HOME GROWN

She sat isolated in the dim, musty catacombs. Aching, pain-rived on a stiff, plastic chair in a makeshift locker room -- their normal changing space was undergoing renovations -- soaked in sweat from the practice gear she had still been wearing for the last hour. Unable to walk away, an uncertain future dwelled within her thoughts.

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It was a simple rebound. Except she landed slightly forward with the added weight of a teammate on her back. Her left foot contacted the polished maple floor of the Lloyd Noble Center court and took the brunt of more than one ton of force through dorsiflexion, rupturing her Achilles tendon.

“It felt like someone stepped on the back of my shoe. I just thought, ‘What in the world?’ At first, I thought I was OK. I got up and I went right back down.”

At first, I thought I was OK. I got up and I went right back down.

It was the second day of practice. Kaylon Williams’ sophomore season was finished.

“I think it was a blessing in disguise. It taught me a lot of things about myself. It actually grew my game, too. It allowed me to slow down and see things I never saw before. If I had to go back and had a choice of tearing it or not, I’d take tearing it again because I think I came out a better person from it.”

Sooner Born

Kaylon Williams is as identifiable as Oklahoma’s Port Silt Loam. She stands 75 inches and claims a larger, gregarious personality. Williams wears a wide smile and booms a laugh that would make Will Rogers jealous. She lays allegiance to both the west and east sides of the Sooner State having grown up in Tulsa and moving to the Oklahoma City metro area during her middle school years.

“In Tulsa, I saw more OSU fans when I was little than when I moved to Oklahoma City. In Midwest City, I saw more OU. In my family, on my dad’s side, they went to OSU and so they’re Cowboys fans. On my mom’s side, we have half OU fans and half Arkansas fans. It’s kind of a split household.”

In the Williams’ household, once a decision is made, things stick.  When Kaylon’s grandfather had trouble pronouncing her name, it became ‘Kay Kay.’  And it still is to this day.  Despite push from many sides, Kaylon made up her mind early to become a Sooner.

“I’ve always been for OU no matter where I was. I would be the only one fighting, at Thanksgiving, for the Sooners. It would be funny. We all kind of grew up around sports and it’s our common ground. When we come back from breaks and stuff, when we get together the stories all revolve around memories from past games.”

I’ve always been for OU no matter where I was. I would be the only one fighting, at Thanksgiving, for the Sooners.

The Williams’ clan invested their lives in sports, but a renegade trio, led by older sister, LaQuinta, broke free of the family’s gridiron tradition and took up hoops.

“Growing up, I sat on multiple bleachers, screaming for football teams. My sister, my cousin Reggie and I, we were the only ones who played basketball. The rest of the boys played football.

“Probably my sister’s first nationals trip -- that is probably when I first wanted to start playing. Because I didn’t know you could go that far and that they had a tournament that was that big. We went to Kansas City, Missouri. I thought that was pretty cool. It was a lot of fun and then you got to play basketball all day. So I thought I could do that.”

Kaylon finally had the chance to play basketball as a fifth grader in Tulsa. It wasn’t natural from the start. 

“I used to kick my leg up when I shot my free throws. It looked so much fun! But I didn’t realize the technique part of it that would be hard to pick up. I just thought you were supposed to aim at the rim. I aimed at the rim, but I just didn’t make anything.”

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Kaylon’s father, DeWayne began teaching her dribbling drills and the basic fundamentals. Between sixth and seventh grade, DeWayne changed football coaching jobs and the family moved to Edmond.  When Kaylon decided against attending Edmond schools, she found a natural fit at Midwest City.

“I had a choice to go to Edmond Santa Fe or find somewhere else. I didn’t want to go to Edmond because my sister played up there and she said you want to create your own identity when you play basketball.

“A lot of the girls I played AAU with went to Midwest City. Actually, when I was getting ready to go there, dad was there coaching football.  I didn’t get to play my freshman year because my hardship didn’t go through, but I had a lot of fun. I got to learn and watch. Coach Griffin taught me a lot.”

Just like she studied her sister, Kaylon studied the older girls in high school. Midwest City was full of mentors: Mariah White became a three-year starter at Kansas State, Richa Jackson went to Duke and Rebecca Bryan, Autumn Huffman and Tarrington Oakes all made it to college rosters.

Kaylon averaged 11.4 points, 8.0 rebounds as a sophomore. The next season, she helped the Bombers win the 2010 6A state title as a junior. Her senior year she earned all-state honors as Midwest City played in the championship game once again.

“Those were probably the best memories. State was the best. At ORU, they had these really, really bright lights.  In the tunnel, backstage, they had these neutral lights. As you walk out the tunnel, as soon as you hit the court, it hits you so bright, you really have to squint.  The lights hit, I swear it was like someone hit me in the head with a hammer, it was so bright.”

A Great Start

That was like running straight into a brick wall. It hit me like crazy. It was a new year. I was doing great, got through the preseason and practices were starting and then…bam!”

Williams improved day-by-day during her freshman year at Oklahoma. She earned a starting role for 16 of the team’s final 18 games and had her breakthrough performance early.

