WILLIAMSBURG — Your college years are often considered some of the best years of your life.
Mark Williamson can attest to that.
Whether he was going from a walk-on to a scholarship athlete or from a life-saver to a team captain, the former William Monroe standout’s time with the William & Mary football team has been filled with many memorable moments.
“It was a pretty crazy journey,” Williamson said. “William & Mary was one of my only opportunities to play at the Division I level. I came here as a walk-on and moved around my position a little bit, came inside from tackle to guard, and worked my tail off and was able to earn a starting position, which then transformed into a scholarship. It’s been an honor and a blessing to be voted captain to just a great group of guys.”
Williamson’s road to Williamsburg started nearly a decade ago when he began his high school football career at William Monroe. A four-year starter on the offensive and defensive lines for the Greene Dragons, Williamson was a three time all-district selection and garnered all-state recognition as a senior.
William Monroe coach Jon Rocha could see Williamson’s potential early on.
“We knew Mark was going to be special for us as a freshman,” Rocha said. “He was a massive kid then and ended up playing varsity his freshman year. Each year, he made major improvements and became a two-way starter for Monroe.”
Rocha said Williamson had offers from several Division III schools during the recruiting process, but opted to walk on at William & Mary.
“His sister was at William & Mary and he was very loyal to them over the recruiting process,” Rocha said. “It was definitely his first choice.”
The Tribe have produced an impressive list of recruited walk-on players in their extensive history, including 2004 Walter Payton Award winning quarterback Lang Campbell and current Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott, as well as former Western Albemarle standout Daniel Kuzjak and former Monticello product Michael Graham.
“It’s a really cool feeling,” Williamson said. “We kind of joked about it as freshmen coming in, because the walk-on program is so good, I didn’t know who was a walk-on and who was on scholarship. I just came in and I found the guy that worked the hardest and I tried to meet his intensity every single day, so that was my way of thinking about how to gain a scholarship and succeed here at the school.”
Williamson played as a redshirt freshman during a victory against Norfolk State and was on the Tribe’s travel squad for two other games that season.
It was during that season where he changed the life of a teenager as a bone marrow donor.
In 2014, the William & Mary program started a philanthropic organization called “Be The Match” and the football team ended up helping out with the cause. In 2015, Williamson was one of nearly 130 students to have their cheeks swabbed and placed in the global registry of potential donors.
Approximately one in 430 people in the registry are ever called.
Williamson was one of them.
“When I was home in Greene that summer, I got a phone call that I was a potential match,” he said. “After a couple of blood work samples, they were able to tell me that I was a really strong match for an 18-year-old boy fighting leukemia. Luckily, I was raised with two big-hearted parents and I was able to say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it’, right over the phone.”
For most bone marrow donors, the procedure was no that intrusive, but Williamson’s procedure was more complicated.
“My experience was very special,” he said. “Most people just have to go in with a needle and get a blood transfusion and that’s enough. For this kid, he was in need of a full bilateral surgery, so I went after our third game that season to VCU and had the bilateral surgery. The rest of the season, I was kind of rehabbing from that, and then I got the text message over Thanksgiving that he was able to go home and spend Christmas and Thanksgiving with his family, which kind of put life in perspective for me.”
According to “Be The Match” guidelines, Williamson was unable to contact the recipient for a year, but he exchanged texts with the patient’s mother to check in on his status.
“Her message back to me kind of filled me with joy and really made the whole process worth it,” he said. “I have been talking with him and we’re trying to organize a time for him to come and do a coin toss and maybe bring a little bit more awareness to ‘Be The Match’ and hopefully it all works out.”
Rocha couldn’t be prouder.
“There are so many great stories about Mark while he was here, but I am most proud of him donating the bone marrow to a complete stranger while at William & Mary,” he said. “It set him back a year in football, but he said he would do it again. His character is unsurpassed by anyone.”
Williamson’s accomplishments on the field also have been rewarding. The past two seasons, he’s appeared in 18 games for W&M, including 14 starts at left tackle and one at right tackle. As a junior, he was a third team all-CAA selection.
