His life was riddled with poverty, drugs, gangs and hopelessness. An environment designed for failure. He should have been a statistic.
But the impact of the right people at the right time—many of whom he met at MSUM—changed his life.
Native Chicagoan Vincent Williams (2003, social studies & 2011 M.S. curriculum and instruction) admits he was headed toward destruction. After getting caught doing “illegal activities,” his mother sent him to Detroit to live with his father. Different city, same problems.
“By the grace of God I got caught by my uncle Bops, who is near and dear to my heart,” Williams said. “We had a ‘come to Jesus’ talk and he persuaded me to do something positive with my life. That’s how, at age 15, I left that lifestyle. I’ve always loved football and Bops encouraged me to play.”
His football cadre at Redford (Detroit ) High School were motivated to succeed and that motivated Williams to succeed. “Playing football presented a different set of standards and that’s what I needed,” he said.
His senior year they lead the Huskies to their first state playoff game in the school’s history. Colleges seemed interested, including the U.S. Naval Academy and Holy Cross College, but at 5’7” and 200 pounds he wasn’t big enough. That’s where Moorhead State, and football recruiter Christopher Laidlaw, came into play.
Laidlaw was scouting another kid from Detroit when he saw Williams on that player’s game tape. “He liked what he saw because he drove from Moorhead to Detroit to talk to me. I had never heard of Moorhead or Fargo, but he painted a magical place.”
Laidlaw’s persistence and no offers from other schools found Williams and two buddies road tripping to Moorhead. All three signed to play for the Dragons. One friend backed out before school started; another returned to Detroit after one week on campus—too many white people.
“I was all alone, but players like Norman Bell, Alan Black and Jose Saez helped me stay focused. It was the best decision I ever made,” Williams said. “I eventually developed positive relationships with all of my teammates, especially Bjarne Rustad, John Varriano and Matt Baasch, all of whom I consider to be my brothers.”
Williams didn’t like the football program—at first.
“The head coach said I was a “tweener” and he wouldn’t feel bad if I didn’t come out the following year,” Williams said. “I was very defiant and had a lot of resentment. Then I met with defensive coach, Dan Lind, who said he wanted me to stay because he thought I wouldn’t finish school.”
He was moved to defense. “Our staff felt he fit better on defense,” Lind said. “He wasn’t a tremendously gifted athlete, but he worked hard and eventually started on defense. It was a good move for him”
Lind describes Vince as positive, even keeled and mature. “He has a strong faith that helped him get through some tough times. He has great moral character, and those are the kinds of guys we’ll always take.”
A Dragon kicker from Wisconsin, who was also a preacher’s son, asked Williams to go to church with him one day. They found Fargo Baptist church. “I liked what I heard, but I stopped going,” Williams said. “Then I started attending a Bible study on campus and loved it. I learned that Fargo Baptist Church sponsored that Bible study! On March 1, 1999, I accepted the Lord as my Savior. That is why I believe in Divine intervention. I was headed toward destruction. God used football to bring me to Moorhead to hear the Gospel.
“MSUM started out rocky simply because of culture shock, but I owe so much to Moorhead State. It’s helped me learn to deal with people who are different, gave me an opportunity to increase my knowledge, allowed me to play a sport I love, prepared me for a great career, and more importantly, I’ve come to know the Lord because of Moorhead State.”
An education practicum at Moorhead High School was the catalyst that moved him from political science major to future educator. Now Williams inspires others—in front of today’s hard to reach and challenging to engage students at Fargo North High School. Thanks to MSUM education Professor Steve Grineski, Williams learned early on the important lesson about relationships.
“When we build relationships, every else falls into place,” Williams said. “Connecting with students helps keep them engaged. As the only black man at North, all the students know me. They know I’ll listen and provide advice. Chances are most won’t remember what the consumer price index is, but they’ll remember that I listened to them and taught them to put others before themselves. I know that for a fact.
“My students may not love the content, but they love being in my class, and it’s not because I’m the best teacher in the world. But there’s an old saying that kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And my kids know this: I care.”
Williams and his wife Heidi have one daughter and live in Fargo.
First-year Dragon football Coach Steve Laqua has created new opportunities for football alumni to give back to their alma mater. For Vince Williams, that means talking to the players, sharing a meal with athletes not going home during the holidays, or proclaiming his faith in a meaningful way.
Laqua started pre-game talks (required) and chapel (optional) before all home games. Almost half of all players attended optional chapel this year.
“I was excited that our attendance stayed pretty constant throughout the season,” Laqua said. “It’s inspired some of our student athletes to organize their own Bible studies.”
Williams had the privilege of delivering a talk and chapel before the Dragons’ last home game. He spoke on keeping a good testimony and doing the right thing. “The players aren’t required to attend, but it was pretty full,” Williams said. “I love the direction the football program is going.”
Coincidentally, the previous night some seniors spoke to the coaching staff about what Dragon football has meant to them, and some of the athletes had similar backgrounds to Vince. “He had an instant connection with the players,” Laqua said. “Vince is a high character guy making a tremendous impact in the community. He’s proud to say he’s a Dragon, and he represents everything you want in a graduate, regardless of whether he played football. He’s a great role model in faith, family, work and life.”