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In her third start, Williams totaled 11 points and 16 rebounds, almost single-handedly willing the Sooners to victory in sluggishly-played road game at Missouri. She followed that start with an 8-point, 10-rebound performance in an overtime win at Kansas.  In a rematch with Missouri in the Big 12 Championship quarterfinal, Williams dropped 12 points and grabbed 10 boards.  In the Sooners’ NCAA First Round battle with Michigan, she was one of the heroes, nearly contributing a double-double with 10 points and eight rebounds.

Based on the first acts of the raw-skilled player, the best was yet to come.

Just One of the Girls

My freshman year of high school, I wasn’t even thinking about college basketball. I thought high school basketball was the coolest thing. Especially, when you’re a freshman, there’s varsity and JV, so if you make varsity, it’s like, ‘Oh man, you made varsity.’  I wasn’t thinking I made varsity because I was good, I was just excited to play with the older girls.”

Behind the scenes, Kaylon’s mother, Dawn, had her master plan in effect. Her baby was going to college, and, with any luck, on a basketball scholarship.  She had prepared Kaylon about the NCAA clearinghouse and the academic requirements, quizzed her for exams.

“My mom was the one making me think about my ACT score and college.  That’s when I started noticing the college coaches sitting around at tournaments. One tournament, I remember we were at a showcase at Texas A&M. It was the first time I had seen TK (OU assistant coach Chad Thrailkill). He had his Oklahoma shirt on. I kept annoying my coach, asking what gym we were playing in and if he was going to be in the gym we played.”

I told my mom, 'We're going to college. We're going to OU!' She was crying and stuff like that. That was the best summer of my life.

One week after the showcase, Kaylon learned Oklahoma’s coaches had indeed taken an interest.  Kaylon signed up for OU’s summer camp, her first basketball camp, and made an up-close-and-personal impression on the Sooners’ staff.

“Coach Coale asked me if I was interested in going to OU. I said, ‘Heck yeah!’  That’s when I made up my mind. I told my mom, ‘We’re going to college. We’re going to OU!’ She was crying and stuff like that. That was the best summer of my life.”

Back in Midwest City, Kaylon’s commitment made her a popular figure. It helped, too, that she didn’t go a day without wearing some Crimson and Cream in her wardrobe.

“OU has a great fan base, so I started getting congratulations from people I didn’t even now.  When I got back to school, classmates were like, ‘You get to play for Sherri Coale! You get to play for Oklahoma!’ It was just an exciting thing.

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“I wore some type of OU gear every day after I signed.  I had a plush giraffe I kept in my backpack, Karl with a ‘K’.  My best friend got him for me for my birthday. I had an OU hoodie from another stuffed animal my mom got me and put the hoodie on this giraffe and kept him in my backpack.

“Getting to do my signing day and have my friends come, it made me want to do my best with this opportunity.”

On the Rebound

Opportunity felt like it was slipping away. The Sooners were scheduled to shoot scenes from their intro video following that workout. Kaylon couldn’t even walk the 20 yards to the court where it was being filmed.  But, by the time athletic trainer Carolynn Loon secured a pair of crutches, Kaylon’s spirit conquered the melancholy vibe.

“The first thing I said when Coach Coale walked in was, ‘I didn’t shave my legs.’  When Carolynn told me I would have to have surgery, I knew I would probably have a cast and thought the doctor might think I was gross. She’s laughing, asking me what I’m thinking.

“I was so confused. I was so excited about all this stuff I could use. I was working on these moves and some great stuff and ready to put it in action. I just told myself everything happens for a reason. This is God telling me I need to sit down, stop and look at some things. She told me this was my time to learn and grow as a person. Whitney Hand came in and told me it wasn’t the worst thing. It was time to work on the relationships with my teammates. I really took all that stuff to heart and was writing down stuff. They were really encouraging.  It was nice not being alone in rehab. I could encourage them when they had bad days and they could encourage me right back.”

This is God telling me I need to sit down, stop and look at some things... It was time to work on the relationships with my teammates.

Unfortunately, Kaylon was not alone in rehab. Lyndsey Cloman’s career ended due to a lingering back injury, then freshman Maddie Manning and senior Whitney Hand tore their ACLs.

That season, while the Sooners practiced, Williams rehabilitated her lower leg, strengthening the surgically-repaired tendon and rebuilding her calf muscle. She became intimate with facilities home and away. Every step, Kaylon has touched it. She walked up and down, and up and down, and many more times.

“That’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve faced in my life. I had to lose weight for that, just to rehabilitate. I feel really blessed because I have great teammates and I wasn’t alone in it. It was really easy to go left with an injury like that. You hear a lot of things because a lot of people don’t recover from an Achilles injuries. That was stuck in my mind the entire time. I kept telling myself, ‘You can’t think like that. We’re going to come back from this. We’re going to come back from this.’”

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Williams is back in the Sooner lineup, averaging 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds entering Saturday’s Bedlam battle. She’ll stalk the paint with post compatriot Nicole Griffin, helping provide the anchor for Oklahoma’s attack against the in-state rival Cowgirls.

“My mom and I just kept praying on it. Teammates kept asking how they could help me. The support system was great. I’m really grateful. To this day, I don’t have a number to put on how many ‘thank yous’ I can say of the help that I got from it.”

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