By Chaz Caiado. Edited by Micah Simoneaux.
It is a fact that everyone from New Orleans has a story. Often these stories take on the aura of the city itself: regarded by many, beset by tragedy, but always resilient. There's a Katrina story, or a "where were you when the Saints won the Super Bowl" story, and then the ever present story of where you grew up and went to high school. They all carry a certain prestige, or a certain rite-of-passage in the New Orleans community. A bond shared by the people of the "city that care forgot."
The following story is no less remarkable than any other you will hear in this great town. This is the story of Karjuan Williams. To the uninitiated of track and field, the name most likely won't ring a bell. But for us fans, we get a vision of a former high school prodigy, the darling children of our sport. Karjuan's journey from the nomadic and trialed youth to a magnificent high school runner, finalized by a professional athletic career cut short is one story that must not be kept secret.
On a Sunday evening in New Orleans in late January of 2014, Pat Gavin (owner of Louisiana Running Company and head administrator for the Louisiana Milesplit affiliate) and I shuffled through papers and computer files preparing our plans for the website for the following week. A new concept we were experimenting with would be podcasts which was something neither of us had experience with but seemed full of potential. A weekly guest would be our planned spotlight; some sort of interview or discussion on relevant topics in our running community would be the theme. Pat had talked to several runners and coaches and one, Karjuan Williams, had decided he could be our guinea pig for our first session. Instead of having a simple interview on the sporting world of track and field, what followed was an intimate revelation on the life and times of a native New Orleanian.
We get a knock at the front door of the store at around 6:20 PM and there came in an exuberant and cheerful Williams. Karjuan stood a few inches taller than me with an athletic build, despite confessing he had gained a bit of weight since his "retirement" from running. Regardless, it was somewhat amusing to see someone who had run 1:45.79 for 800 meters look like a "normal" guy. He wore an Adidas Running windbreaker and t-shirt, seemingly still loyal to his sponsor after almost two years of being away from the track. Pat and I cleared some room at the grey plastic folding table that had become our work desk for the night and sat with Karjuan to fully explain the idea behind our interview. We decided that the best place to start was from the beginning- the days of his youth.
As soon as the conversation started, it was easy to tell that Karjuan was at home behind a story. He had an air of confidence about himself, though remained humble. Surprisingly we soon found that Williams had nothing he would shelter us from about his life. He was an open book, and after only a short amount of time we realized we weren't doing an interview anymore. We were at a story telling and the orator knew every line from memory.
The hour or so spent listening to Karjuan jumped from point to point, but let us begin this story from days before Williams ran track- in his formative years. Karjuan grew up in New Orleans in a single parent household with five other siblings. His mother worked a steady job in Harahan in Jefferson Parish, but despite that fact his family often moved, nearly once every year or two. He describes himself as being from "the whole city," living everywhere from uptown, to the Westbank, to the lower 9th ward. Being busy and often away from home, his mother had told him to watch after his younger sister Jamie and assumed the role of her protector. Unfortunately, Karjuan would often discover that it was actually himself that would be the center of troubling situations.
"This is something a lot people don't know about me. As a kid, I had a lot of issues." Karjuan was always the new kid wherever he moved which he believed made him a target for bullying and fighting. His lack of discipline, or at the very least his inability to avoid controversy, left him suspended or expelled from several schools before he even began high school. It kept him behind in school and left him disillusioned with his future and where he was going in life. Knowing he was going down the wrong path, he still often had a tough time making good decisions.
His situation started to change when Karjuan began running track for coach Jackie Callender of the New Orleans Comets (now with the United Southern Express Track Club) the summer before his freshman year of high school. Jackie was a straight-laced man who worked with the Army Corps of Engineers and coached in his spare time, helping young athletes like Karjuan find better places for themselves. Another influential coach he found with his summer track team was James Gray, a city councilman for New Orleans and graduate of Harvard Law School. These two men motivated Karjuan to make better life choices and focus on what he can be great at- track and field. This was before the days of being a superstar. Karjuan had run no amazing times yet and would not until the following year.
