DALLAS — The Richland College basketball team is locked in a tough conference battle on a Saturday afternoon.
But head coach Jon Havens has an ace in the hole, his team captain, Caleb Williams.
Williams' sports journey has been singular, improbable and inspirational. In one instant, he lost so much.
“He’s got an unbelievable work ethic,” Havens said of his second-year guard. “There’s not a day that goes by that he’s not giving you everything he has.”
Despite all he’s lost, Williams refuses to let that define him.
“He kind of exemplifies what we want and what I want out of our program here at Richland,” Havens said. “You’re going to give everything you have, every single day, and don’t take it for granted. Because at the end of the day you get [so many] opportunities and they will end quickly.”
Caleb understands that more than most. He’s lived it.
During his junior year at Gladewater High School, Caleb was knocked out during a football game, suffering a massive concussion.
“I was going in and out of conscientiousness,” Williams said. “I was terrified.”
Frantic and chaotic moments followed. He had to be flown via chopper to a nearby hospital with his parents chasing behind in their car.
“It was just agonizing not knowing what was going on,” said Caleb’s father, Todd.
Caleb eventually found himself in an emergency room, without any memory of anything.
“Whenever they asked me what my name was I was like, I have no clue. I had no clue what happened, how I got there,” he said.
When trauma patients can’t identify themselves, they’re often assigned a color or state name for temporary identification purposes.
“Next thing I know they're calling me Idaho, Idaho,” Caleb said.
The impact of the concussion was life-altering. Williams suffering an awful case of amnesia. He completely lost all the memories from the first 17 years of his life.
“I was nervous. I was scared. I didn’t want to play sports ever again,” Caleb said.
His father concurred: “It’s just one of the worst feelings I've ever felt in my life.”
Then came a surprising development. Football was out, but Caleb’s parents gave the green light to a return to his first love, basketball. And as a senior, averaging 33 points a game, he led Gladewater to its first district title in 14 years.
Despite his high school success Caleb initially struggled while attempting to transition to the college game.
While at Kilgore College, he got in a wreck and suffered another concussion.
Fortunately, the injury was minor, but the effect on his basketball dreams was major.
“I thought that was God telling me this isn’t for you,” Caleb said.
But once again, Caleb and his family refused to let the story end there. Richland College offered an opportunity.
Fellow coaches told Havens about Williams stellar high school career, as well as his back story. Williams got another chance, but along with it came a change in perspective.
“I never thought I would come off the bench ever in my life,” Caleb said. “It humbled me. It showed me that I wasn’t going to be the best on the court anymore.”
That was year one, but Williams has shown significant improvement and he's transformed into the heartbeat of the Richland squad.
“This year he’s kind of been the catalyst. We kind of go as he goes,” Havens said.
His teammates all know his amazing story and his roommate took it a step further. “Idaho” has become Caleb’s nickname.
Other than rare flashes, Caleb still can’t remember anything before that big hit and says he feels bad for his parents, but it’s a worry they don’t share.
“He’s a really good kid. I just want him to know that I love him whether he knows who I am or not,” his mom, Latoshia, said with a laugh, but the comment is sobering nonetheless.
Meanwhile, back on the court. On that Saturday afternoon, Caleb led the team in scoring and rebounding as the Thunderducks surged ahead late to grab the victory.
Williams went on to be named his conference player of the year, and his stellar play down the stretch lead Richland to a third-place finish in the division three national junior college tournament.
Caleb earned first-team All-America honors in the process.
“Caleb is always a winner, he’s always been a winner,” said Latoshia, not surprised by her son’s achievement despite all the obstacles. She also says she’s thrilled with the way he’s matured over the past couple of years.
“What I’ve learned is that you can’t give up on anything. If something sets you back you’ve got to start over and work at it all over again,” said Caleb.
He also realized a life-long dream to play basketball at a four-year college. He has accepted a scholarship to play at East Central University in Oklahoma.
“You just can’t give up on what you love," Caleb said.
And that remarkable perseverance has allowed him to travel far away from Idaho, Idaho.