AJC: Season of A Lifetime

by Steve Hummer

GREENVILLE — Over the span of two football seasons, the story of the small-town high school coach persevering through the relentless withering of his limbs, his wind and his voice has been told in many forms.

[quote style=”1″]Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com Using a motorized wheelchair, Greenville coach Jeremy Williams talks with quarterback Mario Alford during their win against Macon County Friday night in Greenville, Ga., Sept. 17, 2010. Williams continues to coach despite battling ALS. He now uses a motorized wheelchair and a golf cart along with a microphone to amplify his voice to assist him to coach during game night.[/quote]

ord has spread, despite the remoteness of the school and the sometime spotty cell phone service in this part of west Georgia. From a 2009 series in this newspaper, to a 2010 appearance on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover Home Edition,” to various national and regional news shows, Jeremy Williams has broadcast a message of faith and hope in the face of terminal illness, a message that has spread far beyond the piney woods that curtain this tiny Georgia town.His story is about to be reprised once more, in a full-length documentary filmed by Sandy Springs’ Rick Cohen and Atlanta-area producers Chris Pullaro, Bob McAllister and Jason Haley.

Season of a Lifetime” will have a special advance screening Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Georgia State University’s Rialto Center for the Arts. Tickets are $25, with proceeds going to the Georgia Chapter of the ALS Association. For information, go to seasonofalifetime.tv.

Members of the Greenville High band will play. The smell of barbecue will linger in the air. All intended to create a sort of tailgate in May and invite viewers to get in the mood to relive the Greenville Patriots’ 2010 season.

Poignantly, the film ends with various Greenville players talking in simple, heart-felt words about how they hope Williams will be remembered — in effect writing epitaphs for their coach while he can hear them.

Now confined to a wheelchair because of the progression of his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Williams is scheduled to be there for this first screening, along with his wife, Jennifer, and their two children.

The film traces the Patriots’ 2010 season, intermingling the stories of the Williams’ family — its struggles and its unbreakable faith — with those of a small town and the young men who are growing up there. It is “Friday Night Lights” intersecting with “The Lou Gehrig Story.”

It’s a love story, about the love between a man and his family, and man and his team and a man and his community,” Cohen said.

For the filmmaker, the journey from concept to finished film involved wearing a groove on the stretch of Georgia Highway 27A that leads from I-85 to Greenville. A long string of visits to the school, the town, the Williams’ home, Jeremy’s doctor, his church and every Greenville game produced more than 250 hours of footage to distill into a 100-minute tale.

Cohen’s research led him to a singular observation: “I never met a man who didn’t have an enemy. That was until I met Jeremy Williams.”

And any lessons Cohen happened to learn along the way were a bonus. Such as the admonition Williams routinely gave him to live every day like it was his last, telling the guy behind the camera, “I could out-live you, you don’t know.”

For the subjects, submitting to a documentary meant opening their lives even more than they had in any of the other versions of their story.

Sometimes they battled with the idea of allowing cameras into private places — a doctor’s examination room where a shirtless Williams revealed the desiccating effects of his disease, along for the morning routine in which his young daughter helped him dress, into the locker room and the vault containing all a team’s secrets. But they stayed on course, compromising occasionally, maintaining the belief that there was a message that needed to get out.

Asked what he hoped to show in the film, Williams said, “That when things get tough, you can be tough and still show love.”

His wife expanded: “I really hope that people see that, no matter what they might face in life, that through Christ, they can not only get through it but also live a happy, joyful life.”

How the message will be spread is still uncertain. Cohen hopes to enter the movie in series of film festivals, where it might gain notoriety.

So, if it led to a feature film — set in a place where the nearest movie theater is 25 miles away — who would play the lead?

I’m not going to worry about that,” chuckled Williams.

I’m thinking Ryan Reynolds,” said Cohen, invoking the Canadian-born star, a perennial entry in People’s Sexiest Men Alive.

The Williams of the 2010 documentary wore a small amplifying device to boost the power of his voice (ALS sufferers slowly lose the ability to speak). In the cold of the final regular-season game that year, Williams, his thin frame unable to ward off the chill, coached from the press box.

The one interviewed last week at the school appeared to have a little more difficulty speaking and breathing and generally getting around. Battling a virus, he did not take part in any of his team’s spring practice.

I have good days and bad days. I’m not bad now,” he said last week.

There was one question that prompted Williams to pause, draw in as much air as he could and answer as emphatically as possible.

Are you going to coach next season?

I am,” he said.

The football schedule — Greenville opens at home Aug. 26 against Dooly County

is seemingly at odds with the grim schedule of Williams’ disease. Still, he presses on as ever, looking to make his own sequel, to script one more season of a lifetime.