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Centralia native Javon Williams Jr. declares for 2023 NFL Draft
January 27, 2023
Centralia, Illinois, is a 12,000-person town roughly an hour north of Carbondale. Among its claims to fame are its high school basketball team, which is the winningest program in America. But soon, it could be the hometown of an NFL player.
On Jan. 11, Javon Williams Jr. announced that he would be forgoing his final year of eligibility and declaring for the NFL Draft after a five-year Saluki career. The Centralia-native served several roles for Saluki football, including running back, quarterback, receiver, and kick returner.
“It’s starting to grow on me more and more, just knowing that I’ll never be playing on that field as a Saluki, or ever again,” Williams said. “Knowing that the next time I go watch a football game, I’ll be in the stands… It’s the next step to growing up as well. Being more of an adult than just, ‘oh, I’m a college student still.’”
Typically, NCAA rules grant players five years to play four seasons worth of games. When the COVID-19 pandemic canceled several sports and derailed others, an extra year of eligibility was given to all affected athletes.
Despite this opportunity, Williams’s decision to not take advantage of it came partly from his academic progress. He is set to graduate in May, and will be the first in his family to do so.
“The end goal has always been making it to the NFL, but main focus was always getting a degree,” Williams said. “I was making sure I went to college until I got my degree, and when I get it, I’m ready for the next step, the next chapter, which is the NFL, the highest you can play.”
Williams finishes his Saluki career sixth all-time in rushing yards and third in rushing touchdowns. He tallied 50 total touchdowns: 43 on the ground, five thrown and two caught. He was named an All-American twice by Stats FCS, and received All-MVFC honors four times.
During Williams’s career, the SIU football program reached highs not seen since its mid-2000’s golden age. The Salukis reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, and notched marquee wins against nine-time National Champions North Dakota State and a Power Five team in Northwestern.
“That’s one thing me and Coach [Nick] Hill talked about. It was at the end of the year meeting. He said, ‘you’ll be able to say when you leave college that you were part of the team and a part of producing to make the team a winning team and a playoff team,’” Williams said.
While he played a vital role in bringing Saluki football back to national prominence, Williams credits his teammates for helping raise the bar in Carbondale.
“I stay humble with it, because I know it wasn’t just me out there on the field,” he said. “Avante Cox, Nic Baker, Branson Combs, Zach Burrola on the defensive side, P.J. Jules. We had weapons on each unit and each side of the ball.”
Originally recruited to Carbondale as a quarterback, Williams made the transition to running back during his first year. As a freshman, he spent much of practice on the scout team, which allowed him to prove his ability against some of SIU’s best defenders.
“Because of my running ability throughout high school, they could tell, ‘this kid has some sense of how to run good, how to run hard,’” Williams said. “Just going out there and just executing when I was running the ball. It was like ‘this would probably be the best transition for you.’ I couldn’t agree any more. I told coach ‘yeah, I want to play some running back,’ and it was up from there.”
Some of those defenders included Jeremy Chinn and Madre Harper, who are two of the 42 Salukis to have played in the NFL, and among the five still active in the league. Chinn was the most recent Saluki drafted into the NFL, being picked at the end of the second round by the Carolina Panthers in 2020.
Even though Williams was officially listed as a running back, he got several reps at other positions. A few times per week, Williams would line up as the quarterback in the Wildcat formation, while other plays featured him as a receiving threat.
“I’m blessed and thankful that my career was drawn out and blueprinted out that way, where I would get my opportunity to play some receiver, some tight end, blocking, play quarterback, kick return, punt return,” he said. “Just being able to be a part of every position. Like they say, this army Swiss knife, like you can do everything. That’s good because you play in different positions, and it’s beneficial to the team at all positions of the game.”
Later in his career, he split playing time in the backfield thanks to SIU’s abundance of talent at the position.
“Justin Strong, Romier Elliott, “Pop” Robert Jones whenever he started getting back healthy. It was just so many weapons in each position group,” Williams said. “It was hard to keep Javon in, but I’m glad that we utilized other weapons, because all my teammates and brothers, they got to grow just as much as I did.”
