NFL’s 2010 Season Kickoff and A Coach You Should Know

A young Robert Meachem with Coach Harold Williams. Photo from Tulsa World

Tonight is the official NFL opening kickoff of the 2010 season. The New Orleans Saints will be going head to head with the Minnesota Vikings! Will you be watching?

There’s one man in particular who I wonder if he will be tuning in – Harold Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Name doesn’t ring a bell? I’d be surprised if you did recognize it. But ask Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem, and he’ll know who you’re talking about.

Before Meachem was a Super Bowl champion, a rising star at the University of Tennessee or even raising eyebrows at Booker T. Washington High School, he started his football career as a “Mabee Babie.” That is, during his elementary school years Meachem played football at The Salvation Army’s North Mabee Boys & Girls Club in Tulsa. Harold Williams was his coach.

A lot of time and events have passed since Meachem ran the Mabee field as a 4th grade football hopeful, but he still calls his old coach every now and then wanting to know how the Mabee Mustangs are doing. A pro football player keeping tabs on his elementary-years team? I know, it sounds strange, but then again, you wouldn’t be so surprised if you knew Coach Williams.

The Mabee Mustangs have made headlines for their many wins under Coach Williams.

Williams left a paid position at a private high school to volunteer at The Salvation Army’s North Mabee Center where he’s been coaching for 22 years now. It was a significant change going from a privileged, private high school to a community center in what was known as one of Tulsa’s “tougher” neighborhoods, but Williams’ relationship to his team has always more resembled that of a loving parent than merely a coach.

Many times when talking to me about his team,  Williams equated the boys to  family. “It was like I had 40 sons. When dads were missing, I had no problem stepping in,” he said. “[My team] always said, ‘Coach loves us.’ I’d say, ‘I hope you know me and like my face because I’m going to know you the rest of your life. I love you because you are.’ ”

Over the decades he’s pouredhimself into the boys who have passed in and out of the football program. Even when the predominantly black team was pelted with racial slurs from their competitors, Williams has taught his Mabee Mustangs the importance of good sportsmanship and following the rules. He’s scrounged up pads and bought out of his own pocket mouth guards for his entire team when they couldn’t afford the most basic football equipment. He’s thrown them pizza parties and planned field trips to local museums, again on his own dime. He’s taught them skills that have made them one of the most noticed and successful football programs in the area today and helped many go on to be notable college and professional players. (Including the Dallas Cowboys’ Felix Jones, Philadelphia Eagles’ Tony Brooks and his brother Reggie Brooks of the Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos’ Marcus Nash, NY Giants’ R.W. McQuarters and the list goes on…)

Mabee Mustangs practicing

The lessons and example taught by Coach Williams are lifelong and life changing. His sacrifice has inspired many kids to reject the destructive temptations of the streets and spurred them on to reach their true potential, witnessed by many unknowing NFL and college football spectators.

So it’s not hard to see why Robert Meachem gives Williams a ring once in awhile or why other “Mabee Babies” drop by the Center to watch and assist with practices.

If you do catch the NFL kickoff tonight, enjoy the game and celebrate the official start of the season! But regardless of which team you’re rooting for, take a moment to appreciate the sacrifice of Salvation Army volunteer Harold Williams. Tonight’s game and many others would be a different story if it weren’t for his investment in young athletes.