Pine Bluff Football Coach Returns to His Struggling Hometown — And Scores Big for Students

Arkansas coach prioritizes grades, leverages recruiters & cares for his players — especially after a tragic loss — and sees team land college offers.

By Jo Napolitano | May 9, 2024
Coach Micheal Williams talks with a student amid celebration Feb. 7. (Jo Napolitano/The 74)

Updated, May 9

Pine Bluff, Arkansas

On a gray February morning, the Pine Bluff High School gymnasium was filled with colorful balloons and flooded with music and laughter as family and friends, students and staff gathered to celebrate four college-bound star football players signing their national letters of intent. 

Less than six miles away, a mother was mourning the loss of another beloved player, her 16-year-old son, Kendall Burton, who was gunned down just weeks earlier. 

Addressing a standing-room-only crowd, the four elated student-athletes all thanked the same person — and the heartbroken mother in her quiet apartment did, too: Coach Micheal Williams.

The two events painfully juxtaposed what Williams has worked hardest to achieve since returning to his hometown — creating a pathway to college for his players — and what he has fought so strenuously to keep at bay. A dozen young people between the ages of 10 and 19 in this town of roughly 40,000 were the victims of homicide between 2020 and 2022, according to the most recent data.

“Kendall Burton was a great kid,” said Williams, who’s built close relationships with all of his players, but especially this affable teen. “I would let him date my daughter, you know, that type of kid. I always tell everybody he was the coach’s son.”

Shaketa Simmons, Burton’s mother, said Kendall felt the same way: “He loved Coach Williams. He would always say, ‘Coach Williams got our back. He would do anything for us.’”

Williams, who understands the grinding poverty that can lead some students astray, has always encouraged his players not to squander the opportunity they’ve earned through sports. But he had struggled in recent weeks to relate that message: Burton was a clean-cut kid who stayed out of trouble and still, his future was taken from him.

Burton’s death devastated the coach and now he found himself summoning the young man, who he picked up every morning before practice, to help keep his teammates on track amid their sorrow.

“I tell them, ‘You have to carry on, fight hard to be that person you are because your friend is looking at you,’” Williams said. “‘He’s clapping from heaven.’” 

Boys to men 

A former Pine Bluff football player himself, Willliams, now 40, helped lead some of the most storied teams in the country, including the one belonging to Duncanville High School just outside Dallas: They won back-to-back state championships in the last two years and were ranked 10th in the nation. 

Pine Bluff High School football coach Micheal Williams stands on the team’s indoor practice field in February. (Jo Napolitano)

But no matter where he worked, he kept an eye on his football roots. He knew Pine Bluff players had talent, but somehow that wasn’t translating into college offers. Williams eventually discovered why: Some didn’t have the grades and none got the exposure they deserved.

Upon taking the coaching job in 2022, Williams immediately installed an academic-focused program: Players would practice in the morning and sit for study hall and tutoring in the afternoon. They would also participate in a character-building program — another of the coach’s initiatives — where they might learn to tie a tie or talk to a judge to better understand the criminal justice system.

“From Day One, I knew I needed to do something to try to change their grades,” Williams said. 

For the sophomores, juniors and seniors, he built each player’s social media profile on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and alerted the recruiters he’s worked with through the years.

“Once I started sending those things out, it started drawing attention to a lot of the great athletes we have,” he said. 

Jonathan Goins Jr., points to supporters during a celebration of his signing a national letter of intent to play football at the college level. (Jo Napolitano/The 74)

Among them: Jonathan Goins Jr., 17, and Landon Holcomb, 18, who both committed to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff at the Feb. 7 signing. Chandler Laurent, 18, and who has earned a 4.1 GPA, will play for Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Makyrin Goodwin, also 18, is headed to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. All received full or partial athletic or academic scholarships. 

Goodwin, who plays both right and left tackle — really anything on the offensive line,  is looking forward to the next chapter of his life and thanked his coach for the progress he’s made until now. 

