NSU– “Punches being thrown from the sky.”
That is how assistant softball coach Brooke Boening described on Twitter the news of former Northwestern State defensive lineman Wade Williams’ death in a plane crash Thursday in Jackson Parish.
Williams’ death was the third suffered by someone with ties to the Northwestern State football team since Dec. 28 and the fourth since former Demons defensive back Manuel Mukes IV was slain in Los Angeles on Aug. 18, 2019.
The plane crash that took the lives of Williams and two other passengers came just five days after the death of longtime Northwestern State coach and former student-athlete Johnnie Emmons. It came less than two months after NSU alumna and Cox Sports Television and WDSU reporter Carley McCord perished in a Dec. 28 plane crash and almost six months after Mukes was shot and killed in California.
“Early in the recruiting process, in 2008 when we signed him, I went to Groveton, Texas, and sat in the coach’s office talking to him about Wade,” said NSU head coach Brad Laird, who was the defensive coordinator at the time. “They talked about what Wade was going to bring off the field as much as they did on the field. We just went through the signing day process, and you see video of what these guys do on the field, but it’s what they do off the field that matters more, and Wade exemplified that as well as a student-athlete could.
“His faith, his Christian walk, was evident. He brought people in. He was a leader, not just on the field as far as being a captain, but he led people to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes during his five years here. The things he did for his family and what he did in raising them, he exemplified that as a student-athlete at Northwestern State.”
Williams, who is survived by his wife, Amanda, and daughter, Rosalie, lettered four years for the Demons from 2009-12 after redshirting in 2008. He was an honorable mention All-Southland Conference defensive lineman in 2010 and was an Academic All-Southland Conference selection in 2011 and 2012.
He was the 2012 Jack Clayton Award winner, earning the distinction of being the senior NSU football player who is dedicated to academics and shows coach Jack Clayton’s trademark characteristics of leadership, integrity and work ethic.
Williams’ genial demeanor changed when he crossed the white lines at Turpin Stadium or on the road.
“Wade was a different type of guy,” said associate head coach De’Von Lockett, the longest-tenured current NSU assistant. “He was a God-fearing man who could convince you to turn over a new leaf, but in the three hours of competition, he was a madman. He gave you everything he had in the three hours of playing the game. He was motivated. He knew what he wanted to do. I hurt for him and his family, especially having a family myself.”
While Laird and Lockett were on staff during Williams’ NSU playing career, current Demon defensive line coach LeDell Love lined up alongside Williams for two seasons.
“Being a former Demon and having gone what these guys have gone through, I feel like I have a deeper connection with our players,” Love said. “When they finish their career, you wish them the best. It always hits home when tragedies like this occur, but when it is someone you went to school with and went through the same things with, you truly feel like you lost a family member.
“We weren’t just two guys who were teammates. We were in the same position meeting room. I finished the year before Ricky (Isaac, who was killed in a December 2012 traffic accident while on duty as a Natchitoches Parish sheriff’s deputy) and two years before Wade. We all three lined up and played alongside each other. It’s just tough because those are guys you’ve been around. There’s a deeper love you have for those guys. It’s tough to lose them, but even tougher with the way it happened.”
That sentiment pervades the Northwestern State athletic department and its culture.
“We have a saying around here that goes ‘Once a Demon, always a Demon,’” Director of Athletics Greg Burke said. “In other words, you may physically leave Natchitoches but you are forever part of a special bond that you shared with teammates, coaches, staff and administrators. For NSU Demons, past and present, the close, family environment that is a trademark of this athletic program must and will sustain us through the sadness that has permeated our lives over the past several months.”
News of the crash began to spread Thursday evening as many members of the NSU football staff and athletic department gathered at Emmons’ funeral services, continuing to challenge the emotional stability of a staff that has lost three alumni under the age of 31 since August.
That span began with the loss of Mukes, a defensive back who lettered from 2014-16.
“I had Mukes in my position group,” said Lockett, who spoke at Mukes’ funeral service in Baton Rouge. “That was one of the toughest speeches I ever had to give. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I knew what type of person Manny was. He was a guy who also believed in the Word. A lot of times, we see guys out of context, and we don’t understand what they’re going through from a spiritual standpoint. Most people misunderstood Manny Mukes, but he was a spiritual person.”
Former NSU head coach Jay Thomas coached both Williams and Mukes, first as Williams’ position coach and then as Mukes’ head coach.
Although their Northwestern State careers never overlapped, Williams and Mukes enjoyed shared characteristics.
“Wade was an amazing guy,” Thomas said. “He was a true man’s man, and there are different facets of Wade being a man and he covered everything that’s good about it. You wish everyone in the world had a piece of Wade Williams in them, and it would be a better place.
“Manny was just a good guy, a good, hard-working teammate. He was a Baton Rouge guy, so I always felt – with me being from the Baton Rouge area – we had that 225 connection. He really enjoyed being around the guys, laughing and joking in the locker room. Then there was the serious side of Manny. He was serious about his job, what he had to do and how he trained. Manny Mukes was a really special guy.”
Thomas said he heard the news of Williams’ passing through a network of former Demon defensive linemen and former assistant coach Jake Landoll as Thomas was en route to Emmons’ funeral services.
“That’s how strong the bond is within that room,” said Thomas, speaking in a measured tone that belied the emotions near the surface.
“Everybody has their own lives and went their separate ways, but they still look out for each other. The bond we all have – whether it’s coach-player, player-player or the coaches on the team – we spend a lot of time together, probably more time with each other than with our own families. It’s the true meaning of a family. It doesn’t matter where you go and what other job you have, you’re still going to remain close to that family you were a part of.”
It is that close-knit, family bond that has allowed the Demon football staff to continue to function despite the recent losses, which also have provided not-so-subtle reminders of life’s fragility.
“What you’ve seen is a family that comes closer together during tough times, and these are tough times,” Laird said. “We want to ask, ‘Why?’ The things we can take from a Manny Mukes, a Carley McCord, a Johnnie Emmons, a Wade Williams and the lives they lived, is to have fun and enjoy every day. Don’t take one day for granted. As coaches, starting with me, we can share that with our team to enjoy the process, enjoy where they are and make good memories along the way.
“You look back, as we all do during these times, and you say, ‘I need to call this person.’ I’ve done that. I think we’ve all done that over the course of the last six months. Sometimes, we take for granted friendship. We take for granted that young man or young woman is doing OK. When it hits home like it has, whether it’s LeDell Love, Jay Thomas, De’Von Lockett or (former NSU head coach) Bradley Dale Peveto, guys who have had an influence on these lives we are talking about, it means a little more. It makes you realize sometimes you need to pick up the phone just to say, ‘Hello, how you doing?’”
Photo Credit: Gary Hardamon/NSU Photographic Services