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'Season of a Lifetime' gives Coach Jeremy Williams' ALS battle an everyman face

The tragedy of Parkinson's disease was given a face with Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox. In the documentary film Season of a Lifetime, Jeremy Williams valiantly coaching his football team to victory, despite the ravages of the ALS disease on his body, gives the tragedy of this disease an everyman face.

Images from a Season of a Lifetime shoot and the Extreme Makeover Home Edition shoot.
Season of a Lifetime movie (used with permission)
Coach Jeremy Williams on the field with his Greenville Patriots
Season of a Lifetime (used with permission)

You would have to have been under a rock to not know about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenges which have gone viral on the Internet. Everyday people from school teachers and mail carriers, to Hollywood celebrities like Oprah, Chris Pratt, and Justin Timberlake have videoed themselves getting a bucket of ice water dumped over their head, then they nominate someone else to do the same. Just so you know, the dumpees do contribute money toward ALS—the main purpose behind this challenge is to raise awareness of this very deadly, yet often ignored, disease.

ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is an incurable disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movements. The disease progressively degrades the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, which in turns affects the motor neurons. Eventually, this leads to death because as the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is completely lost.

ALS strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70, and as many as 30,000 Americans have the disease at any given time. Yet, the disease has remained all but forgotten, until the Ice Bucket Challenges. According to the ALS Association website, between July 29 and August 24, The ALS Association has received $70.2 million in donations. This is far and beyond the amount of donations the association received during the same time last year—$2.5 million. Quite amazing, and perhaps it might offer some hope for Coach Jeremy Williams and other ALS sufferers.

Coach Williams has been battling ALS since 2008. Despite this, he led his Greenville Patriots, a small-town high school football team in Tennessee, to an 8-2 season. A team that had limited resources, funding, and low prospects, was suddenly revitalizing the town and making national headlines.

Coach Williams’ disease started to take full effect during the team's 2009 season, but his players took their coach's misfortune and perseverance, and used it to fight even harder, becoming undefeated in their region (10-0), earning them a spot in the Georgia High School Football playoffs. Although they lost in the second round of the playoffs, the season was a tremendous success, and it brought the small town together in a way it had never done before. At one time, the town was divided among racial lines, but now had unified through the excellence and perseverance of Coach Williams. He humbly inspired, mentored, and encouraged his team to heights they had never reached before. Some of his seniors even went on to college scholarships at Big 10 universities.

In 2010, the television show Extreme Makeover Home Edition chose Coach Williams and his family to not only receive a new home, but built his team a new locker room, weight room and supplied new football equipment. Through this season ender episode of the show, over 10 million people fell in love with Williams, his wife Jennifer, his bubbly daughter Josie, and his son Jacob, who suffers from Spina Bifida.

On the heels of these series of triumphs, and with his disease getting progressively worse, one would have expected Coach Williams to quietly retire and savor the rest of his time with his family. But the Coach felt God was calling him to yet another season.

Director Rick Cohen crafts his documentary around this "Season of a Lifetime", along with Williams family, and the team's handling of Coach Williams' disease. Many of the young men on the team struggle with poverty and fatherlessness, and being a part of the vision and pursuit of the playoffs gave each young man a sense of purpose and destiny. Coach Williams is more than a coach to them: he is a surrogate father, a man of God, and a role model. More than the winning of a championship, the players wanted to give a final remembrance to a man whom they revered, honored, and admired.

The 2010 team’s prospects of winning anything were slim. With many of their star players graduated, they had lost four out of five offensive and defensive linemen. They also lost all their receiving corps when three star players decided to play basketball exclusively. Coach Williams was essentially starting from scratch, and had a huge hurdle to surmount in getting his team back into the state playoffs.

While the film reflects the slow deterioration of Coach Williams' physical faculties (his limited ability to walk and speak, being unable supervise games on the field), Coach Williams mirrored a living example of overcoming adversity, reliance upon your faith, and striving for a higher calling.

If you are not a football enthusiast, the game footage can be a bit plodding, but it is well-weaved into Coach Williams' overall journey. You are fully invested in the story of Coach Williams athletic pursuit, physical battle, and love of his family and team, without being distracted by points and scores.

Season of a Lifetime show that triumphs are never the result of one person's efforts, but one person can be the catalyst and the inspiration for others to achieve great things.

Coach Williams has since retired from coaching, but his family and church community continue to pray and fight for a cure for ALS. In March, Faith Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee sponsored a Tenacious Event with musical artists Daves Highway, Michael English, and other friends of Jeremy Williams.

While the Ice Bucket Challenge has been lauded by many and well-received, the Catholic archdiocese and pro-life leaders are warning that the ALS Association funds embryonic stem cell research. In a statement, ALS Association spokesperson Carrie Munk said that the organization primarily funds adult stem cell research, but stated that all donors to the ALS Association can stipulate where their money goes and can ask that it not pay for embryonic stem cell research.

Other contributors are participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge, but directing support for other organizations that do ALS research, such as The John Paull II Medical Research Institute and Team Gleason.

Awareness and funding are of the utmost importance in finding a cure for ALS. Films such as Season of a Lifetime work to put a personal face, and a valiant fighting spirit, to this horrific disease.

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