Heart of a Warrior
Utah Warriors’ flanker Lance Williams is addressing the team after they’ve circled up. Tattooed arms reach out as the 6’2” 240-pound Samoan leans forward, inviting them all into his personal space. He looks them in the eyes and talks in a warm, laid back style. They are all smiling, he just has that effect. Everyone in this circle is valued, everyone has a role. He opens up a book about soap and starts to read.
Obviously, this is no ordinary rugby huddle. In fact, their only connection to the sport is because the large Polynesian extolling the virtues of cleanliness to them is a professional rugby player. The suddenly hygiene-focused crew is a class from Whittier Pre-School in Utah’s West Valley. Three to five-year-olds with cognitive and physical challenges surround their enormous storyteller. This is Lance’s Team.
The fact that he is in Utah to play rugby isn’t surprising to anyone who knows of Lance’s athletic gifts. That he is working in a classroom with 4 year-olds, some in wheelchairs, that will likely never get to play organized rugby, is even less of a surprise to those who know Lance’s heart.
Not much, but always enough
Lance Williams was born in Kalihi, Hawaii in Kuhio Park Terrace, a low-income government-assisted neighborhood with a less than sterling reputation known to locals as the “KPT”. His early years were punctuated by events that one could easily use as excuses. He was raised without a father, while his mom, Babe, worked days doing maintenance and nights at KFC, and then still needed food stamps to make ends meet. When he was three years old, his grandparents, Tanoi and Talanoa, took him and his little brother, Manly, and moved back to Saluafata village on Samoa’s main island, Upolu.
“They raised us in the ‘old-school’ Polynesian way,” Lance says of his grandparents. “Be respectful. Put others before yourself.” These teachings would be reinforced over and over again in tradition-rich Samoa. Six years after their move, Tanoi got sick and needed better medical care, so the family moved back to the notorious KPT on Oahu.
The family picked up where it left off years before. Babe continued to work two jobs, Talanoa cooked, Tanoi kept the boys focused on school and sports, and uncles Lucky, Rob and Manly provided a father-figure by committee. Lance never lacked for anything that he really needed, and observed his grandparents taking care of other kids in Kuhio Park like they were back in Upolu. “We didn’t have much, but we always had enough,” he remembers.
Lance channeled the positive influences around him and excelled, eventually earning a full ride to the U. of Hawaii to play football for the Rainbow Warriors. He was ferocious on the field, and would eventually become team captain. His athletic career was a tribute to his #1 fan, Tanoi, his grandfather and spiritual guide who was there for every practice and game since his Pee Wee years. Sadly, Tanoi passed away on the opening day of Lance’s senior season.
His upbringing also influenced Lance’s course of studies as he gravitated toward a degree in Early Childhood Education. “I just thought of my foundations. My grandfather, Tanoi, taught me to ‘always give back.’ So, I just followed my heart.” Lance spent four years tackling tailbacks on Saturdays and volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club of Hawaii during the week. Although there are some notable changes, that pattern still remains today.
He can tackle anything…
Fast forward. Lance is still playing on Saturdays, though now without a helmet. Utah’s preferred #6 with the bolt of blond in his man bun has been a mainstay in each of the Warriors’ 12 matches. Not surprisingly, he also leads the team in tackles. They’ve struggled, winning a scant two matches, but one gets the feeling that despite his desire to win, Lance may get a weekly dose of perspective that is unrivaled among MLR players. It comes from his day job.
Anne Murdock has directed the Special Education department at Whittier’s preschool for 15 years. She remembers Lance’s first day on the job as a para-professional in 2016 when he was asked to help with special feedings for students with g-tubes. “He just jumped right in,” she recalls. Murdock describes some of the realities of her classes; cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, hearing and vision impairments, etc. It is a group of young people that necessitate finding staff who have the right combination of compassion and flexibility. Whether it’s fine motor skills at the painting table or singing Old MacDonald, Williams has got it covered. According to the boss, “Lance has magic.” Based on Anne’s tenure, that’s an endorsement with some street cred.
For Lance, the most meaningful part of his work is not what he gives his students, but what they give him. “It’s the trust they have in me.” adding, “they have a hard time opening up.” His boss, Murdock, agrees. She sees how these kids trust Lance in subtle ways “Do they approach? Do they stay? Do they smile?” And sometimes not so subtly: “One student won’t come into the building until he sees Lance.” It is hard not to imagine a skittish, three-year-old Lance feeling the same way about Tanoi.
It is not unusual to find a rugby player with a heart of gold but rarely do we get to see such a vivid juxtaposition of both brutality and gentleness in the same form. It is tempting for our youth, especially young boys, to glorify a player like Williams only for his physical prowess, or confuse his crunching tackles and tries scored as the sole marks of his manhood. Laudable, yes. He’s an animal! But perhaps we could also take a moment the next time we watch the hitman from Kalihi to tell our youth that what Lance does off the pitch makes him more of a Warrior than anything he’ll ever do on it.
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