On a sunny afternoon, a dozen black youths play touch football near Storyland at City Park, a happy ending to an unhappy week of news for Louisiana children.
New research depicts Louisiana as the national per-capita-teen-homicide “capital,” adding to an annual cascade of dismal data on child poverty, school dropouts and arrest rates. Even the youths at the park – who attend respected New Orleans schools such as Jesuit, St. Augustine and Holy Cross – are statistical “underdogs.”
Fortunately, they have a mentor. He is Ryan Williams Sr., 34, a volunteer sports coach, who was recently honored by Cox Cable as its top salesman.
Orphaned by New Orleans’ notorious violence, Williams grew up during the 1980s and ‘90s in the Lower 9th Ward, where generations of black males have ended up on drugs, imprisoned or dead.
Thanks to an unusual network of mentors – nuns, football coaches, cops (such as former New Orleans police Lt. Cynthia Swain), civil rights lawyers (such as Mary Howell) and the late investigative reporter Ron Ridenhour – Williams survived a high-risk adolescence.
Today, he thrives. A single father raising three boys, a 14-year employee of Cox and a homeowner, Williams now mentors the children of others.
A volunteer coach since Hurricane Katrina hit six years ago, he estimates he has worked hundreds of hours coaching more than 100 youths, most recently at predominantly black St. Rita’s Central School Uptown and the Carrollton Boosters sports program.
“Nobody on my teams has ever been locked up – that I know of,” he says proudly but with cautious optimism.
“I can definitely back that up,” says Sr. Pam Weathersby, a Marianite nun and teacher at St. Rita’s, who taught Williams when he was a child. “Ryan has an innate sense of integrity that’s just palpable.”
Steve Costa, athletic director of Warren Easton High School, was Williams’ football coach until he graduated in 1996, with citywide recognition as a top scholar-athlete. “Ryan has turned out to be an amazing young man,” Costa says. “(His) wasn’t the greatest home life.”
There are no prominent statistics on how many New Orleans children lose a parent to violence each year.
Both of Williams’ parents were murdered in 1982. He was 5 years old. Relatives adopted the boy and his three siblings. The children then endured harrowing stints in battered women’s shelters, foster care and group homes.
“I missed most of my childhood,” Williams says.
Sr. Weathersby recalls how she recognized an ability to organize and calm younger students in Williams, which earned the eighth-grader a role as a teacher’s aide at Saints Peter and Paul School.
In the early 1990s, Williams got a summer job through a city youth program. He was assigned to the First District Police station, washing police cars and performing other menial chores. “He was polite and sweet,” recalls former Lt. Swain, now Director of Administration at the Port of New Orleans – and Williams’ “godmother.”
The cops knew of Williams’ tragic family history, Swain says; they reached out to him. “A lot of them would come to my football games,” Williams recalls.
In 1993, Williams and his fellow foster child and adopted brother Dominic Johnson moved into the Mid-City home of Howell and Ridenhour; both teens flourished on Easton’s football team. Howell became Williams’ legal guardian.
The civil rights lawyer and reporter unexpectedly found themselves seated together with Williams’ police fans from the NOPD. “We were a pretty odd-looking cheering section, all brought together by Ryan,” says Howell. “We had a great time at those games.”
The foster teens began to learn law and order in their new home. “Mary had a lot of rules,” Williams recalls over lunch with Randy Romain, 23, a volunteer assistant coach.
Smiling, Williams recites a few:
“You must do at least one hour of homework every school night – even if none is assigned by your teachers.”
“You must be inside before dark.”
“No basketball on a school night.”
“You had Friday- and Saturday-night curfew: 10 p.m.”
“Off the phone by 10 p.m.” (“Do you know how embarrassing it is to be talking on the phone to a girl and you have to hang up because it’s a certain time?” he asks.)
The rules produced results, he admits. He soon had the highest grade point average on the football team. In October 1995, WVUE-TV honored him as a “Scholar Athlete of the Week.”
Today, 16 years later, Coach Ryan builds support among overwhelmed teachers and parents at St. Rita’s by requiring students to do homework during football practice – sometimes en masse.
Sister Weathersby quietly marvels at how so many “disparate people” came together for young Ryan Williams. “It speaks of the mystery of God to me.”
Charles Figley, a trauma expert at the Tulane University School of Social Work, suggests academia should study the mystery of resilience exemplified by Williams’ unexpected rise, from orphan of violence to responsible parent. “We need to focus on successes like Ryan, and his family, and everyone else who is expected to fail.”
At City Park, a football game is underway. Williams shouts encouragement to his kids: “Good job! Good job!” Their names ring out, like songs of praise and joy.
Ryan Williams lives in New Orleans with his three sons: Ryan Jr., 12, Jalen, 8 and Jaden, 5. They all attend St. Rita’s. The middle name of his second son is “Dominic,” Ryan says, a tribute to the memory of foster brother Dominic Johnson, who was murdered in 2000.
Scoring at will
St. Rita’s Central principal Sister Annette Baxley says Ryan Williams’ sports teams– both boys and girls – have gone to the Catholic School League playoffs every year, since he began coaching elementary school in 2005. To volunteer as a tutor or help defray the costs of tuition for the 220 students – and class field trips – call Sister Baxley at 861-1777.