Before his first foray into real running, the most Karjuan had ever done was attempt to run away from his brother in street races. His brother Joel ran track as well and would use Karjuan as a rabbit for workouts. Karjuan would line up far in front of his brother who would attempt to chase him down. Interestingly enough, this sibling rivalry that would last several years. Joel, Karjuan's brother, would run 1:46 for Jackson State University, leaving Karjuan the fastest 800 meter runner in his family by only one second. Having that natural spark for running, his coaches worked to keep Karjuan focused. His summer track coaches eventually counseled Karjuan in his decision to attend St. Augustine for high school in hopes of placing him around a good set of peers and mentors. Even then Williams would be hard to shake off his old self. But there, a close friendship with a teammate would turn this story in the right direction for the young man.
Kendall Raines was a tough, versatile track athlete for St. Augustine High School who ran on the summer circuit as well. I personally remember him and his teammates as we often competed against each other as we were all from the same high school district. From the many times I talked to him, I could remember he was always excited and happy to be running. He was tall and muscular with a powerful stride and could be a fearsome competitor, much to the disdain of his competition. He placed well in many local races including finishing 3rd place in the 800 at the prestigious Sugar Bowl Track Classic in 2004. But before that, he was Karjuans adversary. Not by his own accord, but rather Karjuan's, who held a strong dislike for Raines even through the beginning of their time together at St. Aug. Raines would actually speak positively about Williams to others, hoping to motivate his teammate, though Williams would respond back with unprovoked vitriol. Perhaps Williams held a bit of jealousy for Raines who was well-liked and had a cheerful demeanor, while Williams chose to focus on the "chip on his shoulder" from his issues growing up.
Karjuan and Kendall struggled to keep their team focused and connected from the outset of their time together. Kendall, being one of the older athletes, held the role of the team captain, and Karjuan attempted to undermine his leadership from the beginning of cross country in the fall of his freshman year. It is said that time heals all wounds and inevitably, being around each other day in and day out, Karjuan began to relinquish his misguided hatred for Kendall. Karjuan noted that Kendall had a similar upbringing, often moving and going through his own trials, but Kendall kept smiling. Where Williams would find anger, Kendall would push through with his chin up. It used to anger Karjuan that someone could be happy when their life had so many downfalls, but soon he was seeing things Kendall's way. At this point Karjuan began reshaping his philosophy on life, aided by the former enemy turned friend, and began wanting more for himself. They developed a bond that would last a lifetime.
It would be the coming summer where Karjuan would start to see his future in track and field. In the spring and summer of his freshman year (2003) he would go on to run 2:00 to 2:01 several times. This is an amazing mark for a young high school runner; however, Karjuan was a year older than much of his same-grade peers. Nevertheless, the summer track circuit is based on age, not grade, and he was matched against great athletes who ranged from freshman to juniors in high school in the 15-16 year old division of USA Track and Field Summer Track. That year the Junior Olympics were being held in Miami, Florida. This would prove to be Williams' first big test as a runner.
After the qualifying rounds for Miami composed of the district and regional meets held near home, Karjuan and his coaches had narrowed down his best event as being the 800 and 1500 meter events despite running great times in the 400 meter race. In Miami he would be entered to compete in those two events with the goal of making the finals. But this wasn't a local championship anymore; this was a major national competition and the stakes were higher with less room for error. Karjuan was paired in a heat with many runners who had run in the mid-1:50s for the 800m, and Karjuan began to feel the pressure to perform well to qualify for the finals. When other athletes asked him what he had run, he would lie and say he had run 1:56 in practice but had not run as fast in actual competition, masking his insecurity about his ability to perform. He watched as the first two heats of the qualifying round of the 800 meter event finished with winning times in the 1:56-57 range, well above his lifetime best.
