Williams' strange journey part III

This is the final installment of the Josh Williams trilogy. The article for Fox Sports Ohio covered Josh’s journey from high school through his pro signing. The article on TheCrew.com covered Josh’s time with the Crew, culminating in his recent addition to the starting lineup. But even after all of that, there was so much good material left over. So here are the bonus cuts! These are interview excerpts I’ve plucked from our 90 minute talk on May 8, so some of this may skip around a bit. It’s not meant to be a cohesive narrative. This is the bonus scene collection on the special edition DVD….


I know you were a midfielder at Cleveland State, but what position did you play in high school?

In high school, I played wherever I was needed. I would normally start out at attacking midfield. If we were down a goal, they’d put me up top. If we were up a couple of goals, they’d move in the back. The coach would put me wherever I was needed on the field.

What about basketball?

I was a point guard in basketball, and I got to play with all of my friends, so that was special. I liked playing basketball. I was pretty good. I’m petty athletic, and I also played with a lot of good players, so that made it easy for me. I was more of a facilitator. I got the ball to them and let them score. I think that’s why I read the game of soccer pretty well. Both of those sports are pretty similar in terms of body movements and physical play.

And baseball?

I was a shortstop in baseball. I could read the game well. Playing there, you’re in charge of the infield. I was a pretty good hitter. I was skinny, but I hit for power. I must have had quick hands.


So you decide to stay at Cleveland State. What was your sophomore year like?

Sophomore year was a bigger struggle. It was probably our worst year. But I couldn’t pull the trigger and leave. I decided to stick it out the whole four years to see what I could make of it. I really enjoyed my time there. I got exactly what I wanted out of college. I got to be with my friends and got to be near my mom and dad. They came to every game. That was wild. They came to every game except one in California. They flew all over the country. My parents are super fans. I call my dad my manager. He’s always organizing stuff for me. And my mom just tags along. He drags her across the country and she’s willing to do it. I’m very appreciative of what they do.

Sophomore year was a struggle, but then you guys had some success after that, right?

Things didn’t get better at the start of my junior year. We lost some games and I got very frustrated at not winning. I’m a very competitive person, so that eats at me, especially if we play down to a team’s level. It would eat at me, especially as a captain, because I felt that I should be stepping up and leading the team, but we just weren’t clicking. We went to Chicago and lost to UIC, 5-0, and then lost to Loyola, Eric Gehrig’s team, 5-0. That was a 10-0 trip to Chicago, so the trip back wasn’t good. Everyone was on edge.

Kaz brought us all in, and brought me in individually, and told us that things needed to change around here. After that, we went 10-1-0 and made it to the conference final. We faced Gehrig in the conference final and we lost. He still rubs that in. We always go back and forth about that. We lost 1-0, but for our team, our team was kind of the joke of the league. Everyone said we were terrible, but we turned it around. It’s something I will never forget. That was quite a run to the championship game. Unfortunately, we were stopped by Gehrig. Thankfully he didn’t score.

And then senior year, having gone through all four years, was really special. Senior day, and all that stuff, it was a blast. I had some of the greatest times of my life senior year. We finally beat Gehrig and Loyola. We actually went undefeated at home my last two years, so that was great. We went to the conference final again, and we lost to Butler. Ben Sippola was on that team. So the Crew locker room wasn’t very friendly last year. Those guys talked a lot of trash.

So your coach, Ali Kazemaini, was one of my favorite Cleveland Force players when I was a little kid. I even remember making a “Go spaz over Kaz!” sign and bringing it to a game. What was he like as a coach?

Kaz is a very laid back guy. He doesn’t get too riled up, so if he does start yelling, you know something’s really wrong. He and T.J. Kolba, they both know a lot about the game, and they are building that program. They took it from 0-16-1 to three years later, we were in the championship game. Two years ago, they were the only team to beat Akron. So that just goes to show you that it’s coming. It takes time, but it’s coming.


So the next day, you’re in Columbus and you join the Crew. What was that like?

They put me up at the Hampton.  I remember thinking, ‘I have my own hotel room. This is sweet.’ Then I met the team. They were all cool. They didn’t really care. I was just some young guy. They didn’t really pay me any mind. I just did my own thing. It was a really veteran team back then. I tell guys now that the locker room now is completely different. Back then, we had so many veterans that rookies didn’t really talk much. We didn’t have much of a role. We looked up to those veteran guys. Now, with the team being so young, the locker room is more open as far as voices being heard. It’s definitely different. I didn’t really talk that first year. I just stayed out of people’s way. The rookies now have a little bit more freedom. They’re lucky, because we have a lot of outspoken guys!