“He is the best coach I ever had,” Goodwin said of Williams. “He makes sure we do good in school and everything. He’ll just call and check on you sometimes.” 

Williams himself was an excellent running back — potential NFL material — but didn’t end up making it that far, in part, he said, because his high school coaches, whom he adored, weren’t focused on recruiting. So, he said, he did not have a shot at a big-time college. Instead, he attended Paul Quinn College in Dallas on a partial football scholarship. 

And that’s why, when he became a coach himself, he prioritized recruiting, getting his players on the right schools’ radar and making sure they had the grades to be NCAA eligible, which for Division I schools means a GPA of 2.3 or higher in their core classes and 2.2 or better for Division II.

Coach Williams is a godsend and he has a heart for children. Not just sports. I said children. And under his tutelage, they become men.

Principal, Ronnieus Thompson

Principal Ronnieus Thompson appreciates Williams’s hard-earned connections and partnerships with colleges and universities. Four of his senior players have been given scholarship offers at DI colleges this school year, including Goins and Holcomb.

 Two others penned national letters of intent in December — both to the highly regarded University of Missouri, part of the powerhouse Southeastern Conference and ranked 8th in the country this year. Headed to Mizzou are Courtney Crutchfield, a four-star athlete who was the No. 1 high school football player in the state and number 11th in the nation under Williams’s leadership, and three-star athlete, Austyn Dendy, 17, who is ranked fourth in Arkansas. 

Bringing the total headed to college to eight, cornerback Perrea Little signed with DIII Centenary College of Louisiana just this week and wide receiver Marquez Brentley Jr. accepted an academic scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“Coach Williams is a godsend and he has a heart for children,” Thompson said. “Not just sports. I said children. And under his tutelage, they become men.”

‘The person I am today’

The coach describes himself as strict. He doesn’t mind adding some bass to his voice to deliver a point on the field and players who arrive late to 6 a.m. practice will find themselves pushing a 45-pound plate 100 yards before moving on to exhaustive drills.

In his softer moments, he talks to them about family trouble, girl problems and how they sometimes can’t wash their clothes at home because the power has been cut off. In that case, Williams invites them to use the school’s washer and dryer. 

“I’ve been poor,” he tells them. “I know how it feels to wake up and there’s roaches in your food or maggots in your rice: You haven’t been through anything that I haven’t been through. But success comes from being a powerful young man and being able to fight through adversity.”

Sometimes, when Williams was a young boy, his own family would lose electricity and the three kids and their parents would all sleep together in the same room to keep warm. And it wasn’t uncommon for him to look out the window, he said, to see his parents picking up cans on the side of the road to afford a 49-cent pack of hot dogs.

“If we were going to play baseball, my mom would go out and search every thrift store to try to find us a glove,” he said. “It may have been old but, you know, we made the best out of it. It helped make me into the person I am today.”

Emmanuel Hudson, 16, and a defensive tackle, said the coach always comes through for him. He’s given the teen food when he’s hungry and, most recently, a dress shirt for a formal school event: Many come from a small collection Williams keeps in his office in case such a need arises. 

“He’s just been so good in my life,” Hudson said. “Like a stepfather, for real.”

It’s the type of support that’s helped him through the loss of his friend, Kendall Burton, who was shot dead Jan. 12 at an intersection close to his grandmother’s house. 

The investigation into Burton’s death remains open and Pine Bluff police did not respond to a request last week for an update. Earlier, department spokesman David DeFoor told The 74 police had a suspect in mind but not enough evidence to make an arrest. The department was asking for the public’s help, offering up to a $10,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction.

Simmons credits the entire team for being such a positive part of her son’s life, which was marked by a grave struggle long before he was gunned down: A growth on Burton’s neck when he was 8 was diagnosed as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

“Those are his brothers,” Simmons said of his fellow players.

