CHICAGO — Chicago's Vontrell King-Williams wants to share his story with the world.
When he was 14, the Mount Carmel High School graduate watched his mother, Timeka, die from a heart attack while she took a call from his grandfather, who revealed he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. Days later, at his mother's funeral, an announcement was made that his grandfather had died, too.
King-Williams' father, AJ, also died from a heart attack shortly after the two reconciled after years of bickering.
King-Williams has lived with his mother, father, great-grandmother — also now dead from cancer — and cousins Jemal and Camille King of Bronzeville, whom he first met at his grandfather's funeral.
Saturday, King-Williams' name will be announced as a starting defensive tackle for the University of Texas San Antonio, which faces New Mexico in the New Mexico Bowl. That day is also the senior's scheduled graduation date from the university. He previously attended the University of Illinois, then Butler (Kansas) Community College.
He also attended three high schools.
"It's crazy when you think about everything that I have gone through, but God didn't bring me through what he brought me through to keep it to myself," King-Williams said. "I go to schools, talk to kids, I've been a mentor to different people — just to tell my story, to let them know that no matter what you're going through, your circumstance doesn't determine your outcome."
King-Williams credits God, but also the Kings, who legally adopted him when he was a senior at Mount Carmel. They stayed in touch when King-Williams lived with his father and attended high school in Florida and when he lived with his great-grandmother, Jessie, and attended St. Joseph High School in suburban Westchester.
King-Williams' relatives had kept telling him to get to know Jemal King, a former football player at Bogan High School and Western Illinois University and an assistant coach at Mount Carmel. King, a Chicago Police officer for 17 years and the son of two former Chicago police officers, said he thought he could guide King-Williams, who fully admitted at times he "didn't know where to turn."
King took King-Williams to Mount Carmel to shadow a student before his junior year, and the teen fell in love with the South Side Catholic school. King said that after that visit he "was going to do everything I could to help him."
King paid several thousand dollars in tuition to St. Joseph and had King-Williams over to his house for weekly workouts. They attended church together. Eventually, King-Williams moved in.
"All of a sudden, he was living at my house," Camille King said. "They never asked my permission because I would have said no. I'm so glad I didn't have my way because Vontrell has added so much to my life."
Even though he was at Mount Carmel for only two years, he was named second-team all-state as a senior and constantly tried to build relationships with teammates, Caravan assistant coach Mark Antonietti said.
"From the first moments he stepped on the field, it was obvious that this was a young man who knew exactly what he wanted: to build relationships and play football to the best of his ability," Antonietti said. "Every day he came out to practice and tried to win every rep. He was a positive and hardworking student athlete."
The 6-foot-1, 325-pound King-Williams has built the same type of foundation with his three new siblings: Ayanna, 12; Jasmine, 8; and Jemal Jr., 1.
Jemal King said King-Williams has become "my hero."
"He took every bad situation and took it as fuel to keep going," said Jemal King, who gave up coaching so he could attend King-Williams' college games. "When tragedy struck, he cried, but he kept going. He looks at me and calls me his hero, he calls me his dad, but truthfully, he's my hero.
"It's a story of faith, it's a story of not giving up, and it's a story of love," he added. "He has a story that can touch the 'worst' kind of kid in any community, who thinks their circumstances define their reality."
King-Williams spends a good deal of free time in San Antonio visiting elementary schools to talk about his past. He's part of several youth camps and youth foundations in Texas, too.
He hopes to stay in San Antonio for another year to deliver his message and has applied for a medical redshirt year next season. He broke his foot twice at Illinois, which kept him from playing a down in two seasons with the Illini. He also suffered a broken ankle at Mount Carmel.
If he doesn't get another year of college ball, King-Williams will try to play pro football or use his communications degree and "Barry White-like voice" as a broadcaster. A special graduation ceremony for the 20-plus Texas San Antonio football seniors, who are playing in the school's first bowl game, will be held on site either directly before or after the New Mexico Bowl.
Whatever happens, he said, King-Williams knows his best days are ahead.
"I've been through some dark times," he said. "But I’m blessed to have the strength and to also have the guidance to make it through."
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