I had no idea I was going to be playing in the Champions League game. I was just working hard in training, trying to adapt. I remember the pace being so fast. I knew it was going to be on another level, but I didn’t think it was going to be so fast. Guys are flying around and I’m just trying to get my feet wet. I was just trying to stay out of the way, connect passes, and play simple. I was so nervous, and I think everyone could feel it. But at the same time, I was telling myself I belonged. I kept telling myself that it was normal to be nervous. You should be nervous at that point. I’d always have conversations with myself before practice, telling myself that I should be here and that I deserve to be here. That worked out a little bit, but it was still tough, man. The pace of the game was too fast at that point. I was just trying to adapt.

A week went by and it slowed down a little bit. Then the next week, I was still struggling a little bit, and Bobby pulled me aside and said, ‘We’re going to start you in Guatemala.’ And inside, I was like, ‘WHAT?!?’

That was the mud bath game!

Yeah. That was terrible. Actually, a funny story. Before the Seattle game, in the first home game after I signed, Lapper was trying to get me fit for that (CONCACAF) game, but I didn’t realize it at the time. So Lapper had me out there and was running me like a dog. I remember telling Lapper, ‘I’m going to throw up. I CAN’T run anymore. I’m going to throw up. I need to go to the bathroom.’ And said, ‘You’re fine,’ I said, ‘No, I’m really not.’ It was the first time I was in the stadium with my Crew stuff on, and I thought I was going to throw up all over myself. I was dead. And then he says, ‘How long do you think you can go in a game?’ I said, ’60 minutes.’ He said, ‘More like 15.’ That was another moment where I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.


And then you went down to Trinidad & Tobago and got into another game.

Yeah, a few weeks later. I didn’t get much feedback from the coaches. They told me I played pretty well, but we lost, so I didn’t know how they felt about it. The day before the game in Trinidad, they told me I was going to start. Everybody made that trip. Chad, Iro, all those guys, so I didn’t think I was going to play. They told me they were going to rest those guys, so I was like, ‘All right. Let’s do this again.’

But then I remember that you could probably count on both hands how many people were in the stadium for that game.

And then there was that parking lot just outside the far sideline, and cars are pulling out and shining their headlights on the field…you had better atmosphere at Krenzler! (Cleveland State’s soccer stadium.)

Yeah, I was like, ‘what is this?’ It was some rinky-dink field. It’s like, is this what the next level is like? I was expecting some lively stadiums. And I remember warming up and thinking that there have got to be some better fields than this. One game is in a mud bath, and the other game is at some rinky-dink field. But it was on national TV, so all my friends got to watch. And my parents were freaking out. I called them after the game.

Shortly after that, I know you were with us on the trip to Seattle for the Open Cup final, which was surely different than your Champions League experiences.

Yeah, that was something. There were almost 40,000 people there that night. I remember walking out and they do that thing where they clap, and then they pause, and then they clap again. I remember getting the chills and thinking, ‘Wow, this is what I signed up for. This is exactly what I signed up for. This is awesome.’ That atmosphere was electric. We didn’t get the result we wanted, but to actually be a part of the Open Cup final, watching the guys, was a great experience. And then to get a medal, to walk across a stage and get medal, was unreal. It would have been better to win, but going from where I had been to where I was, I was just happy to be a part of it all.


So coming into this (2012) season, did you know that you were going to play a prominent role? It still seems like a lot of dominoes had to fall your way.

With Julius out, I knew that was going to be an opening. I knew he was going to be out for a couple of months. Then they signed Carlos, and I know Carlos is a good player, so they added his experience. After winning the reserve league last year, they told me and Gehrig that we could get more of a chance. You never know with injuries, so I remember training for that possibility. With me, the coaches even brought up the possibility of outside back. I pride myself on being versatile back there, whether it’s the center or left or right back, so I thought that if some things fell my way, I could see some time. A lot of things would have to fall my way, but I worked hard in preseason. This preseason, I thought I was playing well. I was really happy with how I was performing, and a lot of the guys were making comments and telling me that if I kept working hard, I was going to get my chance. In meetings, the coaches let me know that I was doing well and told me to keep working hard. Bobby told me who knows what could happen. He said I could get my chance, but he didn’t promise anything. That was good enough for me. That was fuel. I always work hard, but that sparks me and makes me want to work harder, you know? You never want to see it, but it was a matter of pieces falling and then me getting my shot.