Let me stop and say something. There is a moment in every great athletes' life where he would be put to a challenge far above his head. The reaction to this challenge, not necessarily the outcome, proves a person's place in the halls of greatness. I can think of Prefontaine taking the pace in the 5000 meter finals in the 1972 Olympics, as well as Christian Smith going from last man allowed into the 800 meter trials all the way to a 3rd place finish in the finals and a berth on the Olympics team in 2008, and even the marathon Olympic Trials the same year seeing Brian Sell qualifying for Beijing despite having a very mediocre college running career before going pro. The spirit of self-belief is prevalent in these types of people and their success becomes self-evident. Sometimes these events take a long time to manifest, and sometimes they manifest meteorically.
This time it was meteoric. Williams toed the line that day with all the probability of being an also-ran when the final results were posted. Instead, he found himself crossing the line in a 1:55 with the fastest qualifying mark going into the finals. He had dropped five seconds off his personal best time in one race. And thus the meteor shower began. His coach believed he should jog the 1500 meters to save energy for the final of the 800m, so Karjuan "jogged" a 4:16 and almost made the finals in the event he was trying to shrug off.
One great thing about Karjuan is his ability to remember names and times. He spoke of his roommate for the evening, a young man named Terry, who told Karjuan he should believe in himself for the finals and he can definitely win if he focused. This was uncharted territory for Karjuan, who went from being a good freshman runner to one of the favorites to win the national title. A bit awestruck, he was late to warm-up on race day. Despite this, he was spot on pace, coming through the first 400 meters in 53 seconds with enough left to run the second 400 meters in 59 seconds, cleaving another three seconds off his personal best to run a 1:52.83 and take home the victory. He recited his time with a smile on his face, almost amazed that he still remembered the mark he ran over a decade ago.
From there, things began to shape up for Karjuan. The following year he ran 1:50 for the 800 meters as a sophomore and became one of the big names in high school track and field, mentioned with the likes of Michael Granville and Alan Webb. There wasn't any competition for him in the state, and he was already the top in the nation. The summer of his junior year in late June, Karjuan won the national Junior 800 meter championship, besting the rest of the country in the 19 and under age group. A chance meeting at the finish line of that race would prove to be eventful just a few months later. Nicholas Sparks, the author of novels that became movies such The Notebook, A Walk To Remember, and Safe Haven, offered Karjuan a congratulations. He gave the young runner high praise on his talent and left an impression on Williams. Sparks was not only a former college 800 meter runner, but also was coaching his own son to very impressive high school track times. Karjuan had left Carson, California as a champion again, but also knew that his name was now firmly cemented in eye of the track and field community. That was just a couple months before things would change and leave Karjuan looking to the author once more.
Life has a way of throwing a curveball. While preparing for cross country his senior year of high school, the state of Louisiana changed in late August of 2005. Hurricane Katrina was headed towards New Orleans. The Williams family packed their belongings into Karjuan's brother's Chevy pickup and drove to Lake Charles where their aunt lived. Although they planned and packed for just a few days visit, after watching news reports and hearing of widespread devastation, it was clear that Lake Charles would be their home for the near future. Karjuan took his newfound resiliency he acquired from his friendship with Kendall to take life's lemons and turn them into lemonade. He connected with Trey Harts (former Baylor sprinter) who at the time was attending Barbe High School and moved into the same school district with the plans to compete for Barbe his senior year.
Sometimes life piles on problems. Sometimes one great tragedy isn't enough, and we have to find a way to push through and suffer multiple issues to truly test our mettle. This happened again just a few weeks later as Louisiana suffered yet another major hurricane disaster, this one named Rita. Though lesser known than Katrina, Rita was equally as potent and damaged the lives of many on the western side of the state which was the newfound home for the Williams family. They would have to move on, again.
Luckily, just a few days before Rita hit, Karjuan began to receive calls from North Carolina. Nicholas Sparks had offered to help the Williams family in their time of need. Sparks, knowing that Joel Williams was running at Jackson State, contacted the coach there who in turn contacted Jackie Callender about Karjuan. Lastly, Callender had gotten in touch with Karjuan's mom and connected them with Sparks. His efforts proved fruitful.
