Sitting in his office in the field house at West Point High School last week, Chris Chambless got a call from his wife – Aeris Williams had just walked in the door and Chambless had better finish work soon and come home to see him. The three-time State Championship-winning head coach compares his relationship with the former Green Wave star and current Mississippi State sophomore running back to that of a father and a son, saying his children even consider Williams to be a brother.
“To this day, when he comes in, it’s like he’s coming back into his own house, going to the refrigerator, getting something to drink, hugging everybody’s neck and throwing the ball with the kids.”
With a quiet, unassuming and exceedingly loyal personality, Williams is loved deeply by those who he is close to, an emotion he returns many times over. A yes sir, no ma’am, please-and-thank-you kind of guy, you wouldn’t know just by talking to the humble and reserved kid from West Point that he was a budding star running back in the SEC.
You also wouldn’t know by watching him run up and down the field on Saturdays that he was never even supposed to be able to play football after an accident as a toddler. When his grandparents’ house caught on fire when he was two years old, Williams watched from the other side of the road, struggling to break free of his grandfather’s grip and join his mother in trying to do something for their burning home. He finally slipped through the hands of the man trying to protect him and sprinted onto the road, heading for his mom. He was too focused on reaching her to see the car hurtling down the street, and the driver was caught with too little time to stop or swerve.
The car slammed into Williams’s two-year-old body, sending him flying into the air and across the pavement. Discovering three broken bones in his legs, Williams’s mother was told her son would never be able to play sports.
Mark that doctor down as the first person to be wrong about Aeris Williams. The star running back never had it easy, and that’s what shaped him into the man he became.
“He has great character. He’s a hard worker. A great leader. All the attributes that make a good person, he has,” Chambless said. “Aeris, even on a bad day, he’ll try to lift someone else up. He wasn’t ever looking for somebody to lift him up. He was always trying to help somebody and he still does.”
Even now, Williams makes a point to go back and visit his old team, speaking with individuals and the entire group to offer encouragement, inspiration or a word of tough love, if it’s needed. He exchanges the same with Chambless, too, as he’s spent many nights sitting on the couch in his old coach’s living room just talking about life.
“He’s got a family here in West Point for life,” Chambless said.
The feeling, for Williams, is mutual.
“The city means a lot to me because they’re behind me, pushing me,” he said. “Every time I get on Facebook, it’s somebody telling me how proud they are. I just thank West Point … The city is behind me, I’m telling you.”
It’s in that city, raised by a loving mother and surrounded by a supportive community, that Williams developed the attributes responsible for his success now. It’s cliché and perhaps even boring to say Williams is a great running back because of his strong work ethic, but any who have been around him immediately point to his dedication as the reason for his success.
“As good of a player as he is,” WPHS offensive line coach Casey Welch said, “probably what people don’t see is that, with us, he was the hardest working guy. You would finish workouts and look up, and him and two or three other guys would be pulling tires without us even out there. He always wanted to do more. He was always going to go above and beyond what any coach asked him to do.”
In fact, it was moments like those, more than the impressive running ability he displayed in games, that made MSU head coach Dan Mullen so eager to recruit and sign Williams nearly three years ago.
“That was something that really separated him from a lot of people,” Mullen said. “The type of person he was off the field was really special.”
Team captain and senior wideout Fred Ross, as he nears the finish of his collegiate career, is the leading receiver in Mississippi State history, and within the program, he’s respected most for the extra work he puts into developing himself. Spending as many hours at the team’s facility as he does, no one is better placed than Ross to see who puts in additional time on their own and who doesn’t.
“I remember [Williams] came here his freshman year and he worked so hard,” Ross said. “I work out a lot, just by myself … but every time time I’m out there, Aeris is out there. I could be walking into the facility to get some clothes out of my locker to go work out, and Aeris will already be out there in the sand pit working hard.”
Williams was never supposed to be able to do any of this, and that’s why he’s so dedicated to doing as much as he can.
Anyone who was in West Point, Mississippi during a certain time had an Aeris Williams moment at some point. Granted, there aren’t that many people in the small east Mississippi town compared to the homes of many of the game’s legends, but in their corner of the Golden Triangle, West Point High School football is everything, and for a handful of years, Aeris Williams was West Point football.
Some saw it coming before he even finished middle school, while others had the realization later in his career, but everyone in the town, from the Mayor to the coaching staff and the newspapers to the fans, had their moment – their realization of just what it was that they were witnessing.
As great a person as he was off the field to those who took the time to get to know him, Williams’s immense talent between the lines was quickly realized by all who saw him, friend, foe or stranger.
