At the onset of 2020, longtime Georgia Military College head football coach and athletic director Bert Williams publicly announced his cancer diagnosis with mantle cell lymphoma. Five months later, Williams has successfully overcome cancer, arguably the most pertinent win of his career.
The four-year letterman at Davidson College, NC came to GMC as the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach in the spring of 1997. Today he owns a 157-57 record, the second most wins among all active NJCAA football coaches. In 2001, he led the Bulldogs to an NJCAA Football Championship title, the school's first-ever national championship. In the 2019-20 season, Williams' and his team opened the year as #19 in the NJCAA preseason rankings and ended the year at #12 with an 8-3 record overall.
Incurable in nature, mantle cell lymphoma is a cancer of white blood cells, those that aid in fighting off various bodily infections. Doctors continue in efforts to find the cause of mantle cell and believe most people with the disease share a change or mutation in their genes.
In Williams' case, there were no flashing symptoms and the news came to him after a routine annual checkup. The discovery of an elevated white blood cell count resulted in supplemental testing and re-checking that led to the beginning of treatment on January 2.
Trips to Emory Winship Cancer Center in Atlanta, GA became routine for the coach as he embarked on a six-cycle treatment journey. Labs, medication, and infusions were unsuccessful in halting Williams' workflow, he never skipped a beat and stayed on top of Zoom calls, e-mails, and even recruiting.
With his loving wife Cathy, GMC's coach shared updates with family and friends on a CaringBridge site and kept score in his fight with cancer, as any competitive football coach would. Outpouring love and support came in from all over as Williams battled new challenges alongside Cathy and their two sons, Parker and Zach.
April marked the much-anticipated induction of Cycle Five and on May 22, the Augusta, GA native was able to "ring the bell", entering full remission. Viewers and supporters from across the country celebrated with the Williams family, spreading kind words and encouragement across social media. Eldest son Parker posted a video of the bell ringing as the coach victoriously chanted the words, "Ring this bell three times well. Its toll to clearly say, my treatment's done, this course is run and I am on my way!"
The NJCAA welcomes coach Williams back and looks forward to following his success on the field this season. "Your story and bravery have inspired countless and we are thrilled to have you back coach," stated Dr. Christopher Parker, NJCAA President and CEO. "Thank you for your relentless determination and never-ending support to help student-athletes during all circumstances."
Words to coach Williams from around the NJCAA:
"I've known you for almost 20 years, you're one of the strongest men and coaches around. You care so much about the NJCAA, football, and student-athletes. Please take care of yourself and family. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family."
- Thom McDonald, NJCAA Board of regents, NJCAA Football Committee member, and ICCAC Commissioner
"Speaking on behalf of everyone in the GCAA/Region 17 we are ecstatic that everything has gone so well and as you said in the beginning of this journey, 'Let's kick cancer's butt' and you did! Continued prayers and look forward to seeing you and the GMC Bulldogs on the field this fall."
- David Elder, NJCAA Board of regents and GCAA Commissioner
"Bert Williams is a great football coach who leads by example. He is super competitive but always respects the game and all those who play it. Bert is a fighter and he approached his fight with cancer like he always does with determination and class. There is no quit in Bert Williams or the teams he coaches. Proud to know him."
- Mark Duda, Lackawanna Head Coach, Active winningest coach in NJCAA football (187-79)
"After almost 18 years together, I don't think I could work for anybody better. He's the epitome of perseverance by never letting anything stop him and by the way he continued working from home and staying involved, you would have never known what all he was going through. He put his faith in God and I love working for him and joining forces every day to make GMC football the best product on and off the field."
- Robert Manchester, GMC Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator
"Coach Williams is more than a coach to me he always made the room light up and he is also a big father figure to most of the guys. I am so thankful for him and his family he will always be a blessing to me and the other guys."
- Trevor Reid, Former GMC OL, NJCAA Football First-Team All-America Offense
"I'll always be grateful for the opportunity coach Williams gave me as a walk on and he has always pushed me outside my limits. Coach's victory over cancer was joy to my ears. He is strong, wants to see people succeed, and I am so excited that he can get back to doing what he loves which is coaching young men who wants another chance in life which is what he gave me."
- Yaya Diaby, Former GMC DL, NJCAA Football First-Team All-America Defense
This article was originally posted on NJCAA social media June 8, 2020.