FAYETTEVILLE – University of Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams, who overcame a chaotic upbringing to become a star student-athlete and advocate for domestic abuse awareness, has been selected as this year’s recipient of the Disney Spirit Award given annually by Disney Sports to college football’s most inspirational figure.
Mark Herzlich, the 2009 Disney Spirit Award winner, will serve as the award’s presenter, along with Disney sports executive Farron Kelley, during The Home Depot College Football Awards at Walt Disney World Resort on Thursday, Dec. 9. The 20th annual awards show is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. CT and will be televised live on ESPN.
"D.J. Williams exemplifies what it means to be a student-athlete and a Razorback," University of Arkansas Chancellor Dr. G. David Gearhart said. "He demonstrates high character both on and off the field, and has turned unfortunate circumstances into opportunities to help and educate others. That is the mark of a generous spirit and remarkable young man."
Williams suffered through a childhood fractured by an alcoholic, drug-addicted and abusive father and eventually broke free along with his mother, Vicky, and sister, Vanessa, who together fled their Dallas home. Another older sister, Valerie, had already moved away by that time.
Advised by officials that a local shelter was too dangerous, Vicky opened a map and turned to D.J., only 11 at the time, to pick a city outside of Texas. His finger landed on Little Rock, Ark. His father, who D.J. hasn’t spoken to since the day his family left, later received concurrent prison sentences for separate convictions unrelated to D.J. and his family.
"I will accept this award on behalf of my mother, my sisters and the entire Razorback family," Williams said. "Watching my mother, who never quit, is the inspiration for me each day and a lesson for us all. My hope is the story of my family will show those who are experiencing a similar ordeal that they are not alone and there is help and a way out. To be recognized by Disney Sports and to join the list of recipients of this award is humbling and a blessing I’ll share with my family."
From participation in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program, to the local Boys & Girls Clubs and Children’s hospital, Williams has demonstrated he has a big heart and a passion for giving back to his community. He has used his stature as a prominent college football player to raise awareness and inspire others to abandon troubled relationships and seek help.
"D.J. Williams is an outstanding young man who has represented his family, the University of Arkansas and the entire state with tremendous integrity throughout his Razorback career," Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Jeff Long said. "He has fully embraced all aspects of being a student-athlete and has used his platform as a Razorback to help others. By openly sharing their own experiences with domestic abuse, D.J. and his family have helped provide hope and inspiration to many, including those who may be dealing with similar circumstances. We are extremely proud that D.J. Williams has been recognized as this year’s Disney Spirit Award winner."
Last year, Williams received the inaugural Razorback Spirit Award, given annually by the Arkansas athletic department to the Razorback whose performance throughout their career serves to uplift their sport to new heights and whose character exemplifies the ideals of the athletic department.
An All-SEC pick the past three seasons, Williams is a John Mackey Award finalist (given to the country’s best tight end) this season after being the first Arkansas semifinalist in 2008. He also was named first-team All-SEC by the Associated Press and the conference’s coaches earlier this week.
Williams, the NCAA’s active leader in catches (147) and yards (1,817) by a tight end, has played in 50 career games with 31 starts for the Razorbacks. His 147 receptions are second all-time in school annals and the most by a non-wide receiver. This season, he has started all 12 games, with 49 receptions for 589 yards and four touchdowns.
A senior on track to graduate in December, Williams is majoring in communications and interested in pursuing a career in broadcast journalism following his football career.
Williams becomes the 15th recipient of the award, joining past honorees Daniel Huffman (1996), Dwight Collins (1997), Matt Hartl (1998), East Carolina University (1999), Hameen Ali (2000), the United States Service Academy football teams (2001), Dewayne White (2002), Neil Parry (2003), Tim Frisby (2004), the Tulane University football team (2005), University of Louisville band member Patrick Henry Hughes (2006), Zerbin Singleton (2007), Tim Tebow (2008) and Herzlich (2009).