Karjuan was reluctant at first, but with the problems now compounded by Rita, he found himself in New Bern, North Carolina with his third team in as many months. After travelling to New Bern in the same Chevy pickup that took them to Lake Charles, the Williams were made as comfortable as possible in the small town that was now their home.
This would also be a major step towards Karjuan's eventual move to become a professional runner. With Sparks as his coach, Karjuan was no longer training like a long sprinter, but more a distance runner with much more volume of training. It took some serious adjustments in his mentality and approach to his fitness that he had never considered before. There were new challenges in both track and life and he was unsure how he would respond to them. It was not long before he began to do poorly in school and grow homesick, not being able to contact his friends and even being unsure where some of his own siblings were at the time. One was incarcerated and another was simply missing and had not yet found a way to contact his family. The seriousness of the storm's effects were growing on his mind. He persevered through the school year knowing he would shortly be in college.
Then in track that year, even with injuries from his now more voluminous training load, he ran 1:50.74 indoors and 1:49.97 outdoors, finishing both seasons with the top times of the high school year. Track was Karjuan's outlet to release the stress of school and being homesick. He became a leader on the team despite his brevity at the school, helping New Bern become a strong squad that spring. He capped his senior year off with a win at the Nike Outdoor Nationals track championship in the 800 meter event, yet another national championship. Sparks had helped Williams not only become a national champion again, but also to learn and trust the more difficult training. It would aid him later down the line when his professional training would challenge him like never before. Karjuan also cited coach Callender's saying -"If a kid believes in his coach, he can walk on water."
The next chapter in the life of Karjuan Williams would take place at North Carolina Central University. Growing up, Karjuan was enamored by the talent of Otukile Lekote of the University of South Carolina who ran 1:44 for the Gamecocks, but was disappointed with USC's ability to produce quality guys after Lekote. When he visited Texas Tech and Arkansas, two powerhouses in college track and field, he did not find what he was looking for either. Finally he decided that NCCU in his new home state was the best fit. Williams had a successful freshman campaign and improved to 46.24 and 1:48.81 for the 400 and 800 meter events respectively, but yet felt something was missing with his ability to progress in the 800 meter race. He felt his training at NCCU was 400 meter centric. In what he described as "a bad decision and good decision," Karjuan decided to forgo the rest of his college eligibility and turn professional by signing with Adidas.
Finding a coach as a professional athlete was challenging for Williams and he even forewent his first coach, a man he felt issued too much distance training. He worked with his agent to help find a new coach and eventually set up a meeting with a man named Andrew Allden. Once they met, Williams realized Allden was the former coach for USC (and now current coach again) when Lekote was running, but had left long ago. The precipitous decline of the 800 meter program at USC was because this coach had left; but now he was here and was willing to coach the runner who had idolized his former athlete. It seemed to be a great match. "That full circle took me right back to the guy I wanted to train with in the first place," said Karjuan.
Even with some nagging injury issues, it did not take long to improve under Allden as he ran 1:45.79 in his second year in Allden's program. Things were going great. Karjuan mentions that he still, as a professional, kept in touch with Kendall and was offered a lot of advice. Kendall was now close to finish nursing school and "had his life in order." More or less, when Karjuan had to make a tough decision, it was Kendall who he would call to discuss which action he should pursue.
Karjuan was now feeling the pressure to make the next step in his fitness. His competition was running 1:43-1:44 for the 800 and he needed to keep up. He decided he needed another change of scenery and it was time to pack up and go to one of track and fields mecca's of the world, Los Angeles. His training moved from the more middle distance-oriented workload he had thrived on in the past couple years to a training similar to the style that propelled Johnny Gray to a 1:42 a couple decades earlier. At the time it seemed necessary, but in retrospect he said it was a "horrible decision."
There was another event around this time that made life tough once again for Karjuan. In December of 2010 Kendall Raines was shot in a random act of gun violence in New Orleans, just days after his semester exams at nursing school. Kendall was shot in the neck and suffered a fatal injury which left him dead within minutes of the shooting. The loss for Karjuan was devastating. Sitting in front of Pat and I, even though the event happened over three years ago, Karjuan couldn't contain his sorrow. Kendall was as close as a brother to him and it was lost over a senseless crime. To make the situation even more darkening for Karjuan, he says that "the life I was living, before I met Kendall, it was almost similar to the people that killed him." It was "the life he was saved from." He needed to keep his head up now any carry the torch for Kendall.
