AJ Williams almost had his running career taken away from him last year. Now, he’s running for an NJCAA national championship.
As the Daytona State cross country team heads to New Mexico this weekend for the NJCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, head coach Judy Wilson has one simple request for freshman AJ Williams.
She doesn’t care how much he hydrates ahead of the race, or how he eats, or how much sleep the former DeLand runner gets. She doesn’t need him to train any harder, practice any longer, or run any further, either.
"Just please, stay off the golf carts," she said with a laugh. "Just one week, that’s all I need."
Williams probably doesn’t need to be told twice.
Midway through his senior year last October, Williams nearly saw his cross country career come to a screeching halt when he was thrown from a golf cart the Monday following DeLand’s district cross country meet.
"I was with some friends and we were just messing around and I fell off the side," remembered Williams, who was 17 at the time. "There was about a minute or two where I don’t remember anything. Apparently I was walking around and talking to them. Whenever I came back to reality, there was a washcloth against my ear and I took it off and it was completely red."
Bleeding from the ear and in and out of consciousness, Williams was rushed to Halifax Hospital where doctors found two fractures of his skull. Over the next four days doctors monitored him for internal bleeding and nearly had to insert a spinal tap into his hip as fluid leaked from both ears.
Finally, nearly a week after the accident, Williams was released.
"I wasn’t allowed back at school for two weeks," he said. "I had qualified for the regional meet and couldn’t run it. I had never qualified for the regional meet. When they told me I wasn’t going to be able to run, I was pretty down. That’s all I had worked for."
Williams returned to school around Thanksgiving, but didn’t resume running until January. By the time track season rolled around, he still wasn’t in shape, and never fully regained his form all spring.
Regardless, Wilson still saw something.
"I was like, ‘man, this kid’s an athlete,’ " she said. "He just needs to believe that he’s a runner, because there’s a difference."
Williams signed with Daytona State in February, and spent the rest of the year trying to regain his footing. By the start of DSC’s cross country season, he still wasn’t ready.
"In August I would’ve said that AJ wasn’t going to make it (to this weekend’s meet)," Wilson said. "Going from a 5K to an 8K in college, it can be grueling for these guys coming out of high school."
Williams showed steady improvement over the fall, and began to show signs of his old self at the Oct. 12 meet at Disney. Then, nearly one year after the accident, Williams had his best showing of the season at the Oct. 25 regional meet in Tallahassee, helping DSC to a third place finish with a time of 30:01.
A few days later, Wilson added him to the six-man roster that will represent the Falcons at Saturday’s NJCAA championship, in Albuquerque.
"The Disney race is where it finally clicked," Williams said. "I PR’d (personal record) by a minute, and then we did pretty well in Tallahassee. Last year at this moment, I didn’t think I’d be able to accomplish what I’ve accomplished now."
Joining Williams in New Mexico will be former Mainland runners Tyler Gilbert and Andrew Guillory. Saturday’s championships begin at 11 a.m. at the University of New Mexico.
"It’s crazy how much can change in a year," Williams said, adding that he’s begun to view the accident in a more positive light. "Personally, I think I’m definitely more responsible now, more careful with myself. Just looking back and thinking about what happened, how it happened, and now how it all turned out … even in some of your worst times, you can still have a bright future to look forward to."