Bernard Williams is closing in on a sociology degree at the University of Florida and Maurice Greene, the world's fastest human. Williams' prospects surely wouldn't have been so grand had he succumbed to the homesickness that enveloped him in the autumn of 1997.
"Sometimes, a decision you make can change your whole life," Williams said last week. "If I knew then what I know now, I would never have thought of coming home."
That would be a rowhome in a rough-and-tumble section of Baltimore's west side. Williams was in town for a visit last week, warmed by an NCAA track and field championship in the 100 meters and a personal best of 9.99 seconds. He has since returned to Gainesville, Fla., to resume training for next month's U.S. Olympic trials, where he is anything but a long shot.
Williams, 22, seems prouder of his Florida grade-point average, which is above 3.0, than joining the select few who can cover the 100 in less than 10 seconds.
Is this the same athlete who couldn't even finish in the top three of a Baltimore City dual meet - at age 17? Is this the same student who took the SAT seven times and never got the score that would have sent him directly to an NCAA power instead of a Kansas crossroads that is about as far removed aesthetically from Carey Street as you can get?
Williams' raw power and speed were clear when he was a state champion for Carver High, but he was in the dark when he headed, sight unseen, to Barton (Kan.) County Community College three years ago.
"It's a bit of a culture shock for everyone. It was a shock for me," Barton coach Lance Brauman said. "If you're serious about track and serious about school, it's a great place to be. If you're looking for a club scene, for a place to party, this is not it."
Williams grew up a few blocks east of "The Corner," an infamous drug-dealing area that was the backdrop of a book and HBO series of the same name. Barton is more a chapter from the "Wizard of Oz," because it sounds like Dorothy's hometown. It is 140 miles northwest of Wichita, surrounded by farmland. Williams turned up his nose not at schoolwork, but at an unfamiliar odor of cows.
After a day or three in the heartland, Williams wanted to go home, to his mother, Angela, and to whatever work he could find.
"I was missing my mom, and I got homesick," Williams said. "I just wanted to pack my bags and leave. I told the coach that it wasn't what I expected. I told him I was going to leave, but he told me to gut it out for a little bit."
It's not as if Williams would have sealed a scrapbook thick with accomplishments.
Williams didn't don a racing singlet until after he got the repeated message from the basketball coaches at Southwestern High that he wasn't good enough to play for them.
"I'm not going to lie to you," Williams said. "If you asked me five years ago, I would have said, 'Yeah, I'm good.' I wasn't, but everybody wanted to be a big basketball star. That's every inner-city kid's dream."
Williams ran track for Southwestern in spring 1995, and took notice of Carver High after its deep sprint corps went 1-2-3 on him at a dual meet. Walt Cole, the Carver coach, remembers that after Williams' mother inquired about the transfer procedure, Bernard asked for a couple of textbooks to check out over the summer.
Williams was a quick study. With John Tabor, who "has been like a father to me," providing counsel in a relationship that is still strong, Williams developed into a state champion in 1996. He was still something of an afterthought, however, in a speed-rich scene that boasted Walbrook's Dameon Johnson and Mervo's James Carter. Williams grew into one of the nation's top prep prospects in 1997, but trouble with the SAT sent him to Barton.
"Do you know that he graduated from here with a 3.3 GPA?" Barton coach Brauman said. "Bernard's a pretty smart kid. When he wanted to leave, we talked about the reasons he came to us and what he needed to do to get where he wanted. He weighed his options and decided to stay. He got stronger in the weight room. He fixed some technical things in his form, and got to training with people of his caliber.
"His development was just a combination of training and living a good lifestyle."
Williams went to Barton with a 100 best of 10.45 seconds. As a freshman, he won the national junior college title in 10.12. Despite a bout with pleurisy that kept him in bed for three weeks, he repeated as a sophomore and showed his mettle in major meets. Williams ran 10.03 at the USA championships, became the first American to win at the Pan American Games since 1987 and was second at the Prefontaine Classic to Greene.
"That was a big boost to my confidence, beating everyone except Maurice," Williams said. "That was an eye-opener for a lot of people."
Williams could have gone to UCLA, where sprint coach John Smith's pupils include top professionals like Greene. He returned to the East Coast and Florida, where his training partner is John Capel, a world-class 200 runner.
Williams ran his personal best of 9.99 in the NCAA semifinals, in a race he lost to Auburn's Coby Miller. He got revenge with a title that was the latest indicator that if he can't beat Greene, he might be ready to join him.
The top three finishers at the U.S. trials will qualify for the Olympics, and additional bodies will be needed for the 4x100 relay. With a world record of 9.79 seconds, Greene is the heavy favorite, but he brings out the best in Williams.
There was the small indoor meet in Kansas a few winters ago, when Williams implored the crowd to cheer for him instead of Greene. The Prefontaine Classic typically attracts one of the nation's best track crowds, and before his runner-up finish there last year, Williams got their attention with an outfit that included knee-high socks with horizontal stripes.
"My 'Cat in the Hat' socks," Williams said. "Maurice ran something like 9.8 [9.84 to be exact], but people were saying, 'Who is that fool in the socks?' "
If Williams were a fool, he wouldn't have put in the time in Kansas that allowed him to use less on a stopwatch.
The Williams file
Name: Bernard Williams
Junior college: Barton County (Kan.)
High school: Carver
Skinny: Pan American Games and NCAA track and field champion in 100 meters. Personal best of 9.99 seconds is third-fastest in the nation this year.