Elyjah Williams: Broken foot, unbroken spirit

Elyjah Williams on sideline
Julia Cardi/MEDILL Junior forward Elyjah Williams watches the Wildkits' practice from the sideline.

By Julia Cardi

Elyjah Williams pushes himself up from his perch in a wheeled office chair on the court sideline and limps to the basketball net a few yards off, away from his teammates running drills on the opposite end of the floor. He starts shooting free throws and lay-ups. The boot on his right leg and crutches propped against the wall make it clear why he’s not practicing with his team, but still he watches them intently, often barking out commands or hurling playful insults. Other times he observes silently with a wistful expression, a lone wolf cut off from his pack’s hunt.

The Evanston Wildkits forward fractured his foot in a game of pickup during the high school’s holiday break. He will likely miss the rest of his junior season, and he’s restless. Even sitting out, he doesn’t sit still. Williams strains forward in his chair on the sideline, fervently bouncing an ever-present basketball between his legs and frequently, almost reflexively, bringing it up to spin on one finger.

“All the big men are making threes, where y’all at?” he hollers at his teammates during a drill.

In a burst of overexcitement, he lets out a few whoops, then sinks against the back of his chair and snickers. “I didn’t know you could block somebody through somebody’s body.”

“I call him the new Derrick Rose,” laughed former team manager Erica Gardner, referring to Williams’ predisposition for injuries; he also missed time during the 2014-15 season with a cracked tailbone.

Williams remembers thinking at first that the damage to his foot wasn’t serious. “I heard a crunch, but me being goofy, I tried to keep walking,” he said about the moment of injury.

Once he knew he’d broken his foot, Williams’ focus turned to apprehension about how long it would sideline him for – he expects to miss between four and eight more weeks following surgery on January 21.

Williams’ outlook is at once rose-colored and pragmatic. “It’s not the end of the world, I know I’m going to be able to walk again,” he said. “When I see my team having fun and winning…that keeps my head up. I don’t really feel isolated – I’m still here every day; I’m always with the coaches.”

Williams frequently moves on a scooter around the court perimeter to watch practice from different angles, once heading to the front to give advice to forward Tyler Battle. Head coach Mike Ellis gathers the players at the end of practice, and always their floor general, Williams stands with him and the other coaches in front of his teammates.

“How vocal he is, the leadership qualities that he brings to the table – since the injury, I don’t think any of that has changed,” explained assistant coach Rudy Meo.

Meo also knows Williams remains stoic when he struggles mentally.

“Elyjah is a tough kid, he probably won’t show it a lot, but I know that outside of everybody, he’s probably just killing himself as far as what he can do to get back on the court,” he said.

The Wildkits have not lost a game since returning from the holiday break without Williams, and the team stands at 17-2 going into their game at Niles West on January 29. But they still feel Williams’ absence.

“Fortunately, we’re deep at the guard position, so we can move guards down to the front court,” said Ellis. “But we don’t have a lot of size, so losing Elyjah is going to take its toll on our rebounding and interior play.”

The Wildkits bear the impact of Williams’ injury behind the numbers as well. The players don’t communicate with each other on the floor as much without him, and it hurts their defense. Williams said team members like guards Chris Hamil and Nojel Eastern have stepped up and talk more, but still the defense becomes a “‘wait-and-see’ type of thing.”

Even so, the Wildkits have adapted to playing without their floor general. Williams doesn’t think his teammates dwell much on his absence during games, he said. “When you’re in the heat of the battle, there’s no time for ‘what-ifs.'”

Photo at top: Junior forward Elyjah Williams watches the Wildkits’ practice from the sideline. (Julia Cardi/MEDILL)