Torres Strait Islander conquers the US grid-iron circuit

Jesse and Sonia Williams

“Always listen to your Mum” was the take home message when larger-than-life Jesse Williams arrived home from the US last month.

Arriving back in Australia from his latest tour of duty on the US grid-iron circuit, the 22-year-old was spotted sporting a black t-shirt emblazoned with these sage words of advice.

Jesse, who is of Torres Strait Islander heritage, is about to become the first Indigenous Australian to play in the highest-paid team sport in the United States – NFL.

For his mum, Sonia Williams, it shows just how far you can go with the right attitude, determination and the support of your family.

Speaking to MegaphoneOz after meeting her son at the Brisbane Airport on January 22, Sonia said family was of huge importance to Torres Strait Islanders.

“Jesse knows he carries that Torres Strait heritage with him, and that his success helps other Indigenous people – all indigenous people, not just Torres Strait Islanders,” she said.

“Family is the most important thing. It is who you are – it’s who brought you up.

“All three of my boys have the word ‘Family’ tattooed on their arms.”

Sonia’s “boys” include her youngest Ethan, his older brother Jesse and their father, Arthur Williams.

Great-grandson of Ali and Carmen Drummond of Thursday Island, Jesse grew up in Brisbane and was born at the Mater Hospital.

“He was a 10-pound (4.5kg) baby,” Sonia said.

“Being a big baby I tended to treat him like he was a bit older. He was very smart, talked early, and started walking at eight months.”

Today, Jesse weighs in at 145kg and stands 193cm (6’4”) tall.

Nicknamed ThaMonstar, one of his many tattoos reads, “I stopped looking for the monster under the bed when I realised the monster is me”.

The ink on Jesse’s body also tells the story of his life and shows the honour and respect he holds for his family and his Torres Strait heritage.

“He’s got so many tattoos that I can’t keep up with them!” his mum said.

With his tattoos and mohawk, Jesse cuts an imposing figure, either on the street or out on the gridiron field.

“It’s Jesse’s job to make gaps for running backs to come through,” Sonia explained.

She said gridiron players wore a lot of padding, which could make them appear a lot bigger than they really were.

“Underneath, a lot of them are like whippets, small but quite muscular – but not big like mine. Mine is quite meaty!”

Sonia was not surprised when Jesse bench-pressed 272.5kg (600lb) last year, causing a stir amongst the players.

“He’s gone to the gym already and he only just got home this morning,” she said.

Growing up, he was always ready to get out and train and play sport, she said.

“Both Arthur and I played basketball, but we supported Jesse in whatever sport he chose to play,” Sonia said.

“He started in soccer, then played AFL, rugby league, then saw a cousin playing rep basketball and he played that until he was 14, when he took up gridiron.”

Brisbane club Bayside Ravens was his first team and he was named Rookie of the Year in his first year.

He made the Queensland team that year, too. The same team went on to win the Australian national championships.

“Jesse grew up in Brisbane, and never got into trouble,” Sonia said. “He was always a very good kid – no smoking, no running with the wrong crowd. I would tell him ‘you don’t play sport if your homework is not up-to-date’.”

After he was recruited to Arizona Western Junior College, Jesse’s talent, combined with a massive work ethic, saw him excel. He was one of the highest-ranked recruits coming out of Arizona, with more than 25 of the top universities trying to recruit him.

Jesse chose the University of Alabama and set about proving his worth, both on the field and in the classroom.

“Our whole family – grandparents, aunties, uncles, friends, girlfriends – went to Alabama to watch him play his first game in August 2011,” Sonia said. “There were 100,000 people in the stadium and 60,000 watching outside, with 42-inch screens in their tents.”

On January 8 this year, Jesse made sporting history, helping his Alabama college team win back-to-back national championships.

The final had the second largest audience in the history of cable television, with 26,380,000 viewers.

“The American crowds are super-enthusiastic … it’s absolutely crazy mad,” Sonia said. “With Jesse being Australian, and someone different, they just love him. He is always signing autographs, talking to kids … if you are going to the next stage you have to be able to deal with fans.”

Back home with friends and family in Brisbane, with high college grades, an impeccable reputation and a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science under his belt, Jesse has paved the path to a bright future.

“You don’t maintain those college scores without giving 100 per cent and doing your very best.We are very proud of what he has achieved,” Sonia said.

So – does Jesse always listen to his mum?

“Well, he’s a big boy now,” Sonia admits. “It’s hard when they’re grown up to step back and let them make their own way.”


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