By Bill Renje
LOVEJOY, Ga. — Typically when you lose 30 seniors and all but three starters on both sides of the ball, your football program goes into full rebuilding mode.
And while the 2015 version of Lovejoy football will be young, they’re also giving credence to the saying: ‘They don’t rebuild, they reload.’
That’s thanks to the amount of talent the program is able to call up from last year’s junior varsity roster.
Perhaps at the head of that class is sophomore quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams who will lead the offense and draw upon his God-given talent and potential, as well as the experience he has with many of his fellow offensive teammates — some playing together going as far back as kindergarten.
This group has won youth championships leading up to the high school varsity level, and for that reason, it’s no surprise that the hopes, dreams and expectations to continue that success at state’s highest level of prep football are clearly present.
“It helps when they’ve been together since they were five or seven years old, and they’ve won significant championships at every level, whether Pee Wee or middle school ball,” said first-year offensive coordinator Brandon Byram.
“That’s the biggest thing,” he continued. “It doesn’t help if you’ve been together since you were little and you’re getting your eyes beat in when you’re all playing together. But if you’ve got that core group of guys that have been winning, that expectation to win repeats.”
Tradition is built by those who’ve come before you and were able to pass on legacy to emerging young hearts and minds. For Williams, however, nobody had to educate him on the tradition of the Lovejoy football program, and the expectations that come along with that tradition.
“Ever since I was younger, I’ve watched Lovejoy,” Williams said. “My rec teams, we’ve won championships and here they expect nothing less. We used to come on Friday nights to watch (now freshman running back) Zion Custis’ older cousin (former star) Travis (Custis), and we saw those guys go to state. There’s pressure to keep that same reputation.”
While a freshmen leading the junior varsity to a Clayton County championship, and sitting on the varsity bench, there was no way Williams thought he’d be in this position as the season draws near. But after rising senior and 2014 starter Quintarius Neely transferred to Roswell, Williams won a very competitive audition for the starting position between five other signal callers in the spring.
One of those quarterbacks, rising senior T.J. Hardy, has provided leadership and stability to the offense, to Williams, and has added to the positive chemistry of the team.
“T.J. is a leader and makes sure the younger guys are doing what they’re supposed to do,” Byram said. All of the quarterbacks push each other, really hard one through five,” according to Byram. “When we started out in spring, it was an open competition. I told them ‘I don’t owe you anything. The best is going to play.’ They all worked their tails off, and Hajj won the job.”
As for Williams, Byram likes what he sees so far, but is proceeding with caution, as far as expectations go.
“He’s young and talented, but more so young,” he said. ““Hajj’s ceiling is limitless. With hard work there’s no telling where he can go. He’s a great kid, well spoken. ‘Yes sir,’ ‘no sir.’ He’s got a great home support system and is very stable minded.”
The chemistry has been strong between Williams and Byram who Williams affectionately refers to as “Coach B.” The similarities Williams has with the 25-year old former Griffin assistant are plentiful with the 25-year-old Byram.
Byram also found himself filling a starting spot she he played in high school, and now in the new role of offensive coordinator for the Wildcats, he and Williams both will oversee older, more experienced peers.
“It helps that he’s young also and in the same boat as me with having to step up, to tell the other (offensive) coaches what to do, what he expects,” said Williams. “And that helps me because there’s a way to do everything. I don’t have to yell it (to the other offensive players), but say it in a certain way so they get confidence.”
There’s also a lot of similarities with working in so many new players with having nine new coaches to the staff. But from Spring practice through summer workouts which saw Lovejoy win the Adidas 7-on-7 Georgia State championship in June while finishing second at the Southeast championship in July, the Wildcats have gelled together nicely on the field and as a coaching staff.
“Our offensive staff has really gelled together just like our players have,” Byram said.
But the quarterback is arguably the most important position on the field, so a lot of attention and responsibility will fall upon Williams’ shoulders on and off the field.
“He’s young, so he’s trying to grow into a leader,” said head coach Edgar Carson. “But what he does do well is he’s smart and he understands the quarterback position. We expect him to lead, to know where everybody is at on the offense, on the line, the running backs, the receivers. That’s going to be a big challenge. But I think he’s up for it.
“With him being a sophomore, sometimes it’s difficult to tell a senior where to be, but I demand that out of him. If he can establish that right now, it will carry over to his junior and senior years.”
It may very well be the off the field leadership that could end up setting the stage for Williams to take charge on Friday Nights.
A consistent presence at the Wednesday morning Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meetings last year at the school, Williams will be stepping into a leadership role within the Club, drawing upon his interests in sports as ministry.
“When I was younger, I used to play at (First Baptist) Jonesboro. I don’t really go to church all that much, but after practices and games we’d always have devotions, so that really opened up my eyes,” Williams said.
“When I was 5, they gave us jerseys with a Bible verse on it. It was John 3:16. That was the first verse that I remembered by heart and ever since then, sports tying in with God, I could always relate to that because I love both.”
Williams said he knows that Jesus didn’t ultimately come so he and his Lovejoy teammates could win football games and be successful with awards, and accolades. He came so we’d have eternal life and an abundant life of peace and joy here by maximizing the gifts, talent and abilities He’s given us.
As Williams continues to grow and learn – on the field, in the classroom, and spiritually – Williams will no doubt have a Kingdom impact, regardless of where his football talent takes him in the next few years.