Determination and Heart

In the winter of 2001, then Auburn football Coach Joe Whitt headed to Columbia, SC. He needed to talk to high school senior Travis Williams about his future at Auburn. It was going to be a tough conversation that Whitt did not want to have over the phone, so he made the six-hour trip up I-85 to talk to Travis in person. Whitt was going to have to tell Travis that Auburn no longer had a football scholarship for him.

Whitt arrived early in the afternoon and took a seat in the living room of the mobile home. Travis’s father, David, was still at  work, and Travis was in charge of his two younger brothers. Whitt watched the three boys work together to get the household chores done. They were respectful and kind, and the  two boys obviously looked up to and respected their older brother. Whitt just watched. And pondered. “These boys didn’t argue or try to get out of doing anything Travis asked them to do,” says Whitt. “When Travis’s dad got home, I just enjoyed the interaction between all of them. This was a single father who was doing an amazing job raising three boys. The more I just observed, the more impressed I was.” So impressed, in fact, that Whitt made a decision right there on the spot. He wasn’t going to give the undersized linebacker the news he had come to deliver. The offer was still on the table. “Looking back, it would have been one of my biggest regrets if we had not honored that offer and signed Travis,” recalls Whitt. “What he lacked in size, he more than made up for in hard work, determination, character and tenacity. He was a tremendous leader for us.” Even though at the time, Travis had no idea how close he had come to not being at Auburn. He didn’t know Whitt had come to South Carolina to retract his only D1 scholar- ship offer or that the coach was under pressure for Travis to produce. He just did.

Travis redshirted his first year at Auburn then lettered the next four seasons, earn- ing all-SEC honors in 2004-05. He led Auburn in  tackles (80) during the 2004 undefeated season, was second in tackles in 2005 (68) and third in 2003 (67). He won the Pat Dye Leadership Award on defense in 2004 and 2005. He graduated from Auburn with a degree in criminology and criminal justice. At the same time he was excelling on the football field he had another pursuit off it. A female student had caught his eye while walking through Haley Center. He had asked for her phone number, which she gave him, but when he called it, it was a wrong number. She had intentionally left off a number so Travis would not be able to reach her. Undeterred, the next time he saw her, Travis told her she had left off a number, and this time, she relented and gave him all the numbers. Once he got her on the phone, he asked her out on a date. She declined. Travis was still unfazed by the rejection. “I don’t give up that easily,” says Travis. “In fact, it really made me respect her. She told me she wasn’t going to go anywhere with just me, but I could see her at FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) meetings, so I started going to FCA meetings. It ended up working out really well. I got my girl, and I also got closer to God.”

The former Jeanine Grimes began to warm up to Travis, and she invited him to her apartment, where her roommate and best friend were always there to keep an eye on things. “I admit, I was impressed with him, with his character and especially with his determination to go for what he wanted,” says Jeanine. “Travis didn’t have a car, but he never let that stop him from coming to see me. He did whatever it took. He was the same way with school and football. He never let anything get in the way of what he wanted to accomplish.” For free-spirited Travis, he didn’t even realize how hard he was working to get Jeanine. “I just knew she was the one because she would let me play video games,” says Travis. Jeanine graduated from Auburn with her early childhood education degree and moved to Atlanta to begin teaching. It was no coinci- dence that Travis was in Atlanta, too, playing linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons. The couple continued to date. When his time with the Falcons ended in 2007, Travis joined the staff of his high school alma mater, Spring Valley High School in South Carolina, as a volunteer (unpaid) coach and moved back in with his father. Jeanine stayed back in Atlanta.

In 2009, former Head Coach Gene Chizik gave Travis the opportunity to come back to Auburn as a graduate assistant, where Travis coached and worked on a master’s degree in adult education. “Coach Chizik always told me I’d be a coach,” says Travis. “He gave me the opportunity to try it.” After graduating again from Auburn in 2011, Travis went in a totally different direction, pursuing a career in music. Rap music. Artist. Producer. Promoter. Travis enjoyed some success in the music industry, but the urge to coach kept nagging at him so after a year, he accepted a coaching position at the University of Iowa in 2012. Jeanine and the couple’s first daughter, Tru, remained in Atlanta in hopes that the job would be a quick jumpstart to get Travis back into coaching. In 2013, Travis returned to Atlanta as a coach at Creekside High School. In the first game of that year, a player, Deantre “Tre Tre” Turman, broke his neck on a tackle and died. The team dedicated their season to Tre Tre and won the 5A state championship.

During our interview, Travis reached in his desk drawer and pulled out the program from the funeral. “Tre Tre’s death had a major impact on my life,” says Travis. “It really opened my eyes and put a lot of things in perspective. It made me realize the importance of truly investing in the lives of my guys [players], whether or not they ever play a down of football or not, I love them.” In 2014, just a year after Tre Tre’s death, Travis was more convinced than ever that coaching was the career he wanted to pursue. He knew Auburn had an opening for an  analyst and, being Travis, didn’t wait to apply or to be called. He picked up the phone and point- blank asked Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn if he could fill the position Malzahn agreed. In the past six years, Jeanine and Travis have added two more daughters, Brave and Reign. In 2016, Travis was promoted to line- backer coach. That season, Auburn’s defense ranked seventh nationally in scoring, 11th in red zone defense and 28th in total defense, an improvement of 43 spots over the previ- ous season. They also held eight consecutive opponents without a rushing touchdown, the longest season streak at Auburn since 1957. Travis pours everything he has into his players. He blames himself for every mistake they make. He spends time with them away from football and loves them like a father. “My love for them has nothing to do with their performance on a football field ” Travis said. “If they never make a tackle, I still love them.”

Joe Whitt knew a good thing when he saw it. For Whitt, it wasn’t about Travis’s physical size, but more about the size of his heart, his soul and his mind. “That decision to sign Travis was one of the best things I ever did in my (25 year) career,” says Whitt. “It was good for Travis, and it was even better for Auburn. There isn’t a better person anywhere, and he is worthy of every good thing that is said about him.”