As Chette Williams awaited his sophomore football season at Auburn in 1982, he was an angry and unhappy young man. He had walked on with great enthusiasm at Pat Dye's invitation in 1981, joining his brother, Quincy.
Rev. Chette Williams
But not long after Williams arrived, his life began to spin out of control. His parents had divorced. Football wasn’t going well. He was drinking and smoking marijuana. His grades plunged.
"For almost a year and a half, I never smiled," Williams says. "I was just a mad, upset, mean person."
No one could see the transformation coming. No one would have imagined that, more than a quarter of a century later, Williams would be starting his 10th season as the chaplain for Auburn’s football team, that he would have helped a generation of young men through the most difficult of times..
Williams, known to almost everyone as "Brother Chette," has celebrated victories and suffered through defeats with Auburn football players. He’s been a friend, a confidant and a counselor, a sympathetic ear when they needed it most. He’s seen young men who grew up hard go on to be happy and successful. It’s when they come back, some to work for him, some just to say thank you, some to introduce their families, that he knows it’s all been worthwhile.
“You see these men go on to be good husbands, fathers and be productive members of the community,” Williams says. “Then they come back, and that’s very special. That’s what it’s all about.
"A championship game is just a moment in time. What we are trying to do is help these guys be productive throughout their lives. I love to win, but to have a young man’s life changed, that’s way more important than a game.”
It all started at the most unlikely of times, at a time when Williams thought his Auburn football career had come to an early end. Halfback Kyle Collins, now an executive with Colonial Properties, and Williams used adjacent lockers. The black kid from Douglasville, Ga., and the white kid from Gadsden were thrown together by fate.
"We couldn't have been any more different, how I grew up and how he grew up," Collins says. "Chette was probably the single most bitter person I've ever been around. I never saw his teeth for a year because he never smiled. In the little Bible study group I was in, they asked me who I was going to pray for. When I said Chette Williams, they said `Hey, pray for somebody that has a chance.' "
Collins didn't listen. He began to talk to Williams, telling him he was there if he needed him. Williams paid little attention. But one fateful night, assistant coach James Daniels knocked on Williams' door.
"It was about 11 o'clock," Williams says, remembering. "Coach Daniels came in my room. He said `We just had a meeting about you. Coach Dye wants you to leave Auburn.' He started talking about how my attitude had changed and the bad example I was setting for younger players.”
Williams was desperate. Finally, not knowing what else to do, he went to see Collins. Before the night was over, Williams and Collins were on their knees praying together. On that night, Williams says, his life changed.
"I'm not saying God opened up the clouds and spoke to me or anything like that, but I could feel something I'd never felt before," Williams says. "I had all this stuff on me - school, being kicked off the team, my dad's problems, everything. I could just feel it leave me that night."
The next day, Williams went to see Dye.
"I was ready to leave, but I had to go see him," Williams says. "I had to tell him what happened. He said `Let's just take it one day at a time, son.' That's all I've been doing ever since."
Williams says he's not had a drink or used drugs since that night. He and Collins became as close as brothers. That was something of a miracle in itself.
"I wasn't a little bit prejudiced," Collins says. "I was a lot prejudiced. It was something I had to work through in my life. He just walked into my room that night. The next day - the very next day - the guy was a different person.
"I'm not saying I had anything to do with it. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
Williams graduated from Auburn, went to seminary in New Orleans and became a minister. He pastored churches in New Orleans and Mobile. He and his wife, Lakeba, were running a ministry for at-risk kids in Spartanburg, S.C., when Tommy Tuberville called in the summer of 1999. It was a call that would set the direction of Williams’ life.
Tuberville had taken over as Auburn's football coach. He wanted to know if Williams would be interested in becoming the chaplain.
"We came because we felt the Lord's call,” Williams says. “We came because God had given me the opportunity to do for somebody else what Kyle Collins did for me and because I love Auburn."
Williams says his life is a testament to what hope and love can do. He is a happy and respected family man with three children. He has the respect of his peers and of the coaches and the young men with whom he works. He’s touched hundreds of Auburn football players and thousands of others who have heard his story. His ministry has grown to include five fulltime employees. He is the campus director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the state director of urban ministries. It’s all supported by private donations.
It has not come without a price.
Williams became widely known when many players credited him with helping them develop the closeness that led the “Hard-fighting Soldiers” of 2004 to a 13-0 season. Williams found himself being questioned like he’d never been questioned. Questions turned to outright accusations that continue to this day.
“When you are in the ministry, you expect opposition,” Williams says. “But I never expected it to come from out-and-out lies and the kinds of things people say. I didn’t. I’ve turned it over, but when it pops up, you just have to turn it over again.
“Being human, you spend 10 years trying to do something to benefit your university, the ministry and help people. When you have somebody lie and criticize and try to tear it down, it hurts.”
Having a chaplain was a concept Tuberville brought with him from Ole Miss. In 1999, Auburn was the only Southeastern Conference school that had one. Today, the program has spread throughout the league and beyond.
"I knew when we first talked to Chette he'd be the right guy," Tuberville says. "He played here, went through tough times, had a change of attitude and turned out to be a minister. He enjoys working with young people. He felt like this was his calling. He accepted the challenge, and he has done great things.”
Williams hears the deepest secrets of Auburn players. In their troubles, he sees some of himself. But not every story ends as happily.
"Nobody is beyond redemption," Williams says. "You want them to turn that switch as soon as you talk to them. It doesn't always happen. You see them going through the same things you went through, and they don't have to. What really breaks your heart is when one has to leave.
"Some people dismiss that side of it. I can't. That's what I'm here for."