The summer before Kendall's death, 2010, would be the last time Karjuan would set a personal record. He had on and off injuries and ran nearly two seconds slower in 2011 than his best he set the year before. Despite this, Karjuan felt he was shaping up for a great year in 2012 which also happened to be an Olympic year. Like he often did, Karjan moved again, feeling Los Angeles was too distracting and could not offer him the path he was looking for. He moved back to North Carolina where was pursuing a long term relationship with his girlfriend; he was only planning on running professionally for five more years and sought to begin the setup for his post-athlete life.
During May of that year, Williams was set to perform at an early season meet in Ponce, Puerto Rico. His training was progressing amazingly and had just days before produced a workout of ten repetitions of 200 meters between 25-26 seconds with one minute of recovery. He thought this would be his year to move from national caliber to international caliber. Later that day he would start to feel pain in his knee; not a good sign for a track athlete headed out to an international competition, but he did not want to chance missing the race. His knee became stiff from the plane ride to Puerto Rico, and then worse on the car trip to Ponce. Once at the hotel he realized his knee was becoming increasingly enlarged and immediately consulted the medical staff. He was given the unfortunate news of being diagnosed with a suspected meniscus tear, a surely season ending injury. The staff in Puerto Rico did not have the capability to surely diagnose the injury because they lacked the proper equipment, so Karjuan held out hope.
He was sent back stateside to see his personal doctors immediately, feeling intense pain the entire time. Upon Karjuan's return, his doctors were unable to discover the true reason of his injury and recommended surgery to get a better idea of his injury. Karjuan was hesitant because he didn't have insurance, but he was helped by his old coach Nicholas Sparks to pay for some of the costs. After having the surgery he was told the doctors were still unsure what caused his injury, leaving Karjuan without a clue for help. He followed up surgery with physical therapy which helped him get back to walking normal; however, he was told it would be a year and a half before he could continue with a full training load. Being 25 years of age, he was worried this would be a long term derailment that may not even allow him to reach his former fitness. Furthermore, it disturbed him as he watched the competition he used to run stride for stride with further improve that summer while he simply sought to walk normal again. He was in a very tough spot.
In order to pay bills, Karjuan sought employment in North Carolina. However, once he broke up with his girlfriend he realized he had nothing holding him there and longed to return to his first home, the place he had grew up, New Orleans. To him it was "his city."
He made his return in 2013, giving up his dreams of competing in the Olympics and is now focusing on one of the richest resources the city of New Orleans has to offer: he manages musicians and entertainers. He loves the networking, communicating, and meeting people within the business industry, evident by his demeanor with us. His honesty and easy going manner is evident. Additionally, Karjuan helps his brother run his contracting business. But it wouldn't be the new Karjuan Williams, the Kendall Raines inspired one, without wanting to give back to the community.
He has been working as a volunteer coach at his old high school, St. Augustine. He appreciates how coach Dixon of St. Augustine allows him to have control over the distance runners, allowing Karjuan to implement a middle distance-based training program and not one that is sprint-based. "Darren Dixon listens. He's willing to work with you."
Just because Karjuan no longer runs world class times doesn't mean he is done. This story is far from over. He has plans to establish a summer track club. Also, he wants to eventually host a track meet in Kendall's honor. Karjuan's message is simple: he wants to enjoy life and wants to show people, young ones especially, that the future can be bright if you believe in yourself. Before Karjuan left the store that evening, he summed his hard earned lessons as this: No matter where you come from, it doesn't matter. You shouldn't let where you come from determine where you are going. You can go as far as you want to go if you have a positive attitude.
Chaz Caiado is the distance coach at John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge, Louisiana as well as head coach of the Southern Athletics youth track and field club. He is a graduate of Tulane University.