CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Chris Williams was one of the newest members of the Fighting Illini football program this year, but not in a role you might expect.
Williams is not a player, and he’s not a member of the coaching staff. He is a University of Illinois Police officer – and he hopes that he can add friend and mentor to that title as well.
Williams has embedded with the team this season through the new University Police athletic liaison program. The initiative has two primary objectives: keep the team safe and interact with members of the program so that they have a trusted police officer they can come to if they ever have a safety issue.
“I play a role of kind of security for them, as well as a role of like a friend, a mentor, someone they can confide in and put trust in,” Williams said.
The program came out of a recognition that student-athletes are not immune to any of the issues that non-athletes face on a daily basis. The athletic liaison program is a way for the department to engage the community proactively and express to student-athletes that University Police are available to help if they are ever in need.
“We look at student-athletes and a lot of time they are kind of put into this box, like they’re just athletes,” Williams said. “When, really, they are people, they are young people, they are humans too. They have lives outside of playing sports.”
Along with the rest of University Police, Williams also helps plan for and is involved in gameday security to keep the team and fans safe when they are most visible.
The program was a perfect fit for Williams. Not only is he a huge sports buff, but he had also expressed to Police Chief Alice Cary that one of his priorities was eventually joining the department’s Community Outreach and Support Team (COAST). COAST conducts community outreach programming, safety education and supportive services related to mental health emergencies. Williams said he felt that the unit was doing critical work.
“I think that’s a very, very important part of policing is being out with our community,” Williams said. “So she brought up the idea of an athletic liaison program with the football team. And I thought that was just a fantastic idea, to be involved with young men who come from all walks of life and kind of see what they do on a daily basis.”
When the program launched prior to the first week of the 2021 football season, Williams knew it was going to take some time to acclimate. His first task was getting to know the players and to help them feel more comfortable with him being around.
“Throwing somebody new into the mix, some players may be a little standoffish,” Williams said. “Some were when I started in my position.”
It took some time, but he said the student-athletes warmed up to him as they saw more and more of him at practices and other events.
“They’ll come up to me and start talking and we have conversations,” Williams said. “To the point now where some of the guys kind of joke around, or they’ll ask me about a play, or they kind of goof off and include me in it. As we continue to grow, I’m getting to know them and they’re getting to know me. It’s pretty special.”
Williams travels with the team, and he was on the sideline in State College, Pennsylvania, in late October when the Fighting Illini beat Penn State, then the No. 7 ranked team in the country.
“From before kickoff until the end, after nine overtimes, it was electric,” Williams said. “It was the most fun I’ve had at a football game in a long, long, long time. Even down to the fans. The fans at Penn State were more than respectful, even clapping as the team left the field. The locker room was just explosive.”
Williams said that one of the most rewarding things for him in the athletic liaison position has been seeing the behind-the-scenes nature of the team. He has taken note of how much they’ve grown as a team from the first week of the season until now, including some of the struggles and adversity they have faced. That made the Penn State win that much more special.
“I was just elated for them, it was a special thing to see,” Williams said.
Williams has been with University Police now for about two and a half years. He said he became a police officer because service has been his calling for as long as he can remember.
“The reason why I wanted to become a police officer is, since I was a kid, I was always one of those who wanted to help and reach out in my community and my own neighborhood,” Williams said. “Whether it was helping to mow yards, sometimes for people with a disability or the elderly. In my teenage years, I always wanted to help out kids who were getting picked on.”
He brings a background and experience that give him a well-rounded view of policing and people in the community.
“Growing up with a more or less difficult background and growing up in a lower income neighborhood, you kind of see that side of life,” Williams said. “I’ve already experienced a lot of hardships and understanding how to work through it.”
He brings that perspective to his work in policing, and now to the athletic liaison program.
“No two people are the same,” Williams said. “As far as my policing, I try to understand where people come from even though I may not agree with it.”