After spending most of his career at tackle, Williamson is expected to start at left guard this season. He spent spring ball working at the position and believes it will be a seamless transition.
“From the outside looking in, I went from blocking people to blocking people, and they don’t understand how that could be all that serious,” he said. “With guard, you have pulling, defenders are usually heavier, and you have different speed rushing moves and run blocking moves. It’s actually a completely different animal. I went from being able to kick back and being able to evaluate the situation and then attack the opponent to, he’s on me right away.
“I think [offensive line] Coach [Gordon] Sammis has done an amazing job of teaching me and finding out what motivates me and what really gets me to go on the right path, and communicating with me what I could do better and what I’m doing well. It’s actually going a lot smoother than I thought it was going to, at the start it was a little bit bumpy, but I’m pretty happy with the transition now.”
“I think he’s got an unbelievable work ethic,” Sammis said. “He came in ready to prove himself. We moved him from tackle to guard, so now he can do both. I think he’s got quick feet and great vision. He’s got enough strength to hold everybody off and I think with his weight loss, he’s gotten even quicker, so I think he can get on guys before they even know what him them.”
Williamson credits working with William Monroe offensive line coach Kris Wimmer and Rocha for giving him a solid base, both on and off the field, to build on during his high school career.
“Playing at Monroe was a special situation for me,” Williamson said. “Coach Wimmer, he’s one of my good buddies to this day. I was in his wedding and he’s probably going to be in mine, and it was just an awesome experience. Coach Rocha giving me the opportunity day in and day out to be the best I could be. It’s a special place there in Greene. It will always have a special place in my heart.”
Another highlight in Williamson’s college career came after W&M’s spring game, when he was named team captain by his peers. It was an honor that left him in tears.
“I just called my parents and shed some tears because it’s been such a long journey,” he said. “I thought I was going to play [Division III] football. My opportunities were thin. There were a lot of ups and downs and every college parent knows your college kid calls home either missing you, they had a hardship and just want your advice on it. That has been my experience with my parents this entire time, so all those hardships, all those tough times, all those times where I said I don’t know if I’m going to start this year, or I’m going to go back to UVa and not play in front of my town. Just the feeling that these guys trust me that much and they respect what I say, it was enough to have a little family tear session because it was bittersweet.”
Among the things Williamson is looking forward to this season is the opportunity to return to Scott Stadium and face Virginia in the second game of the season.
“It’s going to be one of the best experiences of my life,” Williamson said. “I was on the hill when half of these coaches played. Between Ras-I Dowling and Matt Johns in them, when they walked into the building, I was almost nervous. The idea that I’m walking on the field to shake hands with the ref that day, that I had a jersey for and I had a foam finger for, it’s a feeling that cannot be comparable to anything else on earth.”
Williamson and new W&M head coach Mike London developed a strong bond early on. Both are bone marrow donors and Williamson hopes to follow in his coach’s footsteps in law enforcement.
“Mark is obviously a captain, but one of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that he was a bone marrow donor and actually saved someone’s life,” London said. “He and I have that kind of relationship where we both understand what that means. When you take that, being a captain and a leader, it makes him special. He wants to be a police officer, and of course that’s near and dear to me too, so I wrote a recommendation letter for him too.”
London is happy to have Williamson serve as the team’s offensive captain.
“It’s a lot of things that he has going on for him now too, that I’m very proud of,” London said. “His leadership ability, he’s really been out in front for us, and we need him and the Bill Murray’s of the world and Nate Atkins’, they’ve been really purposeful intentionally through their leadership and he’s done a great job with that.”
Rocha couldn’t agree more.
“Mark as a captain is not a surprise to anyone that knows him,” he said. “He is perfect for the job. You wish you could clone him and have a team of Mark’s. The only advice I ever gave Mark was to give it his all, always, and he would be a big part of the Tribe football program. Sure enough, he called me a couple of years later and told me he was given a scholarship. Now this year is a team captain.
“Obviously, he gave it his all.”