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December 1, 2011

Unbroken

Just as the title of one of his favorite books, Utah's J.J. Williams may be injured and unable to play football again, but he remains unbroken.

The hit book by 'Seabiscuit' author Laura Hillenbrand chronicles the life and times of Louis Zamperini, a one-time Olympic athlete-turned war hero after overcoming unfathomable obstacles he sought to conquer just to stay alive.

After joining the military one month after his Olympic triumphs, Zamperini, an airman, was shot down in the Pacific, leaving him stranded at sea for 47 days with two fellow airmen. Zamperini was the sole survivor of that crash, only to become a POW, who eventually endured unspeakable torture and degradation at the hands of his Japanese captors for two years.

Myriad other challenges emerged for Zamperini through the course of his story, that seems inescapably fictional, but miraculously, isn't. The true story speaks to the nature of man, his will to live and ability to overcome with strength of spirit and mind. At age 94, Zamperini is a testament to all things true and good, heroic, if not mystic in his ability to persevere.

While Williams would never liken himself, or his struggles, to Zamperini, perhaps he sees a trace of himself in Zamperini. At the very least, he must believe in Zamperini's approach to life, as he coincidentally or not, has adopted himself.

Blessed with practical perspective, Williams seems the type to have not ever planned on a career in football, and as such, can only be so disappointed with his inability to stay healthy and stay on the field.

Having joined the Utah football team in 2005, during head coach Kyle Whittingham's first season, Williams has endured injuries combined with two years away on an LDS mission to the West Indies to become the longest-tenured Ute on the roster.

It is those injuries that have brought frustration and some sadness to Williams, a true competitor that would love nothing more than to start and subsequently complete, an entire season. Particularly in this, his sixth, an final season after a disappointing 2010 wherein injuries side-lined him for 11 games out of 13. Williams was able to play and participate in the TCU and Notre Dame games last season; two of the most disappointing losses in recent Utah history.

After coming back from that injury, most, especially Williams, looked forward to a complete rehabilitation and a full return to the football field in 2011. Early on, it became apparent that Williams wasn't 100%, and as the season wore on, his reps were limited purposefully in order to preserve him and allow him to possibly heal, while still staying fresh and contributing to the team.

"Right now, J.J. is working on fewer reps, but we're trying to find a balance between keeping him game ready, and still giving him some time to heal," said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake in October. "The hope is that he can grow into more reps and time on the field as he continues to heal. Hopefully, by the end of the season we'll get him back something close to full time."

By this time, then, Williams and his teammates had hoped to see him full time, instead, his season and most likely, his football career ended in the eighth week of the season against Oregon State.

Another injury, another season lost for Williams and win or lose, he personifies Utah football as we know it. Between an LDS mission and injuries, Williams, along with senior safety Greg Bird, represent the only remaining players from head coach Kyle Whittingham's first season as head coach in 2005.

Given that fact, no player besides Bird has been exposed to the mind-set of Whittingham and the culture of Utah football more so than Williams. Perhaps no other player has been around for more highs, or more lows, made more painful by virtue of experiencing some of the highs.

The highest high, the Utes' victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, was bittersweet for Williams as he missed it while serving his mission. Still, Williams wouldn't trade his mission for any other experience.

"A mission, that was the best decision I ever made. Taking a two year break from football and going on a mission taught me more things about God, about life, about teamwork, about family," explained Williams. "Anyone who has been understands all the positives a mission brings to your life. Those same lessons also translate real well to football, or other situations later in life. You can apply them to anything you do, really."

Given Williams' time in the program, head coach Kyle Whittingham and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who also joined the Utah staff in 2005, have seen Williams grow up before their eyes.

"J.J. has been with us for so long, and we've seen him do so many things and go through so many things that it's just been really rewarding to see him graduate and go on to pursue his life," Sitake said of the sixth year senior. "For him, I think the sky's the limit, because he's the type of guy that is just positive and he can overcome anything. He's smart, on and off the field, and he just knows how to work, and how to do things right, and how to win."

Conversely, Williams speaks just as glowingly of his coaches, and how much their example and influence have helped mold him into the person he is today.

"Well, I love those guys. They've always had my back, and I've always had theirs. It's just nice to have a head coach that knows, both, how to win, and to how to treat players," described Williams. "To have role models, or guys like that you can look up to, or follow their example means everything. We've been lucky with these guys, because not everyone has that with their coach. A lot of who I am, I got from my time here playing football for Coach, and for Utah."

A Utah man through and through, Williams originally came to Utah from the Air Force Academy. Though Williams' father Doug played his college football at BYU, Williams grew up an admirer of the Falcons in nearby Colorado Springs (Colo.). Out of high school Air Force was the only DI school to offer Williams a scholarship for football, which was just fine by him.

"I grew up watching them, and following them a little bit. I always had a lot of respect for them, and they way they played the game," Williams said of the Air Force Academy. "They were always tough, never gave up and that's what I think drew me to them."

According to Whittingham, Williams has many of the attributes so often associated with the Air Force Academy, and he hopes, the University of Utah football team, as well.

"J.J. is a guy who was totally self made. He came in as a walk-on, and with the understanding that if he did the work, he could earn a spot here. Not everyone does that, but we've always rewarded players' hard work and character, and J.J. is a guy who got there," said Whittingham. "The highest compliment a coach can pay a player is to say that he was the same guy day in, and day out. That's what you look for, and he's given us that. Off the field, character-wise, it's hard to compare with him. I'm excited to see what he does in the future, and whatever that is, I'm sure he'll be a guy that finds success."