Then come the starts. Julius has his lung collapse. Carlos still wasn’t healthy. After a really good game in Toronto, Gehrig has a couple rough performances, and now you get your chance against Houston.

I missed that Monday because I was sick. I came to practice on Tuesday, and Bobby said, ‘Where were you yesterday? It’s too bad because I had you penciled in to start.’ I remember thinking, ‘You’ve GOT to be kidding me. I get food poisoning and it’s going to cost me a chance to start.’ I had to sit out Tuesday too, as a precaution. Wednesday I showed up determined to work hard to get that spot back. I showed up and they gave me an orange pinny, so I was with the reserves. Then Ricky came over and gave me a different pinny, and I tought, ‘Oh man, now I’m not even in the scrimmage!’ But then I looked around and saw starter, starter, starter, starter, and I knew I was all right. That’s kinda how I found out. They just switched my pinny real quick. I performed well enough in training and they stuck with me.


So you mentioned the Crew as your childhood team. Did you follow them from Akron?

The Crew came up (to the Cleveland area) and played the U-23s. Brian McBride was there, and I remember meeting all those guys. Brian McBride was my hero back then. He was awesome. And I remember seeing Lapper. I was up in the stands bugging all those guys for an autograph. My dad took us, and me and my brother even started shagging balls behind the goal. It was awesome. They were the only pro team in Ohio, so I idolized those guys. I definitely wanted to be one of them one day.

Do you remember going to your very first Crew game?

Yeah, it was actually the very first game in 1996 at Ohio State. My dad took me. The atmosphere was great. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and now I’m able to do that.

You mentioned McBride. Who were some of your other favorite players?

Brian McBride was always my favorite player. I liked Frankie because I loved his intensity. I liked watching Frankie play because he never stopped running. You could tell that he would do anything for a win. I liked Brian Maisonneuve a lot. He was so smooth. I always liked Brad Friedel a lot, even though I’m not a goalie. He’s a Cleveland guy, so I felt that connection and he was one of my favorites. But my absolute favorite was Brian McBride. I was so bummed when he left for England.

So it had to be surreal that Frankie was one of your favorite players and then you got to be his teammate for a couple months in 2010.

One of my favorite stories that I always tell my friends is when I came down for that scrimmage against Marshall. I was there super early. I wanted to be one of the first people there. I think me and my dad got there three hours early. We’re sitting in the parking lot, like ‘What do we do now?’

I remember finally going in and setting my stuff down, and Frankie was in the corner riding on a bike, reading the newspaper. Do you remember when that Browns player got busted for trying to bring a loaded gun onto the plane? It was Shaun Rogers. So that just happened. And so Frankie is reading the paper, and it was exactly like I always imagined him talking and being. He says, ‘Hey, what’s up, bro? How about that guy taking the gun to the airport? Dude, that’s just stupid.’ And in my mind, all I could think was, ‘Frankie, you are exactly how I wanted you to be.’ He was so California. ‘What’s up, bro?’ It was exactly how I pictured meeting him. It was fun. Frankie’s a cool guy. I really like him.

What was the scene like for MLS Cup in 2008?

I knew Sinisa (Ubiparapovic, a former Cleveland Internationals player), and he was playing for New York, so it was cool to watch him. I was still rooting for the Crew, but it was cool to see him get that chance because he worked really hard to get there. But yeah, I was rooting for the Crew all the way. I remember Frankie’s goal. When Guille scooped that ball and Frankie headed it over the goalie, it was like, ‘Wow! We really did it! My team just won it all!’ It’s exciting to see the team you’ve rooted for your whole life win a championship. I watched it with my dad, and we thought it was awesome to see those guys celebrate after winning it all.

Teams winning championships isn’t something we get a lot of back home. I know you have your little LeBron thing, but you’re still Browns, Indians, and Cavaliers, right?

Always! I will always support them. Guys always ask me if the Heat played the Cavs in the playoffs, who would I root for? I would go with the Cavs. I like watching LeBron play, but he doesn’t have the best reputation. I don’t think he’s a saint by any means, and I have heard a lot of negative things about him, but watching the guy play basketball is awesome.  I appreciate what he does, but I’m Cleveland through and through. I’m always about the Cavs, Indians, and Browns. But like you know, it’s tough. The Browns, they just tease us. It comes down to the fourth quarter and it looks like they are going to win, and then they let it go.

At least you weren’t alive for The Drive or the Fumble. And you were only one-year old for The Shot.  So you missed some of this stuff. You have the Jose Mesa meltdown though.

