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ALS diagnoisis hasn’t stopped Altus’ Nick Williams

Altus coach Nick Williams opens up about his coaching life since being dianogsed with ALS

Nick Williams didn’t have much to say. He was too busy taking everything in.

Oklahoma State hosted Oklahoma in a Bedlam dual at Gallagher-Iba Arena on Feb. 11, and Williams was invited to sit on the Cowboys’ bench after receiving the Gallagher Award, an annual presentation to an OSU alumnus who personifies spirit and leadership. All Williams could do was sit in awe on the floor of the hallowed wrestling venue.

“My dream was to sit on the bench one time during a college dual,” said an emotional Williams, recalling the special honor. “I didn’t know it was going to happen until I got there. It’s an unbelievable award with some awesome guys on the list.”

Williams was a letter winner while wrestling mostly at heavyweight at OSU from 1993 to 1995, so he took great joy in watching the Cowboys pummel the Sooners, 31-6.

“I didn’t say a word; I was just taking it all in,” said Williams, Altus’ wrestling coach. “(OSU 141 pounder) Dean Heil came over and hugged me after he was done. Been around a lot of those OSU guys through team camps. Just watched them grow throughout the years.”

Sadly for Williams, watching has been his only option for almost a year.

In the early months of 2017, Williams had experienced some complications with his legs. He was trying to provide instructions on the wrestling mat, and he wasn’t able to maneuver like he used to.

“I was trying to show some moves and one of my legs wasn’t working,” Williams recalled. “They diagnosed it as drop foot and my toes wouldn’t curl.”

His back surgery in 2016 had segued into his legs losing functionality. That led to six to eight months of tests that eventually led to a dreadful diagnosis for Williams.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, was the prognosis.

The news was grim. But Williams opted to fight the diseases head on.

“They say the average person lives two to five years,” he said. “So I decided I was going to bear down and beat the average.”

Williams powered through the end of the 2016-2017 school year. He still taught and coached golf in the spring, but he recently had to curtail his activities during this school year.

“I’m on sick leave right now,” Williams said. “I had been teaching and coaching throughout the first of the year. But now there are a lot of times where I just want to spend time with my family.”

This weekend Williams will watch as seven of his Altus wrestlers go for state championships at the Class 5A state tournament. And Williams credits his assistants, Jay Benway, Neno Gomez and Charles Dickerson, for the continued success for the Bulldogs this season.

“It’s been difficult, because sometimes you want to show a kid what he’s doing wrong,” Williams said. “But it makes you become a better teacher-coach. Sometimes you feel helpless, but I have some great assistants in Jay, Neno and Charles. I’ve been in a wheelchair since last June, but we’ve continued our success because of them.”

Beyond next week, Williams hasn’t mapped out what’s next.

“I haven’t decided on my coaching future just yet,” he said.

Within the coaching community in Oklahoma, Williams isn’t alone in fighting ALS. Jenks football coach Allan Trimble was diagnosed with ALS in the summer of 2016. Williams, though, hasn’t had any discussions with Trimble about how he’s tackling his ailment.

“I keep more to myself,” Williams said. “I’m someone who doesn’t want to know what the effects are. I just want to know what I can do about it.”

Wrestling has been in Williams’ blood his entire life. After wrestling in college, he had coaching stints at Mangum and Madill before settling at Altus, where he’s been since 2004. He’s been in the corner for 15 state champions, perhaps most notably Montorie Bridges who won two state titles and compiled a 175-9 record for the Bulldogs.

“He’s had a huge influence on my life and wrestling career,” Bridges said. “He’s constantly pushed me to better myself, even after I graduated.”

Bridges, a redshirt freshman at Wyoming, is currently ranked seventh in the country at 133 pounds.

“He still texts me from time to time to wish me good luck and give me advice on certain things that are giving me trouble,” Bridges said of Williams. “He’s a great coach to have, Altus is lucky to have him.”

And the community, nestled in the far southwest corner of the state, knows it. Last summer, Altus Public Schools held a ceremony in Williams’ honor to name the school’s wrestling center after him. Coaches from across the state attended the ceremony, including some who served as Williams’ assistants for a period of time.

“Working under Nick allowed me to learn many things that I still use to this day as a coach: hard work, fairness, tenacity and loyalty,” said Brandon Benson, former Altus assistant and current head coach at Duncan. “Outside of coaching, I learned by watching how to merge my professional and family life. I witnessed the very definition of a great father who always put his family first.”

The outpouring of communal support that came with the Nick Williams Wrestling Center showed Williams just how much of an impact he provided in Altus.

“It’s a pretty neat deal,” Williams said of the new facility that includes two new mats, lockers and an office. “You don’t really know you’ve affected a community like that until you get sick like that. All of a sudden something happens and you don’t realize how many troops you have until the war starts. You get diagnosed with ALS and then you get a whole town behind you.”