She turned down track and field offers to Oregon and Arizona State. Why a Clarke Central star chose an HBCU instead
Clarke Central senior Lashanti Williams will be running track at North Carolina A&T.
Justin Jones was a young coach in Carrollton when a phone call from his former coach informed him of a young girl that could run like the wind.
She was beating everyone at field day, boys and girls.
Jones wanted to meet her. He was introduced to a 9-year-old Lashanti Williams. Jones didn’t know at the time that he would be taking on more than a coaching role for the promising sprinter.
In the years since they were introduced Jones has become Williams’ legal guardian as well as her private coach and high school coach. Williams has turned her play time speed into a full-blown track career.
Williams, a senior at Clarke Central, is one of the top runners in the country. Jones says if she were a football or basketball player that she would be considered a ‘five star’ athlete. She recently recorded a long jump of 19-feet, 0.75 inches, ranking in the top 10 in the country this year.
Williams has earned a reputation as one of the top 2021 track and field recruits. She will be running for North Carolina A&T in college after her announcement on Friday evening.
Williams hadn't developed into the track star she is today when she made the move with Jones in 2016 when he took over the Clarke Central track and field team.
From the first time they were introduced, Jones became a coach and an inspiration for Williams. Jones knew immediately that there was potential for Williams to be something special.
Jones competed with Williams' mother in middle school and competed against her father in high school, so there was already familiarity.
He noticed Williams’ gifts early on.
“She was very coachable at a young age,” Jones said. “She paid attention. She was always mature for a kid. When I got an opportunity to move to Athens, I knew she had an opportunity to be one of the best athletes in the nation. She could set herself up to, academically and athletically, get her school paid for and if the chips fall where they may, maybe she’ll get an opportunity to go to the Olympic trials and represent the United States. She’s that good.”
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For Williams, remaining with Jones was the thing that kept her running. The summer after Jones moved to Athens, Williams didn’t train as she felt she should have.
She credits her mentor for keeping her running.
“Coach Jones believed in me and he put in a lot of time to help me get where I am today,” Williams said. “I’ve got someone that’s there for me. That’s going to help me, so why not keep going? I feel like if I didn’t come up here, I probably wouldn’t be still running track.”
There were sacrifices on both ends. Williams has had to move away from her mother, father and siblings for the last five years. Jones and his wife were given a crash course on raising a teenager while also raising a young child of their own.
“Her mom and dad trusted me to make sure that she not only competed well, but she’s got to eat and all those other things,” Jones said. “I told her my mom and dad and my family as well, because there had to be a mutual agreement on both sides that this wasn’t a unilateral decision.”
Williams has truly become a member of the Jones family. It began with Jones wanting Williams to live up to her potential. A deeper bond has developed over things that have come up in the guardianship portion of their relationship.
“For Lashanti, I wanted her to see the deal through,” Jones said. “Looking back on it, it was the right decision."
Jones and his young family have learned a lot from taking in a teenager.
"She’s taught us a lot," Jones said. "Having a blended family, everyone doesn’t have to have the same last name. Family becomes what you make it. When you start caring about their failures and their successes and you’re there for all of it. You’re going to be there regardless. That’s what it is with Lashanti. I’ll be here for her whatever she decides to do, good, bad or indifferent. Me and my wife took on that responsibility and we’re going to see it through, no matter where it ends.”
More than an athlete
Williams has high hopes for her post-high school track career. Williams wants to break the school records, win a national championship, run for Nike and potentially compete in the Olympics.
Williams knows what she needs to do to achieve those feats. Being so close has only motivated her to train harder.
“I have a lot more work to do,” Williams said. “I don’t think of it has hard. I know what I have to do to get there. I just have to put in the work and be patient. My time will come. It makes me work harder than I have before. I’m not done. I’ve got to keep going and work harder and do what I’ve got to do to meet my goals.”
Williams will be signing with a Historically Black College and University to run track. She chose the Aggies over Oregon and Arizona State.
As an African American athlete, the opportunity to take her talents to an HBCU is a bit of a liberating feat.
In light of social justice movements around the country, there has been a movement by young amateur athletes taking a more serious look at HBCUs.
Five-star basketball player Makur Maker signed to play with Howard University this summer. Deion Sanders has attracted multiple players with Power Five potential to Jackson State.
Williams is the latest to make a statement in bringing spotlight to HBCU athletics.
Williams could have joined an Oregon program that has won two national championships in the last six years. She wanted a different experience.
“I chose an HBCU because I felt like I could do great things there,” Williams said. “Doing great things at an HBCU would be something unexpected.”
Jones believes the decision is something that could provide an example for future athletes in similar situations.
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“I hope there is a shift not only on the athletic front, but academically from our minority communities that we can go to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and thrive in our world just as someone that goes to an Ivy League school or UGA,” Jones said. “The athletes and the students, in this age are partnering with these universities. You’ve got some of these athletes bringing more to these universities than (the university is) going to bring to them. I think these young people are realizing that they can make a difference.”
Jones hopes that a byproduct of attending an HBCU will be that Williams gets to see African Americans in positions of power develop in an environment that allows her personal growth to be a priority.
“I thought it was important for her to see a black man doing something positive consistently,” Jones said of taking in Williams. “I care a lot about her. Going into that setting, our kids need to see that. Our kids need to see black professors, black engineers. They need to see different types of people in positions of power. These kids have to understand that getting their degree is the main focus. It’s great to be at UGA and Alabama. At the same time, there are a lot of kids there. Are they going to focus on you as a person and develop you and make sure you’re set after you walk out of those doors?” https://www.onlineathens.com/story/sports/high-school/2021/01/23/clarke-central-all-american-lashanti-williams-commits-hbcu/4206407001/?fbclid=IwAR397XblhA13Vdu6JikkZeuVH12d-r0wjezmFwIYyyGeNKgwoegYXsMD26M