Yeah, the Fumble and the Drive, I heard about those from my dad. The things I remember are the Indians in 1995 and 1997. In game seven, I remember Jose Mesa coming in and I was thinking, ‘Game over. This guy is automatic.’ He was really good for us. I remember he even set a record for consecutive saves at one point. He was automatic. I remember little things going wrong and my dad going, ‘It’s going to happen…’ You could just feel that it was all going to go wrong. And then later on, when Edgar Renteria hit that ball up the middle to win the game, I just cried. We’re in the basement, the whole family is down there, and I just cried. I was nine. As a kid, that means so much to you. I couldn’t believe we lost.

Yeah, I was 12 when the Drive happened. I remember Brian Brennan scoring that touchdown with five minutes left, and then the Broncos fumbled the kickoff at their two, and I was jumping so high my hands were hitting the ceiling. I remember jumping into my dad’s arms and screaming that we were going to the Super Bowl, and him being much more cautious than I was. And then the Drive happened. I cried too. I don’t know how long it took me to get over that. Actually, I don’t think I am.

I don’t think anyone has gotten over that. Everybody still talks about it. I wasn’t alive, but I don’t think the city is over that, or ever will be. That’s always the story with Cleveland teams. So close, but so far away. I still root for the teams now, but it’s tough. It seems like the Indians are a farm system for richer teams. They develop guys into great players and then they can’t afford them anymore, so they have to ship them away or let them leave. The Browns, hopefully they can build on something, but they’re just…I don’t know what it is. They have a new quarterback every year.

And the Cavs, I remember when The Decision was happening. We had a big party at our apartment. It was all of the soccer guys, soccer girls, and all of our friends. We were all ready to party because we thought he was staying. I mean, there was no way he could go on national TV and do this to Cleveland. It was an awesome party and everyone was having a good time, and he was getting ready to announce his decision, and everyone was all smiles because we were really getting ready to party, and then he made his announcement and the whole room went flat. I didn’t really know how to react. I was in disbelief. I didn’t think he would actually do that. We drove around the city and people were burning things. It was insane.

To this day, I don’t think I really understand what happened. I think I still picture LeBron in a Cavs uniform when he plays. [laughs] Maybe one day I will finally realize what actually happened and change my thoughts about him. But for now, I still see LeBron in a Cavs uniform. I can’t believe that happened to Cleveland. I can’t believe he did that to Cleveland. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play in Miami? That’s a pretty cool city to be in, especially if you have all that money to do whatever you want, but how can you do that to Cleveland? I remember thinking, ‘I am never going to see a championship for Cleveland. It’s just never going to happen.’ I finally realized it then. Well, unless LeBron quits basketball and plays for the Browns.

We just need to win another championship with the Crew.

But see, this is where you’re different from LeBron. You’re true to your hometown. You’re not at Indians games with a Yankees hat, or hanging out on the Cowboys’ sideline against the Browns. All the clues were there with LeBron, but you are Northeast Ohio, through and through.

Yeah, just to get it out there so everybody knows, if it came down to the Cavs and Heat, and I with the Cavs all the way.  I root for Cleveland. If LeBron gets a ring, I’m sick of people talking about it, so I’d rather he just win it and get it over with. Let’s just move on and talk about something else. Then we can just appreciate how good he is. And then hopefully he comes back to Cleveland and we win championships the second time.

And I get that you have an Akron pride thing going when it comes to LeBron.

Yeah, I love Cleveland, but I’m from Akron. It was unbelievable watching him grow up and play, and I take a lot of pride in him being from Akron. It’s awesome to think that who I feel is the greatest pure athlete to every live, in terms of being 6’9” and 270, came out of Akron, where I’m from. Other than that, it’s tough watching him play in a Miami Heat uniform. I have a feeling that this is going to be their year. He’s playing really well, but he did this last year too.  [Reminder—our conversation took place on May 8.]

I think as long as he’s the overwhelming favorite or the underdog, he’s good to go. But if it can go either way and he’s expected to make the difference in a tight matchup, he checks out.

I think that’s true. I hope the Lakers pull it together and play the Heat. It would be amazing to see those two go at it. And if LeBron folds again, then I may have to give up on him. I’ll be all about (Cavs rookie) Kyrie Irving.

It’s good to know that even though you have that LeBron thing, you’re still legit when it comes to Northeast Ohio.

I’m very proud of where I’m from. There are so many good people. I represent Cleveland and Akron all the time. It’s a hardworking town and I think it’s awesome to be from there. I want to make Northeast Ohio proud.


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