Shaketa Simmons holds a pillow emblazoned with images of her son, Kendall, who was killed Jan. 12. (Jo Napolitano/The 74)

Sitting in her son’s bedroom, which she’s turned into a memorial, his pictures and jerseys hung up on the walls, Simmons said it’s the family’s deep sense of faith that she leans on now that her son is gone. As a child battling cancer, Burton would tell his mother not to worry, that, “God got me.”

“When I think about my boy … I just want to cry, I just want to let loose,” she said. “But most of the time I can’t because the spirit comes to me and says, ‘No, I got Kendall.’ When I hear that, I’m like, ‘OK, OK, I hear you.’”

The new model students 

Williams’s father, Micheal Sr., a minister of music, drove a school bus for Pine Bluff for 20 years and had numerous jobs after that. He eventually became a preacher who also sang and played piano at a local church and nearby prison. At one point, he owned a used car lot in Pine Bluff, but his generosity undermined his efforts: A customer with a particularly heart-wrenching story might walk away with a free vehicle, his son said.

His father never saw Williams play when he was younger because he was always working. Now, he never misses a game: He broadcasts them on Facebook. Williams’s mother, Pamela, who became a nurse, remains her son’s biggest fan. Hers is often the loudest voice cheering from the stands. And her son’s spare supply of dress shirts and the like often comes from her, the result of Pamela Williams regularly bargain hunting for those in need. 

“She taught me the gift of giving,” Williams said. “They both did.”

It was that sense of wanting to give back and improve the lives and prospects of young people that drew him home. It’s a notion shared by many: Williams arrived in a city already working hard to bring about positive change. It opened an enviable $12 million aquatic center in 2019 and has plans to revitalize long-neglected parts of the community, including historic buildings. But perhaps the most life-changing moment for Pine Bluff students will come when the district breaks ground on a new, state-of-the-art high school, replacing a decades-old facility with roofing so decrepit that it rains inside classrooms and hallways. 

“The right work is being done,” said Thompson, the principal. “Have we made it all the way there? Of course not. But we are taking those steps in the right direction.”

Thompson credits the coach for being a critical part of this effort, adding that his reach extends well beyond the field: When students struggle in other areas of their life, he’ll call upon their teachers and counselors for help. 

“We don’t have trouble with the athletes anymore,” Thompson said. “They used to be some of the biggest knuckleheads. Now, they’re model students and that’s the way it should be. I’m glad that he’s here.”

Chandler Laurent, 18, who boasts a 4.1 GPA, signed with Hendrix College. (Jo Napolitano/The 74)

Micah Holmstrom, a 10th- and 12th-grade English teacher, said Williams’s mandatory study hall has allowed him to chase down students who were missing assignments or who needed extra help.

“I knew exactly where they were,” Holmstrom said, adding Williams’s emphasis on academics made his work even easier. “Those guys are so comfortable with him and it’s in a place that’s a familiar environment: They’re more willing to sit and hack through some of the difficult stuff than in class.”

Frank Lyles, a math teacher, uses the time to teach kids about complex topics they didn’t  understand in class, including parabolas, a U-shape curve whose contours students can find in their own game: Every ball they throw follows a similar arc, illustrating his lesson. 

Parents, too, credit Williams for helping their children stay focused. Nicole Dendy, whose son, Austyn, will pursue veterinary studies at Mizzou, said football is her son’s drive. 

“Football motivates him,” she said. “So, whatever it takes to get him on the field, that’s what he’s going to do.”

Students and staff inflate the Fighting Zebra mascot ahead of a college signing ceremony at Pine Bluff High School. (Jo Napolitano/The 74)

Hudson, the defensive tackle, helped prepare the gymnasium for the college signing day in Februrary. He was overjoyed to see older players recognized for their athletic and academic success.

“Coach Will and the other coaching staff have been hard on us to put the work in,” he said. “He said, from Day One, whatever we want, we’ve got to earn. So, I feel like we earned it and that’s why we got it.”

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