The exact timing of when those following his career discovered his ability varies from person to person, but the moment of his debut, his first call to action, goes back to his freshman year. Like most high schools, West Point had its varsity football team of 10th-12th graders, then also had a ninth grade team made up exclusively of freshmen that played a separate game against the ninth graders of the other schools every week. The physical difference between a freshman and a senior is much greater in high school than it is in college, and the separation gives the younger players a chance to play, something they would never be able to do if they were competing with the older kids.
Almost never, that is. In 2010, the Green Wave had an injury to their starting running back, a position where they were already thin, and they had to do something exceedingly rare at WPHS – they promoted a ninth grader to the varsity team mid-season.
Williams, of course, was that ninth grader. Playing against a strong Clarksdale team, he made his debut, running for over 100 yards and scoring two touchdowns as West Point eked out the victory and discovered a star had quietly been born.
“He did very well as a ninth grader against people his own age, but it’s hard to get them ready to play these guys two and three years older than they are,” Chambless explained. “We were able to squeak out a win, and it was because of him. I knew from that moment that we had somebody special.”
Following that first act, Williams’s legend grew as night by night over the next four years more and more people were witnesses to his talent.
Brandon Walker, in addition to his job as the managing editor of the West Point Daily Times Leader, was the substitute radio announcer for the team during Williams’ sophomore season. The Green Wave played Starkville High twice that year, once in the regular season and again in the playoffs. During the regular season matchup, Walker had his Aeris Williams Moment.
“There was a run, at some point during the game,” Walker remembered, “that he broke through the line, ran over a linebacker, did a spin move on the first safety and hurdled the second safety. It was like one of those videos you would see on YouTube. It was just a highlight that happened in front of you. I remember in real time thinking, ‘I will never forget what just happened.’ That’s when I knew this guy was special.”
In the second game against Starkville that year, Robbie Robinson had his turn. The current Mayor of West Point, Robinson has seen a lot of Green Wave football in his lifetime. He knows as well as anyone what it means to say that Williams stands among the greats in the pantheon of West Point’s legends.
“We’ve had a lot of good football players,” he said. “I knew he was special when I saw the Starkville game, I believe when he was a sophomore. He caught a touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone. It was a leaping, acrobatic catch and I said, ‘This kid’s special.’ Doggone, it turned out he sure was.”
The Mayor was right. The legend grew and grew, and to hear those in West Point talk about Williams now, his tale has seemingly reached Paul Bunyan status, those in his small town remembering his feats and accomplishments as some of the greatest they’ve ever seen, rendering those who watched often incapable of describing his performances with anything short of awe.
In a rivalry game against nearby New Hope one Friday night in 2013, Chambless and his Green Wave found themselves in an offensive battle of fairly epic proportions, with 126 total points being scored by the end of the game. Welch was the offensive line coach that year, Williams’ senior season. Like his head coach, Welch had known since that game against Clarksdale three years prior how special a talent they had, but if indeed any doubters still existed, Williams’s performance against New Hope shut the door on those who had yet to buy in.
“Aeris carried it nearly 30 times that night for just a ridiculous amount of yards. Never once asked to come out. I know he had to be dog tired, but he never wanted to come out. You couldn’t wear him down,” Welch remembered. “I wish I had the numbers in front of me.”
Williams, by then committed to play for Mississippi State in college, led West Point to a 76-50 win as he ran the ball 23 times for 227 yards and five touchdowns. And that wasn’t even his career high.
By the end of his playing days in West Point, Williams had amassed 3,994 total yards on the ground. Rushing for 1,607 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior, he was named the Mississippi Association of Coaches 5A Offensive Player of the Year, was selected to the Clarion-Ledger Dandy Dozen, was picked the WCBI-TV Offensive Player of the Year, represented his state in the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game and was a nominee for the Under Armour All-American Bowl.
Whatever he would go on to do after high school, his legacy in West Point was cemented.
His nickname is The A-Train. It’s a moniker he was given in high school, and one that’s perfectly fitting for the former West Point star. His touchdown celebration, while it seems innocuous enough if one doesn’t know what to look for, is what they call cranking the train. It’s a West Point thing, fans of the Green Wave will explain, and like the tracks running through town, it’s been around far longer than Aeris Williams.
Raising one hand in the air and yanking the imaginary chain of an engine car’s horn is a sign that the train is rolling and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it. When West Point gets going, so does the train, and during Williams’s four-year career, the train was a-rollin’ almost every Friday night.
“When I saw him start yanking that chain, cranking that train up,” Chambless said, “that’s one of the best feelings in the world as a coach on the sideline knowing you’ve got a guy that’s taking control.”