Although Williams was responsible for 50 touchdowns across his time as a Saluki, one of his favorite memories came during a teammate’s big moment. On October 19, 2019, the Salukis defeated Youngstown State in a 35-10 blowout. Williams showed off his versatility by getting three touchdowns that afternoon: one rushing, one receiving, and one passing.
The latter was a 41-yard pass to fullback Jacob Garrett, who had entered the game with only three career receptions. It was Garrett’s first of what would be 10 career touchdowns over the next four years.
“Just to throw that to him and be a part of that experience, that moment of him getting his first career touchdown in college. It was just so surreal, so amazing to be a part of,” Williams said.
For five years, Williams represented Southern Illinois on the field. As a local product, his connection to southern Illinois spans farther than just donning the Maroon and White.
“If any kid at a young age got the opportunity, or even told they get the opportunity to play somewhere close, and continue to put where they grew up on the map even more, and bring more popularity, it’s just a blessing,” Williams said.
There are only a few athletes from Centralia who have reached the level that Williams has. Regardless of how his NFL career may go, his accomplishments as a college football player already put him in elite company.
Dwight “Dike” Eddleman graduated from Centralia High School in 1942, and went on to participate in basketball, football and track for the University of Illinois. The university’s hall of fame page describes Eddleman as being “generally considered the greatest athlete in UI history.”
Edelman was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 1947 NFL Draft, as well as the Cleveland Browns in the 1948 AAFC Draft. However, he would never play in either league, as he chose to play basketball professionally in the NBA.
Other notable athletes from Centralia are Saluki Hall of Famers Harvey Welch and Bill Norwood. Welch made history as SIU’s first Black athlete to earn a varsity letter in basketball, while Norwood did so as the school’s first Black quarterback.
Both would go on to have distinguished careers in the U.S. Air Force. Norwood would break barriers in the aviation field, as the first Black pilot for United Airlines and first to achieve the rank of captain. Meanwhile, Welch returned to SIU as the Dean of Student Life and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs.
The announcement video released by Saluki athletics, titled “Leaving a Legacy,” highlighted Williams’s connection to the region. For a student-athlete representing a small town and a small school, and carrying his father’s name on the back of his jersey, Williams has not only left a legacy at Southern Illinois, but has carried on that of his roots.
“Hard work comes in with it, but being from Centralia and coming here to Southern, an hour away, it felt right,” he said. “It felt great, knowing that I have family at home. I know they’re gonna be at my games. When players play and they get their families to be able to watch, it brings a little flair to the game. It brings a little bit more passion, because you want to represent your last name. You want to represent your family well.”
Head coach Nick Hill, who had a hand in Williams’s recruitment, is a native of Du Quoin. He spent his college career representing the region in a similar fashion to how Williams has done so.
“It’s just a special feeling to be a Saluki, and to grow up in this area, and then to come here,” Hill said. “For him to kinda have that pressure on him since he stepped foot on campus, and then have the career he had. I think no doubt will go into our hall of fame.”
In preparation for the draft, Williams has been working with Meade Smith, the head strength coach for Saluki football since 2016. In addition to his experience in college sports, Smith worked with professional athletes during his time with the then-Anaheim Angels of Major League Baseball in 2003.
“He’s known my body for the last five years, how to sculpt it and mold it,” Williams said. “It’s good to just be there with somebody that knows you, because it’s all safe, it’s cautious. It’s all taken care of.
Williams is also linked with agent Brett Tessler, who represents notable NFL players like Minnesota Vikings kicker Greg Joseph and Miami Dolphins running back Raheem Mostert. Tessler also represents former Saluki linebacker Bryce Notree.
Only 1.6% of college football players make it to the professional level. Among them, a large portion come from a Power Five conference like the SEC or Big Ten. Simply put, it is a rarity for someone from a school like Southern Illinois University to have an opportunity to play in the NFL.
Whether Williams gets drafted or not, the fact that he is in the position he is now speaks volumes to his ability as a player. With his Saluki career now officially in the books, he will be remembered as one of the best of his generation, and among those who helped put the Salukis back on the national stage.
“I feel like I’ve done everything I could do to my best ability,” he said. “I gave my all. I put my heart out there every game. And my body, I’ve been hit several times, ankles wrapped up several times. Just being able to get back on that next rep, next play. I’m coming again. I’m playing hard every play. I feel like I had a great career.”
Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen.
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