MULLINS, S.C. -- Mullins’ football team is 5-0, and Auctioneers coach John Williams can just hear his wife, Chellie.
“She’d say, ‘Yeah, baby! I told you we could do it, now. I knew you were going to turn it around,’” he said.
During Williams’ first six seasons as his alma mater’s coach, only two finished with winning records: 6-5 in 2013 and 6-5 last year. But even then, no one fiercely defended Williams against impatient fans more than Chellie.
“She’d tell them, ‘They’re having a tough time and they’ll get better,’” Williams said. “And then she’d say, ‘If you could do better, why don’t YOU try it?’ She’d say that in a minute.”
Now, Mullins hopes to raise its record to 6-0 Friday night at home against seventh-ranked Andrews.
While enjoying the most successful period so far in his coaching career, Williams only wishes Chellie was here to enjoy it.
She died of breast cancer on Valentine’s Day 2017.
They met on a Valentine’s Day. They got engaged on a Valentine’s Day. And on the Valentine’s Day after that? They got married in 1995.
“Ain’t that crazy?” Williams asked. “That’s amazing, ain’t it? I’ll never forget Valentine’s Day, will I?”
A successful team always has heart.
But Chellie was Williams’ heart.
While Williams continues to push a football program to success, he learns to cope with life without his wife.
But the lessons and values he learned through his 22 exact years of marriage to Chellie keep him strong.
How they met
It was at a birthday party on Valentine’s Day where Williams met his future wife.
She was a nurse, and at the time he was a Mullins assistant and middle school coach.
And to his pleasant surprise, Chellie was a sports fan.
“Oh, she was a die-hard sports fan,” he said. “She not only loved sports, she was supportive of it. She understood coaches being away from home a lot. After a couple of years of us being together, I realized she’d be a wonderful wife for me.”
So on Valentine’s Day 1994, Williams gave her a self-made card – along with a marriage proposal, which was followed by a “Yes.”
A coach and wife’s journey
Williams, who played college football at South Carolina State, wanted to continue his success into the coaching ranks.
After a short stint as Creek Bridge’s coach in the early 2000s, Williams was back at Mullins awaiting his turn to try again.
After that goal came true, it was another long climb.
“But when I came home, Chellie always had a smile for me,” Williams said. “After a bad loss, feeling bad and down, she’d always brighten me up with, ‘Bless your heart. You’ll get it done.’ She’d always say that.”
As time passed, the Williamses had a daughter. And then a granddaughter came along.
Still, Chellie was as loving and fierce a football wife as there ever was.
But in 2014, Chellie would need John’s love and support more than ever.
“I’ll never forget it,” Williams said.
It was November 2014, and Chellie had been told they had found a lump in her breast.
“It was a really tough day,” Williams said. “I remember a doctor coming in. But I remember her taking it strong. We hugged each other, and I told her we’d get through this. So the next thing was that she had a mastectomy in December of that year.”
But remission came. For a while.
“The first time she went back to the doctor, she was still cancer-free,” Williams said.
The second doctor checkup? Chellie’s fears were realized.
“She was always scared,” Williams said. “It’s always scary for a person who has cancer to go back and see if it came back or not. She was always afraid of that.”
That second visit, in June 2015, it was discovered the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. So she went through the chemotherapy and radiation like she did the first time.
“Seeing my wife go through that again, it was rough,” Williams said. “It just made her lose so much weight. From the first time she had chemo, I had to help her to the bathroom. I had to cut back on my hours. That’s what I thank my coaches so much for. They’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ They’d do weightlifting and things like that while I went home to be with her.”
Meanwhile, Chellie lost her hair, as well as a lot of weight. She started to feel better, but that didn’t stop the cancer from spreading.
In 2016, Williams even missed the Auctioneers’ game against Kingstree to he could help his wife through chemo.
It was the last time she would undergo chemo.
“Three weeks later, they said the cancer was still there, and there was nothing else they could do,” Williams said. “We were in the doctor’s office, and he didn’t beat around the bush. He asked my wife, ‘Mrs. Williams, you know that too, don’t you? And she knew.”
It was time for the Williamses to go home.
“We got up from our chairs in the doctor’s office and thanked him for everything and drove off,” Williams remembered. “We didn’t say much from the doctor on the way home. And when we got home, she just fell in my arms and just started crying.”
Preparing for the end
While Williams took care of Chellie, she still wanted to take care of her family.
“She cared more about everybody else,” Williams said. “She was worried about my daughter and granddaughter and me being without her being here anymore.
“If you met my wife, she was one sweet lady, I’m telling you,” he added. “I’m not just saying that because she’s not here. She was one sweet lady.”
Then on Feb. 14, 2017, she died.
On Valentine’s Day this year, Williams found the day unbearable. Yet, he still went to work.
A couple of Mullins cheerleaders, however, gave him a Valentine’s Day card in tribute to Chellie.
“That did me a lot of good because my spirits were really down until then,” Williams said. “After that, I just went home and looked at pictures and read stuff she had written me. It was a pretty rough day because that made it one year since she died.”
Before long, Williams realized that to keep his wife’s memory with him, he must practice what she did, what she encouraged.
Give more of himself to others.
“I’ll be honest with you, I was really kind of wild before I met her and all,” Williams said. “She changed me and taught me it wasn’t about just yourself. It was worth helping others and showing love for others and caring for others. That’s what she taught me. That’s what she showed me -- that it wasn’t all about me.”
Williams said he puts a lot more time into his office and film work.
“Now, I don’t have no reason to go home,” he said.
But it’s her memory that also pushes him to turn this Auctioneers program into a winner.
“I want to be successful because that’s what she wanted for me, and she always talked about that I was going to be successful,” Williams said. “
And part of that success is based on his bond with Mullins’ players.
“She helped me with kids. All my players know I care for them and that there’s nothing I won’t do for them,” Williams said. “We have a very close relationship.”
And that takes us to Friday’s Mullins homecoming game, also a night when Mullins will host its breast cancer-awareness night when the Auctioneers’ football players will wear pink socks.
It’s just another reminder of what Chellie taught Williams. And another reminder of what Chellie believed he can accomplish in the future.
“I just want to push on to make this team the best it can be because of her,” Williams said. “Because of her because she always believed in me.”