NMHU rugby star eyes Olympic gold

Kevon Williams carries the ball for the USA Men’s Sevens Eagles rugby team. Williams, who will play for the U.S. Olympic team, competed for the New Mexico Highlands University club team. (Courtesy of Travis Prior for USA Rugby)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

It would be easy to say that discovering Las Vegas, New Mexico, and New Mexico Highlands University changed the direction of Kevon Williams’ life.

Not only did he meet his wife there, but also he found his career calling.

A Houston native, Williams was recruited to play football for the Cowboys in 2009.

After a successful career on the gridiron, culminating in his senior season, when he had 73 catches for 945 yards and six touchdowns, Williams was not quite done with college, nor with competition.

A friend suggested rugby, but Williams wasn’t really too sure at first.

“I just had a lot of off time and one of my buddies had gotten into rugby,” he said. “I avoided it for a while, but it took off after that.”

Indeed it did.

Not only did Williams lead the NMHU Vatos – a college club team – to two National Small College Rugby Organization national championships, but also he carved out a professional career in the sport, playing for the USA Men’s Sevens Eagles for the past five years.

And, this year, he realized a dream come true when he was named to the USA Olympic team, which starts play Monday at Tokyo Stadium.

“I was really putting all my eggs in one basket,” Williams, 30, said in a telephone interview before the team left for Japan. “It was a personal goal of mine to make the Olympic team. We know the team and that’s why everybody wanted to make the team.”

When he first picked up the oblong rugby ball at Highlands, he had no idea where it was going to take him.

“Not a chance,” Williams said with a chuckle. “I started playing and I didn’t even know what I was doing. I didn’t think of anything past playing where I was playing at in college.”

Williams plays what’s called a scrum half, which is known as a facilitator on the field, helping set up others to score, which is quite a bit different from his role at Highlands, where he was a winger.

“I came in here thinking I was going to play winger,” he said. “It’s for finishers and fast guys who score quite often. But when I had a meeting with the coach, he told me I didn’t have the elite speed to play on the wing at this level, and he thought I would do better to change into a facilitator. I had to learn a new set of skills.”

It wasn’t the easiest of transitions, but Williams was able to tune into the sport’s intricacies.

“It was pretty tough,” he said. “When I played winger, you get the ball and go, you make something happen. At scrum half, I had to learn to be a better passer, I had to kick a little bit, and actually learn the flow of the game and read the game so I could find my teammates in the best position to do what they need to do. It was a struggle at first but, once it clicked in my head, it was fine.”

A family man with two elementary-age children, Williams’ rugby life takes him around the globe on a regular basis as the Eagles play the World Sevens circuit that includes regular stops in Dubai, South America, New Zealand and Australia, Vancouver, London and Paris.

And every two tournaments, the team is shuffled.

“It’s a hard process,” he said. “Only 12 people actually travel to compete, but we train with a pool of 20 to 30 guys in camp who compete daily and weekly to be on the team, or make the circuit.”

Being away from the family for those trips is difficult but, as his kids get older, they understand it better, Williams said.

“It’s tough. You’re gone anywhere from 14 to 16 days, … and you do that at least five times a year,” he said. “They’re getting older, 10 and 8 later this year. They understand now that I have got to go. Before, it was kind of hard.”

Now, Williams is able to focus all his efforts on helping the U.S. win a medal.

“We want to, and we think we can, win gold,” he said. “That’s what we’re aiming for. Two years ago, we were ranked No. 1 in the world and we slipped up and lost a game, the second-to-last game, and lost the No. 1 spot. We’re in a good spot now. We have a great mix between some veterans and some young guys. We think we can have a real push for it.”

As for what a gold medal would mean, well, Williams isn’t quite sure.

“I just think it would be like ‘mission complete.’ I’ve already done what I set out to achieve, play sports at the highest level I could,” he said. “To be able to win a medal, I don’t know if it would do anything for my career since I already play at the highest level. It could be a sentimental value.”

And while Las Vegas has had a big impact on his life, Williams, who now lives in southern California, hasn’t returned there since turning pro. But it is in his mind to return and give the local rugby community a little push.

“I have not been to New Mexico since I left, but I have thought about doing some camps and giving back to the rugby community of New Mexico because that’s where I started,” Williams said. “I spent a lot of good years in my life in Las Vegas. I have soft spot in my heart for the place. (That’s where) I got a college degree, met my wife, and had both my kids.”

And it is where rugby became more than something to kill some time.

“The competition at Highlands was great and I played with a great group of guys,” he said.

“The club has a really rich history of being one of the dominating clubs in New Mexico. I’ve been taking that swagger and confidence that those boys had to have to compete out here, and using it to compete every day.”

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