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Javonte Williams almost quit football. Now he’s a starting running back at UNC.

As a kid, Javonte Williams and his dad spent most Saturdays at home watching North Carolina football on television.

The young boy was fascinated by the games, so every year around Christmastime, Williams wrote to Santa Claus and asked for the same thing: a Tar Heels football uniform, a helmet and cowboy boots (because he liked horses, too).

“He would always say, ‘Daddy, I’m going to play for Wallace and Carolina,’” Jermaine Williams, Javonte’s father, recalled on Thursday in a phone interview with The News & Observer. “I said, ‘Okay, buddy, if that’s your dream then go get it.’”

So Williams did.

He started playing flag football when he was 5. At those games, his mother, Shekemia, got into arguments with other parents because Williams liked to tackle the other kids.

Fourteen years later, Williams is a 5-10, 215-pound sophomore starting running back for the Tar Heels. He has emerged this year as one of UNC’s top running backs, passing those who were ahead of him on the depth chart last year.

Heading into UNC’s game against Appalachian State on Saturday, he leads the Tar Heels with 205 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown.

As a true freshman, Williams had 224 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 11 games.

“He’s got such powerful legs, he’s hard to tackle,” UNC coach Mack Brown said in a press conference last week. “And in our offense, you get the ball to him in space a lot. So when you throw those flares and you’ve got receivers blocking, sometimes those safeties don’t want to come up.”

But Williams almost quit the game before his college career ever got started.

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Javonte Williams (25) scores on a two-yard carry for a touchdown to give the Tar Heels a 17-3 lead over Miami in the first quarter on Saturday, September 7, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Javonte Williams, AKA Pookie

Williams grew up in Wallace, a quiet town of 3,000 people, right off of I-40 about 40 miles from Wilmington. In this town, everyone knows everyone.

Just not by their given names.

When I asked a waitress at a local restaurant whether she had heard of Javonte Williams, she said “no.”

But she had heard of “Pookie.”

“I know Pookie,” the waitress, Gretta Williams, said. “He plays football. You’re in Wallace, honey. We go by nicknames around here.”

Those who know Williams think of him fondly. He was the star player on the Wallace-Rose Hill football team. He won the state championship all four years he was in high school.

He graduated with a 4.6 GPA and was valedictorian of his class.

His UNC teammate and fellow running back Michael Carter knows education is still very important to Williams.

Carter said there are three things certain in life: “Death, taxes and Javonte’s going to be in class.”

“That’s him,” he added. “He’s going to be everywhere on time. He’s going to be early because his last name means a lot to him.”

Williams is also a person of faith.

Before the start of the 2017 2A state playoff quarterfinals game against Northeastern, half the team sat in the locker room quiet, the other half was fired up, Kevin Motsinger, Williams’ high school coach, recalled. The coach wasn’t sure if his players were focused, scared or distracted.

Then, he said, he saw Williams in a corner by himself, calmly reading a Bible.

Motsinger said he walked out of the locker room and told his assistant coaches: “We’re going to be okay. Pookie is ready, and if Pookie is ready, we’ve got a chance!”

Williams finished the game with 345 all-purpose yards, three touchdowns and a 63-52 win.

Almost giving up

Williams played linebacker until he was a senior in high school. He was tough, he was physical. He had the heart and the talent. As a high school junior, he averaged 16 tackles a game.

Motsinger sent Williams’ highlight tapes to schools across the country.

But the colleges he wanted to go, including UNC, never offered him a scholarship.

Alabama said he was too short to play linebacker. N.C. State said he was too slow. UNC liked him but looked at him as a safety, and hoped he would grow an inch or two.

Motsinger said he thinks Williams didn’t get the offers he wanted was because he was at a small school in a small town.

“I called everybody,” Motsinger said with a southern drawl. “If he would have been at Hoover High School (in Alabama), he would have been anywhere in the country he would have wanted to go.”

Williams got a few offers from smaller colleges, but he said he wanted to go to a school known for education. UNC was at the top of his list.

Williams said he seriously considered quitting football after his senior year, and just enrolling at UNC as a student. He also thought about committing to Coastal Carolina, even though he knew he wouldn’t be happy there.

“It was real hard on me just not knowing what I was going to do after high school,” Williams said. “My whole high school career I was just dreaming of playing college football. But when I thought the opportunity was going to be taken away, it just started wearing me down.”

His mother, Shekemia, told him to trust God and everything would work out.

“I kept telling him, ‘son, don’t ever settle,’” she said. “Don’t ever settle. Keep praying and keep pushing. Something is going to come through.”

So he listened.

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North Carolina’s Javonte Williams (25) breaks open on a 25-yard run in the third quarter against South Carolina on Saturday, August 31, 2019 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Changing positions

Motsinger had a plan for Williams. After watching film, the coach thought Williams had the potential to be a running back.

So he had Williams switch positions for his senior year. Motsinger knew if anyone could make a successful switch, it was Pookie.

“He’s always done everything he was supposed to do, and he always had a little extra,” Motsinger told the N&O.

Williams was hesitant. He was comfortable at linebacker. But he wanted to do everything he could to earn a scholarship. So he agreed to become a running back.

In his first game at his new position, Williams rushed for 207 yards in a 50-0 win against James Kenan. In his third game, he rushed for 205 yards in a 26-21 win over Havelock. The following week, he rushed for 211 yards in a 30-0 win over Northside Jacksonville.

He had six games that season, including two in the state playoffs, with 200 or more rushing yards.

Williams ended his senior season ranked No. 94 in the country at running back by 247sports. Yet he still wasn’t getting calls from the schools where he wanted to play.

But that was about to change.

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North Carolina’s Javonte Williams (25) scores on a rush in the third quarter against N.C. State on Saturday, November 24, 2018 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Earning a scholarship

Williams’ last high school game was the 2017 2A state championship against Reidsville at Kenan Stadium. Williams didn’t know it, but then-UNC coach Larry Fedora and his staff were watching from the box.

On the first play of the game, Williams took a handoff and ran 73 yards up the right side of the field for a touchdown. He had his best game of the season, and finished with 224 yards, a touchdown, a player of the game nod and Wallace-Rose Hill’s fourth consecutive state championship.

In the locker room after the game, Williams was greeted by then-UNC running back Jordon Brown, who told Williams the UNC coaches had set up an official visit for him.

The next day, Williams and his parents met with Fedora in his office. Jermaine and Shekemia Williams sat on a couch as Javonte Williams stood with Fedora and looked out over the Kenan Stadium football field.

Williams said Fedora ask him, “How would you like to come here and give us a championship if I were to give you a scholarship?”

Williams recalls the moment with a smile. It didn’t feel real, he said.

“It was like the world was lifted off my shoulders,” he said.

He finally felt like he belonged.

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Appalachian State at UNC

When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill

Watch: Fox Sports South

Listen: WTKK-106.1 Raleigh; WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 Chapel Hill; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 Charlotte

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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