Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide. To receive daily news from the Iowa Hawkeyes, sign up HERE.
By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — It was during the 1997 NCAA Championships when T.J. Williams knew he wanted to be a Hawkeye.
Williams was in Cedar Falls, Iowa, watching the University of Iowa wrestling team finish a record-breaking season, where the Hawkeyes racked up an NCAA-record 170 points to claim the program’s 17th national title in Dan Gable’s final season as head coach.
Iowa crowned five champions and eight wrestlers earned All-America distinction, but it was how the titles were won that stuck with Williams.
“I was sitting on the steps at the UNI-Dome and I couldn’t believe how intense (the University of Iowa wrestlers) were,” said Williams. “They were excited, fired up, and wrestled with such emotion.
“When those guys were in wrestle-backs — some people go through the motions in those instances — they were wrestling like they were in the finals. Throughout the tournament I saw how the guys were in shape, they knew what they were doing, and wrestled with confidence. I thought, ‘This is the place I need to be.'”
Williams will be inducted into the National Iowa Varsity Club Athletics Hall of Fame on Sept. 2.
After winning four Illinois state titles at Mount Carmel High School, Williams’ collegiate career began at Lassen Community College in California. He went 35-7 during his freshman season in 1997 and finished as NJCAA runner-up at 157 pounds. He redshirted in 1998.
“Going to junior college was good for me because I took that step, saw the process, and saw how tough it was,” said Williams. “I doubted myself a lot my first year. I was intimidated until I believed and realized I belonged.
“That redshirt year was my progression. I knew if I wanted to go to the next level and be a three-time NCAA champion, I had to work. When I transferred to Iowa, it was like walking into the lion’s den. It was no different than being at junior college, you have to go in and prove yourself daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly… that’s what I did.”
Williams went 40-0 as a sophomore in 1999, winning the Big Ten title at 157 pounds and claiming his first national title. He followed it up by winning his first 27 matches as a junior before suffering the only loss of his collegiate career — in overtime — to Boise State’s Larry Quisel in the NCAA semifinals.
“There are times I think about that loss, it keeps me humble,” said Williams. “If you’re not working your hardest, somebody is out there scouting you. I was working hard that year, but I wasn’t working up to my full potential and it led to me taking third place.”
The loss forced Williams to look in the mirror. It brought him back to his freshman season at Lassen College.
“When I signed with Iowa it wasn’t my goal to be the most dominant wrestler in school history. My goal was to be a three-time NCAA and Big Ten champion and dominate everyone I laid my hands on and hopefully that would contribute to the team winning multiple titles. The highlight of my career is training with all my teammates and the coaches pushing you beyond your limits. I knew I was going to win before I stepped out on the mat because of what I did in the wrestling room.” — T.J. Williams
“When I took second in JUCO, I remember going into a back room, crying, and putting my head on a table, and I told one of my teammates I was never going to lose again. When I took that loss, I thought about what I said two years prior; I had to reinvent myself.”
Williams posted a second undefeated season in 2001. He finished 29-0 to claim his second NCAA title. He finished his career with a 98-1 record for a .990 winning percentage — the best in Iowa’s storied history — and he helped the Hawkeyes to two NCAA team titles.
“When I signed with Iowa it wasn’t my goal to be the most dominant wrestler in school history,” said Williams. “My goal was to be a three-time NCAA and Big Ten champion and dominate everyone I laid my hands on and hopefully that would contribute to the team winning multiple titles.
“The highlight of my career is training with all my teammates and the coaches pushing you beyond your limits. I knew I was going to win before I stepped out on the mat because of what I did in the wrestling room.”
Iowa’s impact on Williams has been everlasting. It’s an attitude that stuck with him and one he is passing on to younger generations through his T.J. Trained Wrestling Program.
“Wrestling at Iowa made me believe I could do anything, but whatever you do, it is going to involve work and you’re going to have to put your heart into it,” said Williams. “That’s what I take from the program; you think you’re breaking and you can go beyond that point.
“I try to take pieces from all the places I wrestled and apply it to my kids club. I know all these guys may not go to Iowa, be a Division I athlete, an NCAA champion, or All-American, but I want to give them the skill-set, tools, and mentality that you can do whatever you want to do.”
Williams was speechless when he learned of his Hall of Fame achievement. He calls the feeling surreal and it makes him that much more determined to pay it forward.
“Being in the Hall of Fame means I did something worth remembering,” he said. “To me it doesn’t mean a whole lot until I can mentor kids under me. It’s nothing until you give back what you’ve earned.
“When I look in the mirror I say I was blessed to be around good people who pushed me to be the best I could be.”
Williams lives in Washington, Illinois, with his wife, Chelsea, and two young sons — Aiden (6-years-old in August) and Miles (2).