blood sugar went super high and I just started throwing up real bad,” he said. “That was the wakeup call.”
Having now lived with Type 1 diabetes for almost a decade, Williams is willing and able to be a resource for others who have the chronic condition. He said that includes D'Arius Wilkerson, a sophomore who plays junior varsity football for Temple.
“He just got diagnosed with it. He was asking me questions about it and I was like, 'It's nothing to panic about. You've got to just take it,'" Williams said.
Williams is serious about education and wants to extend his football career into college, hoping to catch recruiters' eyes with his senior-season highlight video. He also runs the 400-meter dash for Temple's track team and wants to return to basketball this season after not playing since his freshman year.
“I get into it,” he said of school. “For some reason, I'm starting to like English. I've never liked English, but now I like it, and government.”
LOWERING THE BOOM: Temple senior cornerback Keon Williams delivers a punishing tackle on Magnolia West punt returner JT Phillips during the Wildcats' 28-13 road win Oct. 2. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Williams absorbed a great deal of experience last season while starting at cornerback for Temple's 8-3 team that shared the 12-6A championship with Waco Midway but was hammered 41-10 at defending state champion Longview in a Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game.
Two months ago, the Wildcats had the rare opportunity to begin their season against the same opponent that ended their previous year. Longview led Temple 13-10 at halftime at Arlington's AT&T Stadium, but Williams and the Wildcats dominated the Lobos by a 30-0 score in the second half to earn a statement-making, momentum-building 40-13 victory.
“I feel like everybody who played in that (2019 playoff) game had a chip on their shoulder for that team,” Williams said. “That impacted us a lot. It showed us what we can do.”
Temple's defense posted another second-half shutout in a 28-13 win one week later at Magnolia West, where Williams delivered a punishing tackle on punt returner JT Phillips inside the Mustangs' 5-yard line.
“That one's got to be right there,” a smiling Williams said when asked to select his favorite plays this season. “Man, you better fair catch it.”
With Temple already leading 16-0 late in the first quarter of its 12-6A opener at Copperas Cove, Williams made another stellar play on special teams.
“We were on kickoff (coverage). I was running down and I knifed underneath (a teammate) and dove and caused a fumble and we got the ball back,” said Williams, whose hard hit on Bulldawgs return man Justin Raines dislodged the ball before Wildcats sophomore Zion Moore grabbed it out of midair, setting up a touchdown run by junior Samari Howard.
As much as he focuses on covering fast, talented wide receivers, Williams also takes a lot of pride in his tackling skills, which he honed while trying to corral speedy teammates such as former Wildcats star running back Anthony Jackson.
“I feel like that came from Anthony and all the older guys from my freshman year. They toughened me up, and (I've been a good tackler) ever since then,” said Williams, who drew another challenging assignment when he had to defend 6-5, 240-pound junior receiver Terrance Carter of Harker Heights in visiting Temple's 38-36 comeback win Oct. 29.
Before this season, Williams said he hoped to produce a senior campaign similar to that of fellow cornerback Roman Jackson, who intercepted seven passes as a senior in 2019. However, Temple has collected only three interceptions in eight games played – none by Williams, who poked fun at himself for that fact.
“I've had a couple of good chances . . . I just dropped them,” he said, breaking into laughter. “I remember one from Magnolia West. I picked it but I dropped it.”
Added Williams regarding his elusive first interception: “It's coming – hopefully in the playoffs.”
As Temple's top cornerback as a senior, Williams is following in the footsteps of BJ Sculark (Houston Baptist/Trinity Valley) in 2017, Markel Reed (Boise State) in 2018 and Roman Jackson (Tarleton State) in 2019. It's important to Williams to carry on the Wildcats' recent tradition at that vital position.
“It's an honor,” he said. “It gives me chills just hearing their names.”
He credits much of his development to Reed, who as a senior took an interest in mentoring then-sophomore Williams on the finer points of playing cornerback.
“We'd go up to T-High on Saturdays and he'd give me these little drills and stuff to work on,” Williams said. “He taught me the press (coverage). I had an idea; he just helped me with it. He didn't want to put too much on me, but he put enough.”
In a prime example of paying it forward, Williams now serves as mentor to Temple's other cornerbacks. That includes fellow senior Carlton Mack, a first-year starter and one of his best friends on the team along with senior wide receivers Luke Allen and AJ McDuffy and senior nose tackle Jayven Taylor.
“If it's Carlton, I'll let him know what he messed up on and how to do it if he needs help,” Williams said. “He probably gets more (passes thrown his way) than me. He's gotten a lot better from Longview to now.”
Stewart has seen Williams' leadership abilities emerging.
“I think the kids listen to him. He doesn't talk a whole lot, which is fine with me,” Stewart said. “But people respect how he works, because he does work his tail off.”
Stewart considers the technically sound Williams to be “a cross between Markel Reed and BJ Sculark,” largely because Williams loves to play press coverage even in third-and-long situations, instead of backing up to give the receiver more cushion.
“It took an act of Congress to get BJ out of the press, and Keon's a little bit like that. They want to be in the (receiver's) hip pocket and chest to shoulder when that ball's in the air,” Stewart said. “Where Keon thrives is you've got to talk him off the ledge when it's third-and-18 and you want him to back up. He likes getting hands on and he likes the illusion of control in close proximity. You have to have a special mindset to actually warrant that. We'll call it loose (coverage) when it's third-and-20 and he's (upset). He'd rather press-and-bail than sit back there flat-footed at 15 yards.”
Late in the third quarter last Thursday, fleet-footed Shoemaker senior receiver Monaray Baldwin beat Williams' coverage down the left sideline to catch a long pass for a 48-yard gain. But true to his competitive character and desire to defend top players, Williams was undeterred.
“Keon was over the top and saw the ball, and when he turned to press him, obviously you lose speed doing that and (Baldwin) slipped by him,” Stewart said. “He was begging (Shoemaker) to throw another deep ball to Baldwin. He wanted them to do it again. He was like, 'Throw another one!'”
Williams got another opportunity to make a big play late in the fourth. With Shoemaker trailing 27-24 and facing third-and-15 from its 31-yard line with 1 minute remaining, De'Andre Exford caught a pass in the middle. Williams grabbed him and threw him to the turf, 1 yard short of the first down.
Said Williams: “I made contact and leaned him forward when I should have leaned him backward.”
Everything worked out well for Temple when Taylor, junior end Eric Shorter and sophomore tackle Jaylon Jackson combined to drive powerful running back Devin Brown back for a 1-yard loss and a dramatic turnover on downs, sealing the Wildcats' tight win and outright 12-6A championship.
Williams described his team's reaction as a mixture of joy and relief.
“It was crazy and exciting. You can actually feel that all the hard work you've put in, all of it pays off,” he said. “After the game we came in the locker room and partied a little bit.”
According to Williams, the manner in which Temple's defense performed in that pressure situation didn't reveal its character as much as it confirmed what the cornerback already knew.
“Everybody on defense has got the same thing in common. We've got this dog mentality. Everybody wants to do their job and win,” Williams said. “I would describe it as the whole team has each other's backs. So when one side's down, we try to pick them up. When the defense is down, the offense starts picking us up.”
Temple has secured a district crown and the top playoff seed, but Williams said the Wildcats won't change their routine as they prepare for postseason play.
“We've got to get up, grind, hit weights hard and go to practice,” he said.
Wise words from Williams, a young man who does all those things and because of his life obstacle that is Type 1 diabetes has had to do so much more to get to where he is today.