Derrick Williams figured when he got into track he’d take the short, straight path – nothing longer than 200 meters.
Thanks but no thanks on multiple laps. No circuitous route for me.
“I never even thought about running cross country,” Williams said this week. “I thought I was a soccer player, sprinter and a jumper.”
These days Williams is a state cross country champion and a distance man, a senior standout for Columbia Falls who holds the best marks this spring for Class A in both the 1,600 and 3,200 meters (and he’s second to Corvallis’ Colby Henderson in the 800).
Williams’ success on the track – he swept the 800 and 1,600 at state a year ago – is testament to his ability to meet and adjust to challenges. Not that he was happy about it at the time.
“One meet my sprint coach said, ‘You’re going to run the 800 as a workout,’ ” Williams remembered. “And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I thought she was trying to kill me.”
What doesn’t kill you, the saying goes, makes you stronger. Williams won the race.
“I was in super shock,” he said. “After that my coaches were, ‘Yeah, you’re going to keep running the 8.’ ”
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He placed fifth in the 800 at the State A meet that year, as a freshman. He’s done little since then but improve.
On Tuesday, at the 14th Russ Pilcher/Western Montana Top Ten meet, Williams ran the 1,600 in his best time this season: 4 minutes, 26.03 seconds. That he finished a second behind Darby stud Doug Raymer is no crime because Raymer is that good, and Williams has nursed a sore foot for a couple weeks.
“They turned it into a 400,” said Wildcats’ distance coach Jim Peacock, after watching Raymer and Williams build to a frenetic finish on the final of four laps. “(Williams) has been on a bike, he’s been in a pool, he’s been doing easy runs and he hasn’t done a speed workout in two weeks.
“When you’re racing a kid as quality as Doug is – they turned it into a 400 and… at that point the kid who’s in a little better spot right now is going to win.”
That Raymer expended a tremendous amount of effort was obvious; the University of Montana-bound runner then scratched the 800, which Williams won in 1:59.57.
After each race, Williams seemed none the worse for wear. In between he spent most of his time in a light jog.
One suspects that his potential has been largely untapped.
“Derrick is new to running,” asserts Columbia Falls head coach Jamie Heinz. “You ask that girl from Bigfork (Makena Morley) and ask (Kalispell Flathead’s) Zach Perrin, and they’ve been running a long time.
“He’s just going to keep getting better the older he gets and the more he understands about it.”
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For all of his athletic ability, it’s how Williams comports himself that draws the most praise. He’s the easygoing son of a Jamaican father who immigrated to Florida from Jamaica, got work on a cruise ship and made friends with a family from Columbia Falls.
Long story short, Ray and Mara have been together since the fall of 1985, when Ray visited the Flathead Valley. He ended up coaching both of their sons (Michael is 18 months older) in soccer, and there was a time when Derrick’s nickname was “Diesel” because it took him a while to get going and just as long to slow down.
“I can remember him saying, ‘Dad, it seems like everybody is faster,’ ” said Ray Williams, who then began working his soccer players through drills on running mechanics.
Soon Derrick began picking up speed. He bagged soccer for cross country as a sophomore, and came home one day – maybe after he helped the Wildcats win the 2009 state cross country title, or after helping them win the State A track and field championship last spring – and wondered aloud about a track scholarship.
“I said, ‘A lot of Jamaicans come here on track scholarships. And the good thing is you’re already here,’ ” Ray said.
“ ‘But you have to put your mind to it.’ He just focused and stayed with it.”
His teammates made it easy.
“My first year of running was such a family experience,” Derrick Williams said. “My best friend (Justin Whitman, who has since moved to Colorado) was running, and his older brother. If it wasn’t great that first year, who knows what I’d be doing.”
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It might surprise some to find out that Williams is taking his considerable talents to Carroll College, an NAIA school in Helena that is known more for football.
A large part of that has to do with Matt Morris, the former UM runner and Loyola Sacred Heart coach who heads up the Saints’ track and field programs. He watched Williams run cross country as a junior, called him and got him to visit.
“You always hear college programs saying they want great student athletes,” said Heinz. “Colorado State, they offered him money. But he met (Morris) and he just really, really liked the guy. Everywhere he went, he just kept comparing the coaches.”
“The one thing that’s different about track,” said Morris, “is we run against everybody. It’s not like we can’t get in the same meets with everybody else. It’s not like we brought in a kid who wanted to play Oregon in football. You can’t really do that. But you can run against Oregon in track.
“The kids can run fast anywhere – and the top kids at NAIA are really, really fast.”
As is Williams.
“He has a lot of range,” said Morris. “His most intriguing quality physiologically is he can make state in the 400 meters, and he can win state in cross country. He can win state in the 800. That’s a lot of range, and that’s a lot of fun to work with.”
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“The only other thing I would add is Derrick is an incredible leader,” said Heinz. “The thing I appreciate is Derrick is the last guy off the bus, out of camp, picking up garbage, making everything clean. As an individual that is that good, you don’t get behavior like that very often. He treats everybody the same.”
There is more. Williams, who has spent his whole life in a house directly across the street from Columbia Falls High School, is a straight-A student, and he has accomplished that while battling dyslexia.
Asked about it, Williams is straightforward.
“I really do think dyslexia has made me the person I am,” he said. “For the longest time I was embarrassed about it. I didn’t want people to know. And I’ll tell you the truth: My worst fear is reading out loud. Even right now, admitting it, I get the chills and butterflies in my stomach.
“But it’s made me the person I am, because I realized I was slower at reading than anybody else. So I had to spend that much more long and work that much harder to keep up.”
Said Heinz: “He’s overcome that it in the classroom the same way he conquers things on the track.”
“Derrick’s such a good personality,” added Morris. “He’s such a great kid. There are a lot of talented kids at the college level, but there aren’t a lot who have the personality and other traits that Derrick has.”
Williams smiles and acknowledges that through academics and athletics, his expenses at Carroll are largely taken care of.
“Most of it is academic, and that’s really why I’m going to college,” he says. “To get an education. Running can only take you so far.
“Coach Morris is amazing and he’s going to take me as far as I can go. But at some point I’m going to have to start a real job.”