MANATEE -- Former Southeast High football star Todd Williams, who overcame a troubled youth to win a national championship at Florida State and play in the NFL, was found dead Monday at the age of 35.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office responded at about 11:15 a.m. to the Sarasota Suites, 7251 North Tamiami Trail, where deputies found Williams deceased. There was no evidence of foul play, said sheriff's office spokesman Dave Bristow. An autopsy will determine cause of death, according to Bristow.
Williams could not taste anything and had stomach pain for about a month, his mother, Ozepher Fluker, said, so she advised him to go to the hospital to get checked out Friday.
After not hearing from him over the weekend, Fluker went to the hotel. She said she knew her son was gone when she heard crying coming from his room. Fluker said Williams lived at the hotel for about six years.
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Williams, a 6-foot-5, 330-pound offensive lineman, was a member of the 1999 FSU Seminoles, who won the national championship. The team was led by another Southeast star, Peter Warrick.
Williams parlayed his college career, which ended with an All-ACC selection, into a shot with the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
The football star returned home and most recently was a teacher at Manatee Y Technological High.
"Gone too soon, that's for sure," said Jerry Parrish, the Youth at Risk director at the YMCA who knew Williams for roughly eight years. "Just brought a lot of joy to a lot of kids. Just a servant and a good, good human being."
Losing his grandmother
Williams left an indelible mark on people with whom he came in contact, including former FSU head coach Bobby Bowden, who wrote about how Williams grew up homeless before becoming a standout football player, in the book, "Called to Coach: Reflections on Life, Faith and Football."
"When his grandmother died of complications from diabetes in 1993, Todd was basically an orphan," Bowden wrote. "The state planned to put him in a foster home, so Todd ran away. He slept on the streets in Bradenton and later moved to Miami, where the streets were a lot more dangerous. ... Before his grandmother died, Todd promised her he would graduate from high school and make something of himself. Todd moved back to Bradenton and moved into an apartment on his own. To pay the bills, Todd worked in a grocery store after school. ... Todd Williams and boys like him made it difficult for me to retire from coaching."
Prior to his arrival in Tallahassee, Williams played for legendary Southeast High football coach Paul Maechtle. Palmetto High football coach Dave Marino was Williams' offensive line coach at Southeast High.
"I had a close relationship with him," Marino said. "Not only did I coach him, but a lot of us basically adopted him. I used to bring him to my house. He'd cut my lawn. I'd feed him. I'd be able to pay him for cutting the lawn. All of us, any way to help him out. Take him home after practice. Make sure he had some groceries and some basic necessities in the apartment he was living in. He was like a little brother to me."
Florida State graduate
Williams won the NCAA's 2002 Inspirational Athlete of the Year Award while at FSU and earned degrees in sociology and criminology. He was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the 2003 NFL Draft and played seven games for the Titans in 2004 and 2005.
Back in Bradenton
Following his football career, Williams returned to Bradenton for work at Manatee Y Tech.
"Todd was working there and trying to help kids get second chances, kind of like he was given by some people at our school," Maechtle said.
For the last month, Williams suffered, his mother said.
"He said, 'Momma, I feel worse than I have ever felt in my whole life,'" said Fluker about the conversation she had with her son Friday. "He said, 'Momma, I can't stop vomiting. I don't have a taste. I cannot eat. I don't want to smell food. I am weak and I want to go to the hospital.'"
Fluker said she pointed him toward the hospital, but never heard back from him.
"It doesn't matter what side of the tracks you were born on; it doesn't matter," Parrish said. "It matters what you want to do and what you want to accomplish. And I think that's the legacy that he left. It doesn't matter how you start, it matters how you finish. He was finishing strong and doing great things."