Bernard Williams wins despite his late start

Delayed Olympian returns to his Boys and Girls Club

October 25, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

The children were waiting.

As Bernard Williams Day turned into Bernard Williams Night at the Franklin Square Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club, it began to smell like disappointment: First, the Baltimore-born Olympic track star, now living in Gainesville, Fla, had missed his plane, forcing the much anticipated celebration from afternoon to evening.

Then his next plane was delayed.

By 8 p.m. Friday, 40 elementary and middle school children were itching to show off their talents to their visiting hometown hero. Not only was Bernard Williams one of the fastest humans on the planet - having won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash in Athens and a gold in a 400-meter relay in Sydney - he was also the most famous alumnus of their club. He, too, had grown up in the same dangerous neighborhood in West Baltimore. He, too, had used the club on Calhoun Street as a way to stay out of trouble.

When the track star still hadn't arrived by 9 p.m., his fans concentrated on a bountiful meal of barbecued chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans and deviled eggs served near the pool table in the club's main hall. It was a chance to reminisce about the old days at the club, to realize how the former church continues to be an after-school island of safety and hope. Some guests, in fact, had passed right by drug dealers on their way to the event.

At 9:30 p.m., with the guest of honor still absent, the Bernard Williams Day ceremonies commenced.

City Councilwoman Agnes Welch presented a proclamation to the Salvation Army for serving the community. She presented another in honor of the tardy track star to his mother, Angela Williams.

Yeremiah Mickens, a second-grade teacher in the Baltimore City schools, read his poignant and edgy poem "Track Star." There were performances by the Franklin Square Dance Troupe and the Franklin Square Steppers.

At 10 p.m., just as sixth-grader Najee Banks began another tribute, the guest of honor finally made his entrance. Cheers filled the room as Williams, wearing a dark leather jacket embossed with Olympic rings, hugged friends and shook hands.

"It's so good to have you, Bernard," said Jim Arrowood, Baltimore area commander of the Salvation Army and the night's master of ceremonies. "We've got a young man right now who's going to read you a poem."

Najee Banks held the paper steady:

B is for one of the best athletes in the world.

E is for everyone who loves you.

R is for running and winning in the Olympics.

N is for not giving up on your dreams, for not forgetting where you came from.

A is for the amazing things that you have achieved.

R is for realizing your gifts from God.

D is for deserving the gold.

After the applause, Major Arrowood called the 26-year-old athlete in front of the group: "You see this man here? He was you some years ago, well, a long time ago. But the thing is that he stayed focused on being successful. He kept it before him. I'm sure there are times that he pulled muscles and times he wanted to give up. But did he give up?"


"Should you give up?"


"Bernard, you want to say a couple of things?"

"Hey y'all, sorry for being late," Williams began. "Y'all forgive me?"


"Stay in school. ... None of y'all is perfect. Y'all gonna mess up and make mistakes, but at the end of the day just keep on doing what you're doing. And always think of other people. ... I could talk all night, but I know y'all have to get home and get to bed."

"Every one of you can be a gold medalist in running the race of life," Arrowood added. "Just do the very best you can. We're going to pray for just a moment, and after that, we would ask that everyone let Bernard eat."

But the track star had not come so far in the race of life that he could delay signing autographs. Although it was late, he took his time with each member of the Franklin Square Boys and Girls Club who handed him something to sign - a piece of notebook paper, the back of a neighborhood flyer, a copy of the poem "Bernard."

"Hey, man!" Williams flashed an Olympic smile at Najee Banks. "Hey, I appreciate what you did."

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