The summer after high school, Williams attended basic training at Air Force, and quickly decided that military life wasn't for him, and began looking for other options.

Late in the recruiting game, Williams father reached out to some of his connections to feel out a good situation for his son. Turns out, former teammate Kyle Whittingham just happened to be a head coach, and happened to have a spot for Williams, if he wanted to try and earn his way on the team as a walk-on, that is.

"I wasn't really a fan of either BYU or Utah, but I was kind of aware of them, and kind of followed them a little bit," Williams said. "Neither offered me a scholarship, so that was the only reason I steered away from them."

Watching Williams over the course of his career at Utah has revealed that he carries many of the same attributes that draw praise, admiration and respect to the cadets of the Air Force Academy.

Through the upswings and challenges that naturally accompany six years in a DI collegiate athletic career, Williams has displayed leadership, resiliency, a realistic optimism and mostly, a will to play and compete.

All of which drove him during his injury riddled years at Utah since returning from his mission.

"A guy like J.J. just kind of gives you hope, or kind of makes you believe," said close friend, teammate, and fellow linebacker Matt Martinez. "Having gone through injuries and having that same kind of challenge and frustration as J.J. has made everything so much easier for me. We definitely had a lot of the same challenges, and so to have someone with you, struggling, has been huge for me. It was like he made you think that you could work hard, and be ok."

Martinez and Williams have bonded as teammates naturally would, but their shared, common adverse experiences due to injury have made them extraordinarily close. So much so, that the two have talked about going into business together after graduation. Both are accomplished students, and share the same major in Economics.

"We don't know exactly what we want to do, but we are always bouncing ideas off of each other and thinking of businesses we want to get in, and run," said Martinez of his plans that involve Williams post-graduation. "He's smart, he works hard and he's just a really good guy, and so that's something we've talked about doing together."

Williams also discussed the concept of Martinez as business partner, rather than fellow linebacker.

"We're the guys that see something crazy on an infomercial, and we say, 'oh did you see that thing, or we have to get that'," Williams joked. "I think that's something that could happen, maybe. I think what we see in each other is hard work, a work ethic and just that inexplicable thing that drives people."

If Bird and Williams have been around Utah football the longest, Martinez is next, having arrived at Utah in 2006. Playing the same position, the two have had ample opportunity to build their friendship, especially as each watched the other struggle multiple times with season ending injuries. Most recently, it was Williams who went down again.

Putting football into the context of life, Williams points to the many memories he'll take with him as he graduates, citing his football experiences as "life-learning" and the relationships he's built with Martinez and others, as a great networking tool for later in life, as if a future in football was never in the cards.

"I think you'll never forget the times you had in college, as a football player and being part of something. Being with the guys, and building those relationships are the most important thing I'll take with me when I'm gone," Williams said. "As you move on, those relationships turn to a great network of contacts, which is also a big positive."

Thinking ahead, and outside the football box is something Williams has done a lot of this season.

Williams looks to move on to the next phase of his life; an impending marriage to another Ute athlete in womens soccer team captain Lauren Porter.

Both outdoor enthusiasts, the proposal happened on a hike to a point overlooking the valley on the night before fall football camp started for Williams, and soccer camp for Porter. The couple, both seniors, plan to wed sometime in May.

Both Porter and Williams are excellent students with Williams earning first team Pac-12 All-Academic team this season, to go along with several similar MWC honors. Porter, pursuing her degree in Psychology, has garnered MWC All-Academic honors in three consecutive years.

With so much ahead, it seems Williams hardly remembers his struggles on the football field, or even his beginnings.

Williams redshirted in 2005 before playing in all 13 games, and eventually winning a starting spot and starting the final seven games of the season. Williams, third on the depth chart at rover linebacker in '06, seized the opportunity presented him when two players ahead of him went down with injury.

Williams started against New Mexico, and went on to start in the remaining games of the season, even after both players listed ahead of him returned from their injuries. In 2006, Williams recorded 55 tackles, one interception and 4.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman at the rover position.

Williams' young career was off to a fast and promising start, but he would opt to put it all on hold in favor of a two year LDS mission, served in the West Indies, not knowing at the time that he would only have one more full year of football ahead of him. In 2009 after returning from his mission, Williams played in all thirteen games, but didn't find the same success he had in 2006.

Indeed, Williams has seen the ups and downs of Utah football which seem to have paralleled his own struggles and triumphs.

While the other seniors savored one last home game on November 25 against Washington State with family and friends there to greet them on the field prior to the game, Williams unwittingly took the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium on October 29 for the final time. No fanfare, no announcement; just a regular game.

Except that it would be his last, and while the sting of disappointment lingers and sticks, Williams, like Zamperini did throughout his intriguing life trials, will be resourceful, persevere and do it with an uncannily pleasant decorum and poise. Probably with a smile on his face, and the most optimistic outlook possible on the fringe of his mind as he contemplates his next step.

J.J. Williams is a Utah football player for one more game, though he won't play. Fortunately for him, long before becoming so, he aspired to more while savoring the experience, but understanding that it was but a stepping stone on the path of his young, promising life.







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