Wilfred Williams has always been goal-oriented, and soccer scored him a career opportunity.
A two-time all-state player at Science Hill, Williams is bypassing his senior season with the Hilltoppers after being selected to the elite FC Dallas Academy 16-U team.
Williams left this week with his uncle on the 16-hour drive to Dallas, where he intends to stay two years. Long trips are nothing new for Williams, a Liberian who came to Johnson City by way of Ghana and Philadelphia.
He was in Philadelphia perhaps a couple of weeks when he arrived in America at age 10 before moving to Johnson City, where a Liberian community was taking root. Williams’ extended family had heard about the success of people such as Liberian Kpadeh Muingbeh, a former Science Hill player who was an honorable mention All-American at King College in 2000 and led Virginia Intermont to the NAIA national tournament as a striker in 2003.
Muingbeh, who lives in Bristol, Va., is a mentor for Williams. Muingbeh once said that one day he was watching war in Liberia and the next day he was in math class in Johnson City.
“I look up to him big-time,” Williams said. “He gives me tips on what to do, and he encourages me. When I came here I heard a lot about him at King College. Everybody has respect for him. That’s something I want people to have for me when I’m out of here and going to the next level — whatever the next level may be.
“Everywhere I go, people talk about him. I want to be like that.”
Williams played a lot of soccer at Civitan Park with Muingbeh and other Liberians, who help comprise a community that Williams guessed has a population in the hundreds. Competing with older, bigger men was invaluable.
“I learn a lot, and I get stronger and more physical when I play with them,” Williams said, “because, you know, I have to limit my touches there, because if I don’t do that, I’m gonna get hurt. But it’s great. They teach me a lot and I respect every single one of them.”
Williams, 16, enjoys teaching soccer, too.
“I went to the club to say bye to the kids and I was about in tears,” Williams said, “because all of them were telling me how they were going to miss me and how much they appreciated me helping them. And it wasn’t just the little kids, it was, like, the 14- and 15-year-olds telling me that. I’ve seen them grow as players.”
Former Science Hill baseball standout Hanes Torbett’s children have worked with Williams.
“I have never seen a young man so driven, so passionate, so determined to reach his goal,” said Torbett, who has “taken a liking” to Williams and his thriving amid modest means. “Wilfred does something every day that makes him better at soccer. Whatever he decides to do in life, he will be successful if he tackles it with this same passion.”
Torbett’s daughter, Hannah, is a freshman at Science Hill. She had five assists in the Lady ’Toppers’ season-opening win on Tuesday.
“I’d say she’s one of the best girls players I’ve seen around here for a while at her age,” Williams said. “She can do some beautiful things if she really wants to.”
Williams engineered some works of beauty on the field for Science Hill. Unfortunately, the most vivid memory he leaves with was his final goal, which was negated by an offsides penalty in the state championship game at Murfreesboro in May. Williams’ header against Brentwood had apparently tied the score at 2 with less than two minutes remaining. But the goal was nullified, jubilation turned to resignation and the Hilltoppers were state runner-up for a second straight year.
“The memory I will never forget is the second goal I scored and the referee calling it offsides,” he said. “And clearly, the player is still on the back post and they’re calling it offsides. It’s just a shocker because it’s, like, the last seconds of the game — to tie the game, especially when you’re the one scoring the goal — and just standing there and having no words to express and you don’t know what to do.
“There’s nothing at all you can do to change the perspective of a referee. I mean, they make a call as they see it. You can’t change it. But it was very shocking.”
Williams liked playing for Brandon Kind at Science Hill, or learned how to like playing soccer.
“It was good playing for him,” Williams said. “I mean, when I came to play with the team here at Science Hill it was different, but the guys taught me how to enjoy the game and have more fun with the game. And that’s what I was missing at times. Those guys helped me realize you can have fun with the game but also be competitive at the same time.”
Kind’s lasting memory of Williams is when he came out of a do-or-die game at Sevier County when the Hilltoppers were trailing 2-1 with 10-15 minutes remaining this spring. Williams was tired and frustrated and many Hilltoppers’ shots weren’t finding the net.
“I took him out and said, ‘This is a moment where leaders are born,’” Kind said. “He went back in and took it and ran with it. He tied the score and was instrumental (in the game-winning goal). It was a make-or-break moment. … He stepped up, and when he did that, others stepped up.”
Kind said the Williams who arrived at Science Hill couldn’t have led in that fashion.
“There are many memories I’ll cherish with Wilfred,” Kind said. “But the biggest thing to me was how he learned to become a good teammate. … There’s no doubt he had the fire and competitiveness and work ethic, but that means nothing if no one wants to play with you. I’m really proud that he learned that, because that goes so much further than soccer.”
Williams’ maturation was never more apparent than when Science Hill received what Kind termed a “bogus call” that negated the tying goal in the state championship game.
“It was pretty poor … and we went from the best feeling in the world to the worst,” Kind said. “The way we handled that heartbreaker showed our character and integrity. We saw the bigger picture, and Wilfred was at the top of that list.”
Williams enjoys America. He praises teachers such as Stephanie Ledford (English) and Ryan Quaintance (math), who taught him at Indian Trail Middle School, and cherishes friendships like the one he has with club coach Declan Jogi, a Zimbabwe native who played at King College and was instrumental in the Dallas opportunity.
One thing Williams would change is America’s lack of passion for soccer.
“Back home it was soccer 24/7,” Williams said. “It’s not the No. 1 sport here. Soccer’s just not as big as it is other places.”
Williams did help rekindle the passion at Science Hill, which has tradition. But the 1990s was its most dominant era — at least until the past couple of years.
“I was surprised to see the fans we had out here this season after going to the state my sophomore year,” Williams said. “Soccer has gained some respect at our school.”
Of course, Williams’ departure, as well as the transfer of talented rising sophomore Javier Alberto, who moved to Mexico to play for Chivas Guadalajarra, will make finally getting that state title much more difficult. Leaving Science Hill was a no-brainer for Williams, but it wasn’t easy. The finality really struck home when Kind gave him a ride home from school this week.
“It’s like you’re excited, but then you’re like, ‘Ugh,’” he said. “But everybody understands how big of an opportunity this is. So pretty much, the next two years is like a fight for either going pro or going to a D-I college. … So whatever it takes, that’s what is gonna happen. I’m really looking forward to the next two years of working hard.
“I mean, it’s gonna be a challenge, but if you want to get to the next level that’s what it takes. I’m just at that level where some are better than me and others — we’re just right there together (in talent) — and it’s just a matter of who wants it the most.”