Sacramento State's former head football coach called him "the heart and soul of the team." And his teammates, looking to him as their leader, asked him to give the eulogy at the funeral of one of their own.
Markell Williams ('13, Sociology) is a charismatic young man with a ready smile and a trademark "wedge" haircut who found at Sac State - and in Hornet football in particular - a sense of camaraderie that likely will define him for the rest of his life.
"Sacramento State gave me direction," he says. "Most importantly, it helped me feel like I belonged. I gained a lot of wisdom through my classes, my professors, my coaches. Being at Sac State made me into a better person, a better man.
"Throughout my upbringing, we were always on welfare, and because of my struggles, I wanted to pursue social work and help families in need. That was early in my time at Sac State," he says. "Now, I want to become a firefighter because I want to have the brotherhood I had with the football team but still help people. I want to be the guy who brings joy to people."
Despite the demands of college football - practices, games, meetings, film sessions, weight training and travel days - Williams excelled in the classroom. He often studied into the wee hours of the night and posted a perfect 4.0 GPA in both spring and fall 2013. He graduated cum laude in December 2013.
He was a semifinalist for the National Football Foundation's 2013 Campbell Trophy, given to an outstanding college scholar-athlete. He and another former Hornet, Trent Eskew, were named in April 2014 to the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame's Hampshire Honor Society, which celebrates starting players who maintained a cumulative GPA of 3.2 or better throughout their collegiate career.
And, Sac State selected Williams and tennis player Sophie Lohscheidt as its two Big Sky Conference Scholar-Athlete Award winners for 2014. The honor was based on their outstanding athletic and academic performance during the 2013-14 school year.
After graduation, Williams moved to Arizona to join his longtime girlfriend, Molly Smith, a Sacramento State alumna and former Hornet softball player. He returned to Sac State in spring 2014 to earn his emergency medical technician (EMT) certification through the College of Continuing Education. After that, he hoped to attend a firefighting academy.
"I want to be great - not good, not OK - in everything I do," Williams says. "I have a lot of clarity in my life: I know what I want and what goals I want to reach. I have younger siblings looking up to me, so I need to set a higher standard. I want them to achieve more than I have."
Williams' mother was just 15 when she gave birth to him, and she struggled as a single parent to raise him and his siblings. She did the best she could, he says, and always made sure they were fed.
The family lost its home and lived, on and off, with generous relatives. Williams moved in with a friend's family for his final years of high school.
"A lot of adversity has been thrown at me. I've seen the good and bad in people and learned from it. What it's gotten me is being resilient," he says. "Bad things kept happening to my family, so I felt like I was destined not to achieve what I wanted. I felt like I had no hope. But I know that you create your own destiny.
"I'm not like a lot of young people. I feel like I matured fast in my life for what I had to go through. I've had to. If I hadn't, I wouldn't be here."
Sports were his saving grace, giving him a "family" he could count on and the comfort of belonging to something. He played football and basketball, and ran track as a student at Vacaville High in Vacaville, but football was his first love.
He was a walk-on at Sacramento State who sat out the 2009 season as a redshirt. He went on to become a three-year starter who played nickelback and on special teams - and earned a full football scholarship.
In 2012, his teammates voted him the Hornets' most inspirational player.
"Markell stood out from the beginning because of his energy and excitement and his passion to play," says Marshall Sperbeck, Sac State's former head football coach. "He was a leader on and off the field. He was an outstanding player. He loved practice. He loved the process of being a football player. He was such a positive influence. He was the whole package. We'd love to have 100 Markell Williamses on our team."
Williams admired John Bloomfield, the Hornets' beloved team leader and a defensive end known for his inspiring pregame speeches. Bloomfield, 23, died in October 2012 after suffering a collapsed lung following Sac State's season opener at New Mexico State. Following surgery, Bloomfield lingered in a coma for a month, his teammates a constant presence at his bedside.
Bloomfield's devastated friends and coaches dedicated the season to him. Sperbeck told Williams, "Since John Bloomfield is gone, that's your role now."
"I just took it day by day and kept the guys in it," Williams remembers. "We mourned John's death and thought about the positive things we learned from him.
"I always questioned my faith in the Lord, and John had told me the story of the footprints in the sand. The moral of the story is that God is always with you and, at your weakest moments, he carries you, so you'll see just one set of footprints. When you're strong, you will see two sets of footprints. John had so much wisdom, it was unbelievable. I told that story at his funeral."
Williams' final season as a Big Sky Conference football player ended Nov. 9, 2013, when he tore three ligaments in his left ankle during the Cal Poly game and later underwent surgery. He was sidelined for the last two games, against Portland State and UC Davis, and hobbled to the microphone to speak on behalf of his Hornet teammates at the annual Causeway Classic luncheon.
Sperbeck introduced him as "the heart and soul of our team," and Williams went on to thank the coach for making "a tremendous effort to make us mature young men . . . and better leaders."
Williams was named Outstanding Defensive Back at the end of the 2013 season. He was fourth on the team with 57 tackles and finished his Sacramento State playing days with a total of 126 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two interceptions. In 2011, he returned a blocked punt 30 yards for a touchdown against Montana.
"In football, they asked so much of us every day, but it was a great thing. Football is more than a game. It's life," he says. "When I stepped on the field, my muscles were tense, my mind was in 'destroy' mode. I felt like I'd arrived, that I'd made it to greatness.
"There is life after football, and we have to excel in the real world. My advice is to take each moment of your life like it's your last. Don't take anything for granted."
For media assistance, contact Sacramento State's Office of Public Affairs at (916) 278-6156. - Dixie Reid