By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 20, 2010 1:46 PM
Tonya Williams receives a bouquet of flowers a balloon from her son Christian, 12, a player on the Rosewood Little Eagles football team. The team was coached by Williams' husband, Les, a Seymour Johnson Air Force Base technical sergeant, before he was deployed to Afghanistan. Mrs. Williams was escorted onto the field by Bill Carr, of Chapter 657 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, while a message of love from her husband was read over the loudspeaker.
Tonya Williams kept control of her emotions when a combat veteran escorted her to the middle of the Rosewood High School football field Tuesday evening.
She wore a smile as her 12-year-old son, Christian, handed her flowers and a balloon -- as a crowd of hundreds cheered after announcer Stuart Kornegay read a message from the woman's husband over the loudspeakers.
"To my loving wife Tonya," Kornegay began. "I may be thousands of miles apart in Afghanistan, but my heart is still in your hands."
But moments later, as she stood alone just a few yards away from the fence guarding that field, she wiped tears from her eyes and looked at the ground.
Maybe it was easier for the mother to let her guard down out of the view of those who showed up, in part, to honor her sacrifice.
Or perhaps the absence of her husband, Les, seemed all the more potent as players he has coached for the last several years took the field.
The Rosewood Little Eagles honored their coach -- and his family -- Tuesday at a ballfield the Air Force technical sergeant considers a second home.
"We love our military families," Kornegay said. "So tonight, we would like to thank them for all their sacrifices."
Tonya was thankful, too -- for the support her family's community has offered each time Les has been called to war; for the hugs and smiles that make being a "single" mother a little bit easier to deal with.
"It gets easier and harder at the same time -- easier because (the kids) aren't so young; harder because they understand more," she said, looking down at her 4-year-old daughter, Allyson. "So (being thanked by the crowd) feels good. Rosewood has always supported us."
For Les, being a coach -- and mentor -- to the 8-and-under Little Eagles is a role he cherishes.
"He really thinks something of these kids," said Jay Lancaster, the man who is filling in for the airman while Les is in Afghanistan.
So much so that he has been sending words of encouragement to his players from the desert via e-mail -- making sure they never forget those lessons meant to serve them in life as much as football.
"Always give 110 percent," Lancaster said, when asked about Williams' mantras. "And never give up."
His players offered similar expressions of encouragement before their leader went downrange -- giving him a signed football; vowing to give their all at each practice and game.
"I'd never seen him cry before, but he did then," Lancaster said. "You could tell he was down."
So the Little Eagles hope their hard work is lifting his spirits -- the team is off to a 4-2 start -- and post pictures and messages on the Internet to make sure Williams can share in their glory from thousands of miles away.
And they won't stop living by the example he set for them before he boarded that plane bound for war -- and will continue to honor the woman who shows up on the sideline in his stead.
"They are doing good, and he would be really proud of them," Tonya said. "He is really proud of them."