By Kody Acevedo
Jimmy Williams has been gone for nearly 20 years. Yet his legacy continues to live deep in the city of Tempe’s heart.
A standout athlete who shined both on and off the field, Williams had his life cut short after he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1999 at age 35.
But in that short amount of time, Williams left a lasting impression on those who knew him best and loved him most.
His legacy was honored on Dec. 4 when he was inducted into the Tempe All-City Hall of Fame. He was the first former athlete to earn such an honor.
“There’s some people who you remember,” said Tim McBurney, the former Tempe High School head football coach. “There’s some people who leave an impression. There’s some people who will impact your life.”
“Jimmy Williams changed (and) inspired all of us in a positive way for the rest of our lives.”
Williams was a three-sport athlete where he excelled at football, wrestling and track. But football was his passion. McBurney coached Williams in all three sports.
“As a coach, I was fortunate enough to coach him in all three sports (and) it was a great opportunity for a young coach to be around, not just a great athlete—a great man.”
He was a two-way starter, where he played both sides of the ball, and a special-teams starter.
“He never came off the field,” McBurney said.
Williams was 1st Team All-State Linebacker in 1980. He was selected to play in the 1981 Arizona High School All-Star Game and won two state championships as a wrestler in 1980 and 1981 as a junior and senior. He also went undefeated during his two championship wresting seasons.
He graduated from Tempe High in 1981 and received a full-ride football scholarship at Arizona State University, where he played inside linebacker.
At ASU, he was selected the team’s defensive captain two years straight and earned the In-State-Player-of-the- Year award three times.
He was also recognized as an All-PAC-10 Conference honoree in 1982.
Williams was later drafted to play in the Canadian Football League by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
But Tempe was his home. He returned to the Valley and began coaching at his
alma mater, Tempe High, and McClintock High School.
He also settled down with his high school sweetheart, Linda, and had two sons, Lee and
Linda and Lee accepted the award on Williams’ behalf.
“He was humble and would sometimes be embarrassed at these events,” Linda said. “But he would have the biggest grin on his face.”
Williams also served as head football coach at Maricopa High School. He was an assistant coach at Desert Vista High School at the time of his death.
Linda said she had heard whispers that the Tempe All-City Association was planning to honor her late husband, but had no idea the award was his alone until she arrived at the banquet that evening.
“It’s happy and it’s sad. Just listening to all these wonderful things being said, it’s hard,” Linda said. “But, in the end, when I step away and I process it, I always do have a warm feeling afterwards.
“To be honored all these years later, to have his named be mentioned after all these years, I’m incredibly proud.”