FOUR YEAR'S ago, Xavier Williams needed direction. He was 22 and had already worked as a department-store security guard, a lifeguard at the YMCA and city pools, and for a company that assembled swing sets. He'd thought about entering an apprenticeship program to become a carpenter, or electrician. Then on a whim he decided to give Holy Family University a try, even though he didn't have good enough grades to play college basketball when he'd graduated from Saul High in 2008.
"I'll never forget this," recalled Williams, who'd gone to Community College of Philadelphia for a semester before flunking out but had continued to take some courses there in the interim. "I'm laying on the couch, I don't know what I'm going to do. And Holy Family popped into my head. (Martin Luther King's) Maurice Hargrove, who I knew from CCP, was playing there. So I got in my car and drove up 95 (from his home in South Philly). I didn't know where it was. I used GPS. I'd never been that far up (in the Northeast). I just knew it was near Franklin Mills (outlet mall)."
He walked into the admissions office and found out that fall classes had begun that day. He was ready to leave when he ran into Adam Dickman, one of the assistant basketball coaches.
"I was like, 'I'm Xavier, I want to enroll,' " Williams said. "I'm just standing there. I had nothing. No transcripts. I just wanted to play basketball. There were two ladies there. They were nice to me, said hi. But if I'd never met him, I don't know what would have happened. I really don't. He told me to come back the next day."
A couple of days later he was playing some pickup at the Campus Center Gymnasium with then-assistant Donnie Carr, the former Roman and La Salle star he'd known from the Sonny Hill League. "He always called me light skin," Williams smiled. That was when he first met head coach R.C. Kehoe, who was entering his second season.
"He looks at me and goes, 'So you want to play for Holy Family,' " Williams said. "I told him I played in high school. And he said, '(Saul's) the worst program in the city.' I said I played at CCP. He said, 'You failed out of the easiest school in America.' I said, 'Listen, I'm 22 years old and have nowhere else to go.' That's really what it was like.
"I promised him I'd do everything in my power to make it work. He gave me that look, you know. I would have been skeptical if I was him."
Long story short, Williams kept his word. It wasn't easy. He had to sit out his first season. His mother, Susanne, had to pay his tuition. For two years he had to commute via public transportation, which meant taking two buses and the El, a trip that could take up to two hours each way.
"It was crazy," he said. "If I'd been 18, it probably would have bothered me. But by that time I'd already been through a whole lot. I didn't want to be just another person who didn't make it."
Four years later, the 6-3 senior swingman is averaging 5.4 points in 14 minutes a game off the bench for the 24-5 Tigers, who will play University of the Sciences (17-11) - a team they've beaten by three and six points this season - in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference semifinals on Friday at Dominican College (Orangeburg, N.Y.).
The winner gets either Philadelphia University (22-7) or Bloomfield (15-12) in Saturday's title game.
More to the point, Williams will graduate in May with a degree in history. He plans on going to grad school. He wants to be a teacher. And a coach.
"It was like one of those things where he had me at hello," said Kehoe. "I wasn't sure how to take him at first. I hadn't even seen him dribble. But his passion and vision were glowing.
"He wanted to better his life, better his situation. I'm grateful that he came to us. No one's molded him. He molded himself into the man he is."
It never seemed to matter that he's at least four years older than most of his teammates. Williams, who didn't have a father figure growing up, wouldn't allow that part of it get in the way.
Actually, at times it's almost like he embraced it.
"When it came to school, I was lazy," said Williams, who was in mentally gifted classes as an eighth-grader. "I didn't have the motivation. I'm blue-collar. I'm a scrappy dude. For a long time, I didn't get it. I see a lot of kids from the neighborhood who are the same way. I got to the point where I wanted something more. I had a lot of help, a lot of support from a lot of people.
"When I'm back home, they think I go to college to play basketball. I said, no, I go to study. You see so much potential there. I was just like them. That's why I always try to give something back. You hear kids talk about quitting. I tell them they don't understand. You might not be able to go anywhere else. When you're that age you take it for granted. I did, too. Everyone thinks they're going to the NBA. You've got a better chance of getting struck by lightning.
"I talk to God a lot about what's your purpose going to be. Before I got here, I would have said it was a pipe dream. But I'm living it. It's just that I didn't get here until I should have been getting out."
His girlfriend, Sarah Pawlak, played for the women's team. She graduated last year and is going to attend pharmacy school, either in her native Buffalo, Pittsburgh or here. So those are the places where Williams is looking to get a grad-assistant's position.
It's called a plan. It just took him a while.
His father, Joe, played at Southern in the mid-1970s. He became estranged from the family when Xavier was young, and passed away last year. So his mother and brother, Valentin, who is nine years older and has a business, became his mentors. He also has a brother, Josh, who's two years younger and is a nursing assistant at Penn. Xavier is the first in his family to go to college.
"I'm lucky," said Williams, who lost a good friend to a car accident soon after they got out of Saul. "My mom and brother raised me to the best of their abilities. Since the time I was like four (my dad) was in and out of the house. My brother kept me straight. All my mom ever wants back is for us to be successful. She went into her 401(k) (to pay for school). I can't mess up. Too many people put too much effort into me. I owe it to them to do this . . . The sneakers that you see me play in, my brothers brought them for me. If I need like $100 this week, it's like that.
"Someone I'm real close to is making like 94 grand a year. He graduated with me. That's where you've got to look at yourself and say, 'I've got to do better.' You know, people talk to me about what I'm doing here. I guess I'm just kind of naive, because I live it. I don't see it as a big deal. Then somebody will say, 'Hey, you're really doing it.'
"Every time I play a game, there's about six people from my neighborhood there. They never thought. I never thought."
The reality is, he's become a role model.
"I don't know if I've ever been around someone who's had a more dramatic transformation," said Kehoe. "He went against the grain. He's changed everything. If you take his age out of it and you wrote a script of what college is supposed to be, he'd fit it from A to Z. He's become a dean's list student, a better basketball player, earned a scholarship, met the girl he's probably going to marry. That's college. It's just that he started later than everyone else."
Not too shabby, for someone who wondered what his future might be.
"I just did dumb stuff, when I didn't know any better," Williams said, shaking his head at the memory. "You know, Saul doesn't even have a program anymore. But every year there's a reunion, and everyone's invited. I went two years ago and I think I was the only one from my class there.
"I saw my old coach, Paul Winters. He said, 'I thought you went to high school 10 years ago.' "
They had a lot of catching up to do.