To Julie Williams, who grew up in the tiny downstate village of Fisher, near Champaign, a Friday home football game under the lights was never just another high school event.
It was bigger than that.
Even bigger than the annual Mayberry Days Parade in Mount Airy (pop. 10,388), North Carolina.
Fisher’s population, circa 1988: 1,526, give or take a few salt-of-the-earth denizens in the farming community.
Williams couldn’t wait to watch her beloved Fisher High School Bunnies hop, skip and tackle in their orange-and-black uniforms. And she certainly wasn’t the only rabid local football fan.
“Everybody in the community was interested in high school football,” recalls Williams, who, as an honors student, served FHS as its student council president and yearbook editor and kept score in dugouts for the varsity baseball team. “Those football games brought the community closer together.”
Decades later, after moving to Highland Park in 2015, Williams began hearing some local pigskin news that disturbed her. The youth tackle football program had been sacked. The number of players on middle school and Highland Park High School Giants football squads kept melting. And fees for the football programs that had survived kept heading north—in part due to ensuring safety, in part due to providing the proper oversight.
“I was concerned in 2019, late summer; other football parents in the community were concerned,” says Williams, 51, the mother of Maggie, a junior ‘A’ team rugby player at Hofstra University, and Joe, a junior football player and wrestler at Highland Park High School. “Families of young players couldn’t afford the hundreds of dollars in fees. I grew up in a low-income family, and my parents would not have been able to afford fees like these. I started to worry that Highland Park High School wouldn’t be able to field a football team in the near future.
“So I approached football parents and football coaches and said, ‘Let’s get together and figure out a way to address this situation.’ ”
The way? The Giants Football Fund (GFF), a nonprofit co-chaired by Williams and Pablo Alvarez, a counselor at HPHS and a trustee for Moraine Township. It launched this spring, with the mission “to help underprivileged youth and high school football players pay for costs (youth program fees, equipment, and high school summer fees) associated with playing football so that they can experience teamwork, dedication, and leadership.”
Before the birth of GFF, Williams notes a Highland Park boy requested that his bar mitzvah gift be money earmarked to help a family that couldn’t afford a youth football fee for a student-athlete in middle school.
Qualified recipients of money raised by GFF are youngsters living in Highland Park, Highwood, and Fort Sheridan, and each must plan to attend HPHS.
“The response from the community has been wonderful,” Williams says, adding the aim of GFF is to distribute funds to budding gridders no later than the beginning of this summer. “We want middle school students to use their time wisely through football. Football can impact kids’ lives in many positive ways. I’ve seen how much football has meant to my son and his development as a young adult; members of our volunteer board have seen their children benefit from football, too.
“Our Giants Football Fund’s main hope is to eliminate money as barrier to playing football.”
The daughter of the late Norm and Linda, who still resides in Fisher, Williams collected paychecks in high school while working at a Burger King and a Taco Bell. The diligent employee got promoted to shift leader at the latter, before earning a degree in business administration at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. Williams served as a Taco Bell manager in Bloomington for two years during her time at the private liberal arts college.
She’d cram hard for a test one night and jam taco contents into hard shells the next, whenever her team members needed a hand.
Williams is a sales executive at Lincolnshire-based Alight Solutions, a business outsourcing company, for which she has worked for 27 years. Her husband is The Rev. Court Williams, another Fisher High School graduate and the rector at St. Giles Episcopal Church in Northbrook since March 1; he’d previously guided Trinity Episcopal Church in Highland Park as rector. Fr. Williams also serves as a Giants Football Fund board member—joining Amy Bloom (secretary), Eric Ephraim (treasurer), Barbara Finfer, and Elliot Richardson—and has been a high-ranking executive with Community—The AntiDrug (CTAD), a coalition of parents, local government leaders, school officials, clergy, and healthcare providers, with the mission to reduce the use of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs among youth in Highland Park, Highwood, and other communities.
“My husband is a talented preacher, with a gift for writing and a knack for delivering relevant sermons that address what happens in everyday life,” Williams says. “And he’s such an amazing, amazing dad. Pre-pandemic, I traveled a lot, for a good 10 years, and he was always there for our children. We both have wonderful relationships with Maggie and Joe. Seeing our kids evolve into people who make a difference as leaders has been one of my many joys as a parent.” Julie Williams cherishes her time on a Peloton stationary bike. But that device takes a back seat on football game days and game nights these days and nights. The pandemic shifted the high school football season from Fall 2020 (nine games) to Spring 2021 (six games, maybe). Joe Williams, a center and defensive lineman, and the rest of Highland Park High School’s Giants under third-year head coach and HPHS graduate David Lindquist won two of their first three games.
“Coach Lindquist always has great aspirations for everyone in the program,” Williams says. “But he’s not just interested in developing good football players who will go on and succeed as college football players. He wants, more than anything else, his football players to be able to look back at their football experiences at Highland Park High School and remember them fondly. “Isn’t that,” she adds, “what every high school football player wants to be able to do?”
For more information about the Giants Football Fund visit giantsfootballfund.org, email [email protected], or mail Giants Football Fund, c/o First Bank Highland Park, 1835 First Street, Highland Park, IL, 60035.