The Empire Challenge has always been a way for New York City's best seniors to prove a point. They get their shot at Long Island, the players widely regarded as their superiors, in the Empire Challenge. For many of them - the majority who do not get the chance to finish their high school careers with a city championship - it is a final chance for glory.
Holy Cross' Kevin Williams was one of them, and he made the most of his opportunity, running for 72 yards on 11 carries that included a highlight-reel 16-yard touchdown run. Williams' contributions enabled the city team to snap a two-game losing streak in this All-Star game, prevailing 35-27, at Hofstra University last Friday evening.
In the third quarter, as the city team made their move, his number was called repeatedly. And like much of his career at Holy Cross, the 6-foot, 200-pound Queens Village product delivered between the tackles. He ran hard, churning out five- and seven-yard chunks at a time, dragging groups of tacklers forward.
“It's good to go out on top,” Williams said. “We were hungry. The whole New York team, we wanted this.”
Most of all, Williams did. He won a championship as a sophomore with Holy Cross, but his final campaign wasn't quite what he dreamed of. His quarterback, Dan Hussey, suffered a concussion in the season's third game, and never returned. He suffered his own injury, a sprained knee, in the Knights' second game.
When he returned, it was under center at quarterback, a position Williams played out of necessity, not choice, although he still managed to accumulate 1,083 total yards and 15 touchdowns.
“Kevin's the ultimate team player,” Holy Cross Coach Tom Pugh said.
He had this final chance, this last opportunity to make a statement to a few Division I-A college coaches that have expressed interest before heading to prep school at Kiski Academy this fall.
His finest moment came late in the game with NYC trailing by seven. That play was like the other runs, only this time he didn't just drag a few hulking Long Islanders for a few yards he burst free toward the left corner, tying the game at 27 with 7:57 remaining.
Regarded as a power back, many of his public school teammates had joked with Williams about exactly where his reputation came from during the typically light practices that week. “In the third quarter, he showed it,” quarterback David Legree of South Shore (Brooklyn). “Without Kevin, I don't think we could win this game.”
Williams is hoping his performance, in addition to a year at Kiski Academy getting stronger and faster, will transfer into a Division I-A scholarship. Coaches from Rutgers, Maryland, and Penn State have indicated an offer could be on the horizon. “Get some more quickness and strength,” he said, “and I'll be ready to go.”
Those prominent schools have indicated they see him as a power back, but right now he is in between. Coach Pugh isn't quite sure. He remembers Williams leading the city in receiving out of the backfield as a junior, and the soft hands that separate him from most backs.
“He's the perfect guy to come out of the backfield,” Pugh said. “He can catch the ball, he can block, and he can scoot when he has to. He has all three qualities you want in a back. I think somebody is going to jump on him after prep.”
Most impressive, though, when it comes to Williams, is his glass half-full approach. In the first half, most of which he spent on the bench, he remained active and optimistic. Never during his team's disappointing senior year did he get down, at least not visibly. And he's treating this next stage of his life the same exact way.
“I'm not disappointed because everything happens for a reason,” Williams said of his extra year of school before college. “All the hard work will pay off in the end.”