Their coach, forever
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 26, 2011 1:46 PM
News-Argus file photo
Tech. Sgt. Les Williams practices with one of his young players in this file photo from a 2007 story on the Rosewood coach. Williams died this week in Afghanistan.
News-Argus file photo
4th Fighter Wing Tech. Sgt. Les Williams, Rosewood Little Eagles football team head coach, addresses his team in 2007 days before leaving for a tour in Afghanistan. Williams died at Bagram Airfield Monday during his most recent stint in theater.
To residents of the Rosewood community, Les Williams was more than just an airman.
He was a mentor to the young sons left in his care during daily football practices -- a teacher of life lessons and core values.
He was a brother to the coaches who stood alongside him -- a fierce friend and shoulder to lean on during the hardest times.
He was a man of character -- the kind of role model who set an example for both the youngest and oldest members of the Little Eagles football program.
To put it simply, he was one of them.
He was family.
So long before the Air Force confirmed Williams' death late this morning, those who knew him for the person he was out of uniform shared their grief -- and their memories of a local hero they still can't believe isn't coming home from his latest stint in Afghanistan.
At least not the way they imagined he would.
Angie Lancaster, the mother of a 9-year-old who knew the 4th Fighter Wing technical sergeant as "Coach Les," was among those in mourning Tuesday evening.
"I just can't believe he's not coming back," she said. "He was such a good man."
And he was a man, she said, who her son, Trent, admired.
"He's very upset. He cried all night. At 9 years old, it's hard to understand that Les isn't coming back," Mrs. Lancaster said. "I mean, it's hard for me. Those boys, they loved him. They respected him. He was so special to them."
Christy Cox also was left with the daunting task of breaking the news to a young son.
Her 8-year-old, Hinton, has been sending Facebook messages to his coach since he left for Bagram months ago.
"He was heartbroken," Mrs. Cox said. "He said his heart hurt for Coach Les."
But for the parents, the loss means so much more than having to engage in a tough conversation with their children.
It means having to fill the void they say Williams' death will forever leave in their boys' lives.
"Les could just get so much more out of those guys. He got the best out of every single one of them," Mrs. Cox said. "He was such an inspiration -- a hero and an inspiration. It's going to be a real loss to those little boys."
But news of the airman's death did not simply touch his players and their parents.
Fellow coaches, too, were stricken with grief.
Rosewood High School head football coach Robert Britt said he admired Williams from the day he first saw him working with his team.
"One thing that inspired me about Les was his enthusiasm for those little kids," he said. "You could tell, in those moments on the field, that his players, they were all that mattered. I just hate that this happened."
And Williams' assistant, fellow Tech. Sgt. Kevin Getchell, said he saw his fallen comrade as a role model as much as a friend.
"He was able to push these kids 110 percent and every one of the players loved him to death. They would do anything -- run through a wall -- for this guy," he said. "I learned so much from this dude. The man and kind of coach Les was will live within me for the rest of my life."
Off the field, Williams inspired those who now vow to preserve his memory as both a father and an airman.
"He was just an excellent guy, an excellent dad," Getchell said. "His boys, just talking about him, they would break down."
And as an airman, Williams set the bar so high that most, retired Master Sgt. Brian Volk said, are better at their jobs for having known him.
"Les was one of those guys that made everyone around him a better person. He forever made a positive impact on everyone he touched." Volk said. "You have people who just load the airplane, but he was just one of those people who really stood out -- and he always wanted to help out his guys.
"He is the epitome of the weapons career field. He was one of the Air Force's up-and-coming guys and I'm going to miss the hell out of him."
A few months ago, the Little Eagles honored their deployed coach -- and his family -- at one of their games.
Announcer Stuart Kornegay read a message from Williams to the crowd as a retired Marine escorted the airman's wife, Tonya, to receive their thanks for her many sacrifices as a military spouse.
"To my loving wife Tonya," Kornegay began over the loudspeakers. "I may be thousands of miles apart in Afghanistan, but my heart is still in your hands."
Moments later, Mrs. Williams broke down, before talking about her experience as an Air Force wife.
"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."
Kornegay will never forget that moment -- or the impact Williams had on those boys.
"I'm devastated. I'm just shocked. The kids just love him to death," he said. "Les was a hero to those young men. Those kids were looking forward to him coming home. They were already planning a homecoming. But now, we're planning a celebration of his life."
And they are also planning, said Bill Carr, the veteran who escorted Mrs. Williams to the 50-yard line that night, to take care of the family left behind.
"You better believe the Rosewood community is going to do everything we can," he said.