The celebration is one that Williams’s teammates at Mississippi State have picked up on, and when the sophomore tailback was running wild on Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl at the end of November, the MSU sideline could be seen on the TV broadcast cranking the train in celebration for each of Williams’s two touchdowns.
“We got a kick out of that as coaches at West Point,” said Welch, a former Mississippi State offensive lineman himself. “That made us feel good.”
With 191 yards on 25 carries, that Egg Bowl performance was the cap of a breakout stretch for Williams at MSU. It took two-and-a-half years of patiently waiting, working and preparing, a timespan Williams says now he very much needed, even if it was frustrating at the time.
Just as it had been so many years before as a ninth grader at West Point, Williams’s opportunity at MSU came when the starting running back in front of him got hurt. After getting no more than five carries in each of the first five games of the 2016 season, Williams got his shot in game six when he ran the ball 21 times against BYU, totaling a solid but not overly-noteworthy 82 yards. A few weeks later, Williams broke out.
Against what was then a Top-10 Texas A&M team, MSU coach Dan Mullen decided to give Williams the rock as many times as it took. His reward was watching the redshirt sophomore romp on the Aggie defense, racking up 140 yards and one touchdown on 24 carries.
Despite a limited role for half of the year, Williams ended up the team’s second leading rusher, his 656 yards more than doubling the total of the next-closest running back, as he averaged 5.2 yards per carry and found the endzone four times.
It took a little while, but now Williams is one of MSU’s brightest young stars and is all but cemented as the running back of the not-so-distant future for the Bulldogs.
“It was just a process,” he said, again declining to give himself too much credit.
He wasn’t lying, of course. It was a process, and one that included Williams having to learn just how much he didn’t know. In his words, he had to find himself as a football player.
“He would call and talk about struggling with pass protection and things like that,” Welch said. “The advanced offense that colleges run compared to us in high school – we weren’t a zone team. We were a block-down, kick-out where he knew what hole to hit as soon as we snapped the ball. I think it took him a little while to develop that patience.
“At that level,” he continued, “everybody who plays was the man on their high school team. We were just trying to talk to him and tell him, ‘Your time is coming. Just continue to work hard and be patient and do everything the coaches ask you to do.’”
So, he did exactly that. While he redshirted in 2014, as he saw exceedingly little time as a freshman in 2015, and as he waited on his chance as a sophomore in 2016, Williams was working on whatever his coaches gave him. He was developing his vision. He was memorizing the plays. Perhaps most importantly, he was learning how to block.
“When you get to the college level, it’s more than just running the ball,” he said. “You’ve got to learn how to block. I love blocking for my teammates because they love blocking for me … In high school, I didn’t do a lot of blocking, so I had to find myself there. With my cuts, I had to learn to keep my head up and have vision. You just have to find yourself. Once you find yourself and get that confidence, there ain’t no stopping you, I promise.”
Williams, quite clearly, has found himself, and with that self-discovery has come the quiet confidence of a force that considers itself to be unstoppable. The A-Train is back on the tracks.
Talking to him now, one thing is clear: Aeris Williams doesn’t think things. He knows them. In interviews with reporters – when he can be coaxed into speaking publicly, that is – his answers to questions come in clearly declarative form. He speaks what he believes to be absolute truth and delivers his truths in an exceedingly matter-of-fact manner – even if it’s not about football or his faith or his family.
Why are you so confident in everything you say, he was asked?
“Because I’m not lying to you,” he quickly responded with a disbelieving chuckle, drawing laughs from the room of reporters surrounding him.
Among the topics he confidently expressed his feelings on, Williams discussed the future of MSU’s offense, and its backfield specifically, at length – a conversation coming as MSU neared the end of preparation for its bowl game in St. Petersburg.
While Williams was steadily working his way onto the field this fall, his quarterback and fellow sophomore Nick Fitzgerald led the Southeastern Conference in total offense, setting the classmates up as one of the conference’s and even the country’s most dynamic duos and dangerous running threats for the foreseeable future.
“Our years here,” Williams began in earnest, “I promise, for Mississippi State, the running game is looking great. I promise it’s bright for the future.”
In Starkville and to the Bulldogs who cheer for him, Williams’s legacy has just begun to be written. In West Point and to those in the city that raised him, his status as legend is already assured.
“To all of us here in West Point to see him have the year he had is very exciting for us,” Chambless said, “but at the same time, we’re his biggest fans no matter what. If he doesn’t step on the field, we’re his biggest fans and he knows that.”
However, Mayor Robinson added, “I think his career is just beginning.”