For one Illinois State Hall of Famer, an opportunity was the only thing he needed to change his life forever.
At the age of six, Willie Williams and his family moved from Mississippi to Chicago Heights, Illinois. It wouldn’t be until much later and the influence of a high school coach that he would be introduced to the sport of wrestling.
Prior to his senior year at Bloom High School (1963), Williams had never wrestled. After continual pressure from the high school coach, he eventually gave it a try.
“The wrestling coach talked me into coming out for the wrestling team and I made the team,” Williams said. “I thank the wrestling team; that pretty much prompted me to go to college.”
After making the team, continual practice, and study of the sport, Williams excelled on the mat in his first season. Willie earned both the South Suburban Conference and IHSA District Championships his senior year.
“I began to learn more and more about wrestling and of course there were a lot of people who knew a lot of wrestling,” Williams said. “I pretty much mingled with them and got educated by them and it got to be interesting and exciting and I caught on and stuck with it.”
After a successful senior wrestling season, Williams was offered a wrestling scholarship at Illinois State and followed in his high school wrestling coach’s footsteps, who had also wrestled at ISU. This proved to be an opportunity of a lifetime.
“My high school wrestling coach was so excited about me being a wrestler with so little experience,” Williams said. “He drove me down to Illinois State to make sure I got enrolled.”
Once Williams arrived on campus, the real learning began, he quickly learned that with opportunity often comes hard work.
While Williams attended Illinois State, he wrestled in the 191-pound weight class. The team held the IIAC (Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) Conference title for all four years of his college career. Williams was an IIAC Conference Champion for three consecutive years (1965, 1966, 1967). In 1965, he also was the runner-up at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Success continued for Williams his senior year, as he was an NCAA Division II National Champion, became the first All-American at Illinois State, and placed fifth in the 1967 NCAA Division I Tournament.
The team’s success was celebrated by the Illinois State and Bloomington-Normal communities. “Of course, it was all in the papers and when we got back they gave us a parade,” Williams said. “The mayor of Bloomington ended up giving me the key to the city.”
The opportunities for Williams did not end after Illinois State. After graduation, Williams returned to the Chicagoland area and connected with athletes in the Mayor Daley Youth Foundation that wrestled for the USA National Team. He began training with them and this prompted Williams to reach for higher goals.
“When I connected with them, that (USA National Team) became my goal,” Williams said. “I ended up being a U.S. Open National Champion quite a few times, on the U.S. World team like four times, Pan-American Games Champion, and I got to travel all over the world with the U.S. team.”
His post-college career includes numerous national and international accolades (source: National Wrestling Hall of Fame):
- Five United State Wrestling Federation Greco-Roman National Championships, twice being selected as the tournament’s Most Valuable Wrestler
- National Greco Championship (1975)
- Freestyle National Title (1975)
- AAU National Grego-Roman Champion (1973-1976) – highlighted by the MVP Award in 1975.
- Pan-American Games Greco Champion (1975)
- Five-time USA Greco-Roman team member (captain in 1974)
- Member of the U.S. World Wrestling Team in 1970-71 and 1973-75
- Placed sixth in the Worlds in 1970 and 1974
- Greco Champion in the 1972 Olympic Team Trails
- Named to the 1972 and 1976 Olympic teams as an alternate
Along with wrestling professionally, Williams found a way to give back to young wrestlers through coaching for seven seasons at Hillcrest High School. “Those guys that I mingled with, that I coached, and many of the coaches are friends for life,” Williams said. “I ended up coaching several state place winners and a state champion.”
Williams said the education he received from Illinois State made him proud to attend and he encourages current student-athletes to stay focused. Just like Williams found throughout his career, opportunity is always knocking. “Remain focused on your endeavors and continue to pursue,” Williams said.