Todd Williams, fallen gentle giant, remembered in funeral

jdill@bradenton.comJanuary 18, 2014 

ONECO -- There was crying, laughing, clapping and standing ovations.

But most importantly, there were countless stories reflecting Todd Williams' life that were shared, showing just how many lives he touched.

Williams was laid to rest Saturday at the Happy Gospel Church, 12 days after he was found deceased at the Sarasota Suites hotel room he had lived in for the last six years.

The 35-year-old former Southeast High, Florida State University and Tennessee Titans football player suffered from a month-long stomach pain. The Manatee County Sheriff's Office responded to a call on Monday, Jan. 6, and found him deceased in a Manatee County hotel room. They did not find any evidence of foul play.

The cause of death has not been determined yet, pending a toxicology report that can take about six weeks for results.

On Saturday, several friends and family paid tribute to Williams, who overcame a troubled youth to receive a college degree from FSU in criminology and sociology as well as earn the NCAA's Inspirational Athlete of the

Year award in 2002.

The program included a standing ovation when Pastor Timothy Dyson took the microphone and shared his story of encountering Williams.

Dyson bought a bicycle for the 6-foot-5, 330-pound offensive lineman when Williams was a youth, and he used that to ride around town and into the church where Dyson preached.

A Southeast High Seminole

Williams also rode that bicycle to Southeast when he chose to play football for head coach Paul Maechtle.

"It was that day in 1995 when Todd rode in on a bicycle, looking awkward as heck on that little trike," Maechtle said. "He came in with a laundry list and baggage that included different places and grades, and we created a blueprint for him that if you follow some things that we told you, there's a chance you can turn this football experience into maybe a college education and some things that you might be able to experience later on."

Williams, who is survived by his mother, Ozepher Fluker; his brother, Dennard Fluker; his sister, Monica Harris; and his son, Todd L. Williams Jr., became a social studies and history teacher at the Manatee Y Technological High School and was a volunteer assistant coach at Palmetto High at the end of his life.

"I was his offensive line coach at Southeast, and I've never had a player with the passion and the intensity," Palmetto head coach Dave Marino said. "… with Todd, the tougher I was on him and the more demanding I was of him, it just grew and it festered. It was like, 'How can this guy be so sweet and nice, and then when you get out on that field and you have two passionate people' … and he became a monster."

Marino told the story of how he expressed to Williams during his senior year to leave no doubt about Southeast no longer taking a back seat to Manatee as the king's of the county.

"I said, 'I want you to take that defense and I want you to drive them, and drive them until you get to the sideline. I want you to put them at the feet of (Manatee High) coach (Joe) Kinnan," Marino said. "Now you say these things and you try to motivate players, but you never think this is really going to happen. Coach Maech calls the (play), and I'm like, 'Oh giddy up.' And Todd drove this dude … and bam, right at the feet. Coach Kinnan had to back up and get out of the way. He looks over, but that's Todd."

His brother, Fluker, sang the song "Stand" that pushed the audience to give a standing ovation. A reflections portion followed that saw former Southeast and FSU teammates as well as former coaches speak in memory of Williams.

Friends remember Todd

Marc Timmons played with Williams at Southeast before the two parted ways at the college ranks: Williams went to the only school that he cared about, Florida State, while Timmons earned a scholarship to Iowa State.

"Todd and myself were going to a weightlifting meet, and I was in ninth grade," Timmons said. "And coach Dave Marino was like, 'Timmons, stop for a second. You've got a string or something hanging from your shirt. Oh, my bad. Those are your arms.' I had to be 14 or 15 at the time. I'm 32 now, and Todd sees me, that's the first thing he says. 'Hey Marc, you've got a string hanging from your shirt. I'm sorry, those are your arms.' "

Another Seminole, Chad Lee, spoke about the trash talking the two did when they squared off in college and to this day can't determine who won the battle in the trenches. Lee was a defensive end who matched up against Williams, an offensive lineman.

Maurice White played against Williams in high school at Manatee and recalled how he gave Williams a ride home from a teen club night.

He said they instantly bonded as if they'd known each other forever.

Ervin Gibbs, who played with Williams at Southeast, joined Christopher Mercer, JT Adams, Chris Woods, Marino and Maechtle with more anecdotal stories about Williams.

They each painted a picture of the type of person Williams was: a troubled youth who overcame adversity and would do anything for anyone. He was someone who wouldn't forget something, while being a giver -- down to the last penny or lint in his pocket.

And it's why the nearly three-hour funeral brought so many people together, and it's why Williams won't be forgotten anytime soon.

The Manatee Seminole Club of the Florida State Foundation as well as the Manatee County YMCA have set up college scholarships in Williams' memory. Southeast plans to plant a mighty oak tree, "tall and strong, just like Todd," to honor Williams.

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