Last Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Army began its national selection tour to visit the high schools of all 90 football players selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl Saturday, Jan. 8 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
It didn’t start in football hotbeds Texas, Florida or California. It was in Coney Island, at Lincoln High School, where Ishaq Williams was presented with his No. 11 jersey by Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley in front of teachers, classmates, teammates and school administrators in a packed gymnasium.
“It was crazy,” said the dominant 6-foot-6, 230-pound defensive end/tight end who has yet to pick a college. “It took me by surprise. It’s an honor, something I’ve dreamed of.”
The soft-spoken standout has a list of 30 BCS-level scholarships offers from programs including Alabama, Notre Dame and Penn State. But he was honored first, Freakley said, because of the adversity he has overcome (his brother, Emmanuel, 15, was murdered April 23 of last year) and his excellence in the classroom (he is set to graduate a semester early in January), in addition to his ability on the football field.
“He fits everything we’re looking for in a student-athlete,” said Freakley, the Commanding General of U.S. Army Accessions Command. “It takes a real champion to overcome adversity and be able to remain focused in school and for his team.”
Williams’ father Shaun said, “It’s kind of surreal, but dreams do come true. … My son showed me with enough hard work you can reach your dreams.”
Teammates look up to Williams, on the field and off. When his brother was fatally shot, they grew tighter, trying to be there for Ishaq because he had been there for them so often. In school, the Railsplitters follow his lead of what a student-athlete should be, sitting in the front of the classroom and getting the work in on time. On the field, his all-business approach has spread, too.
“He’s the hardest worker on the team and he got what he deserved,” defensive tackle and close friend Wayne Williams said.
Wayne Williams may have accomplished the impossible during the ceremony when he got normally stoic Ishaq to smile. For much of the hour, he quietly sat on the dais as his many virtues were lauded and classmates reacted with oohs and aahs as his highlight reel of big hits and touchdown receptions was shown on a large projection screen.
He seemed nervous, a rarity on the field, when he stepped to the podium. That was until Wayne Williams blurted out an inside joke as Ishaq Williams pulled on his U.S. Army jersey and hat.
“It was nice to see him smile,” Wayne Williams joked. “When he gets the MVP, he’ll smile — or even laugh.”
Ishaq Williams is the third All-American under coach Shawn O’Connor, following Nyan Boateng and Lansford Watson. He is cut from a different cloth from the school’s previous sports stars that include NBA players Sebastian Telfair, Lance Stephenson and Stephon Marbury, longtime athletic director Renan Ebeid said, because of his easy off-field demeanor and down-to-earth persona.
“He blends in with the crowd,” she said. “He appreciates everything he’s given and he’s gotten for himself.”
Ishaq Williams is a terror on the field, a speedy defensive end and playmaking tight end. Rivals.com rates him as the 62nd overall prospect in the nation and fourth among all defensive ends. A first-team all-city selection by The Post last year, he has led Lincoln to a 2-0 record with one touchdown reception, 10 tackles and a forced fumble.
“We can’t wait to see him not only represent Lincoln, but New York City,” O’Connor said. “He fits what this game is all about: commitment, determination and having perseverance.”
Ishaq Williams received invites from both major high-school All-American games – Under Armor sponsors the other – but chose the U.S. Army event, joining famous alums Mark Sanchez, Reggie Bush and Adrian Peterson.
“I take it seriously,” he said. “I have the same opportunity as them.”
Shaun Williams has always challenged his son. When he was in middle school, he called him all-borough. When he became all-borough, Shaun Williams called him all-city. Last year, his name became All-American.
“I guess it’s time to call him all-conference,” the father joked.