Finding James Williams

coverMost people would have written him off.

He was a thug — a street fighter — a tough guy with an attitude and more machismo than sense. By 17, he’d fathered two children, made the wrong “friends,” done drugs. On top of that, he had low SATs and poor grades, so he wasn’t college material.

Yep. Written off.

But somewhere deep inside of James Williams was a man who wanted something more out of life. He wanted to be someone else. He just hadn’t found him yet.

On one level James knew his behavior was wrong, but he wanted to fit in. “I realized that if you got in trouble, you were recognized. People liked you. In my town, it was the drug dealers who lived in impoverished neighborhood that got all the attention,” he told JMU’s College of Business in an Oct. 2013 interview.

When a little ambition and a talent for football surfaced, one small private college gave him a chance. James believed his future was in football. “I felt like I had the opportunity to change who I was,” he said, “ but the problem was that I came in with the mindset that I just wanted to play football and go pro. I wasn’t there for school.”

He blew it. He’d failed again.

Finally, with few other options, he enlisted in the military and there began a transformation. Once enlisted, his superiors encouraged him to go back to school. He enrolled in college — but this time, he took it seriously. He was finding James Williams.

In May 2003, the one-time thug with the bad SATs and low grades graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in management and computer information systems from Park University. He landed a job teaching at a community college, and started working on a master’s degree, earning a Master of Science in administration from Central Michigan University. And he did all this while being a young father and husband.

And then football came calling again. He signed on with the Raleigh Rebels, an arena football team in North Carolina. This time around, though, James had a new vision. This time, he played football and completed an online doctorate in management and organization leadership from the University of Phoenix.

That only whetted his appetite.

He moved his family to Iowa where he enrolled in a Ph.D. program in hospitality management at Iowa State University.  Finally, he had found James Williams.

Today Dr. James Williams is an associate professor in JMU’s School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management. And he has a powerful message that he’s put into new book, From Thug to Scholar: An Odyssey to Unmask my True Potential. The book was released earlier last month by Pendium Press and is available through as well as in JMU’s campus bookstore.

It’s about finding your own potential — even when it’s hidden. He calls it unmasking.

“A man may wear a thousand faces,” James says, “before he looks in the mirror and identifies the authentic face was there all the time, hidden in his world of darkness.”

It’s a lesson, perhaps, that we should never give up on anyone, that failure is only an opportunity to change, and that sometimes the first one we need to change is us. James Williams’ story is a stunning example.

James’ book is available online through You’ll also find it in JMU’s campus bookstore. And next week, Dec. 14, he’s signing books at the Heavenly Hands School and Salon in Harrisonburg at 10:00 a.m.

For another story on grasping second chances, read  Courtney Herb’s (’15) story on Francesca Leigh-Davis on the JMU web.

Thanks to JMU’s College of Business for their help in gathering information for this post. The original story can be found at the embedded link above. 

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

One Response to Finding James Williams

  1. Luis artica says:

    Hey doctor James willaims. I don’t know if you really remember me but my teacher at Harrisonburg high school gave me a very good opportunity to meet you at jmu. I was really inspire by your book when I was locked up I think I told you this before but I just want to thank you again for if it wasn’t for your book I wouldn’t of unmasked my self. I understand know what I need to know. When I first met you I was very nervous and excited I really didn’t know how to react bekuz I never been in a situation like that. Thank you again. I hope we can text more often.


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