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From running back to Wizard of Oz

STORY BY RON HOLUB, (Week of June 16, 2011)
Photo of Jamari Williams (center)

In his junior year at St. Edward’s, Jamari Williams played a starring role on both offense and defense for the 2010 Pirate football team that rolled through a perfect 11-0 season and claimed the Sunshine State Athletic Conference championship.

But as head coach Bill Motta and his staff direct their players through a summer conditioning program preparing for 2011, don’t expect to see an encore performance from Williams on the football field this autumn.

Instead, if people want to see Williams do his thing, take the family to the Riverside Children’s Theater for the Summer Stage 2011 presentation of The Wiz.

In what he called a “jarring” decision, Williams chose a playbill over a playbook. He will forgo his senior year of football to follow an entirely new script.

“When I first came to St. Edward’s (in the seventh grade) and dabbled in theater, I found that I was actually good at it,” Williams explained. “The more I did theater I realized that I liked it a lot and that it was pretty much what I wanted to do with my life.”

Over the last year or so, Williams came to understand that he was being pulled in opposite directions. Football and theater were essentially incompatible.

“It was all about time and commitment,” he said. “It was hard to give up football, but I could tell that it was dwindling on my list of priorities. Since I’m preparing to go to college, I have to do a lot of auditions and take singing and dance lessons.

“There really isn’t much of a choice now. In life you have to make big decisions. It’s better to fully commit to one thing than to let both things suffer.”

It was hard on the soft spoken Williams – and undeniably hard on those associated with the football program.

“We are certainly disappointed,” Motta said. “Jamari is a natural athlete with great instinctive reactions on the football field. We will be hard pressed to fill his spot. But he’s the nicest guy in the world with a carefree, laid back attitude. I think it’s great that he’s committed to acting. I’m excited for him.”

The “hard pressed” part means that Motta must replace a running back that last year scored 12 rushing touchdowns, piling up 657 yards at a 7.6 yards-per-carry clip. Williams also converted his lone pass reception into a touchdown from 40 yards out.

But it was on defense where the 6 foot, 180-pound junior clearly stood out. In addition to calling the signals at middle linebacker, he led the team in tackles. It was not hard to envision Williams as a prototype defensive back in the secondary of a small to mid-major college team.

Williams still wants to find some way to stay connected to the football team this coming season. “I will miss it,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of friends. But I had to make a choice. Of course they want me to play football, but they also know I’ve made up my mind and I believe they support me in whatever I do.”

Describing himself as an “amateur gymnast,” Williams said “since I’m not playing football and cheerleading takes up less time, I thought maybe I could cheer for the team I used to be on and have a little fun at the same time.”

St. Ed’s officials, however, denied his request to join the cheerleading squad. 

“I was told by the administration that there had never been a coed cheerleading team at this school,” Williams said. “I’m not sure of all the details, but I was told I can’t be on the team. It was kind of a shock because I thought it would be OK. I was a little disappointed . . . but I respect their decision.”

Both Head of School Michael Mersey and Communication’s Director Sara Smith declined comment.

Now, Williams is considering using his theatrical talents as the Pirate mascot at football games

In the meantime, and back beneath the lights, The Wiz opens July 22 and runs through July 31. “I will be playing The Wiz,” Williams said. “It’s a jazzy role. Loud and rambunctious. It should be a lot of fun.”

While the 17-year-old aspiring actor will be in rehearsals for the play – he’ll also be dabbling in another passion. “Music is a big part of my life,” he said.

Over eight years with the Gifford Youth Orchestra and five years with the band at St. Edward’s, Williams learned to play seven instruments. He picked up the strings (violin, viola and cello) with the orchestra and was introduced to brass (tuba, trombone) at school. The piano and flute were self taught.

Naturally, Williams would prefer to attend college near a theater hub – New York or Los Angeles – with a second, more practical major to fall back on. Casting calls can be tough.

So was leaving the football team.

“I will always be a fan of the Pirates,” Williams said. “I will always be a Pirate. They will always be with me in my heart even though I might not be with them on the field.”

But - the Show Must Go On!