Tommy Saunders helping Kewpies junior basketball player gain confidence

Monday, December 12, 2011 | 8:05 p.m. CST; updated 10:01 p.m. CST, Monday, December 12, 2011
Former University of Missouri wide receiver Tommy Saunders and Hickman High forward Cecil Williams demonstrate how to spin the basketball outside the Hickman gym on Dec. 8. Saunders and Williams connected through a Big Brother program six years ago, and Saunders has become a mentor and friend since.

COLUMBIA — Cecil Williams stands silently, just another sweaty player in a sea of purple practice uniforms.

He runs up and down the court with an emotionless expression on his face, the squeaks and stomps of his shoes hitting the floor of the Hickman High School gym his only contribution to the loud practice atmosphere.

He stops.

As coaches transition into their next drill and players begin to talk, the 6-foot-6 junior shyly awaits instruction, quietly going about his own business.

"I don't know, I'm just quiet," Williams said, the words faint, coming out of his mouth in short, timid bursts. "No reason."

Practice resumes and Williams is flying down the court. He stretches his body to secure a rebound and confidently drives the lane for a layup.

Watching from the corner of the gym is Tommy Saunders. He leisurely leans up against a padded wall with his hands comfortably situated in his pockets.

He smiles.

"I've taught that kid everything he knows," Saunders said of Williams. "He didn't know a lick of basketball before we met."

A former standout wide receiver for the Missouri football team, Saunders has been Williams' "Big" for the past six years

Williams first met Saunders when he was 10 years old, after his mother registered him for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Saunders, now 25, was a sophomore scholarship football player for the Tigers at the time and was enrolled in a class that required 10 hours of community service in the semester. After Saunders selected the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, the two were paired together.

"When we met, Cecil probably said two words the first six months that we hung out," Saunders said, laughing. "He just didn't talk."

What started as a few hours of community service has since blossomed into six years of friendship.

Saunders, who now helps coach the Missouri football team, played basketball in high school. He has helped Williams develop his game during the past few years, working to increase his athletic ability and trying to instill confidence on and off the basketball court.

"I don't think I'd be here today if it wasn't for him," Williams said of Saunders, a rare smile sneaking up on him. "He just keeps my head right."

Williams glances in the direction of Saunders as Kewpies head coach David Johnson discusses a new play. Williams was supposed to be a starter this season, but an elbow injury has sidelined him for the first three games.

Williams credits his basketball ability to Saunders, claiming that his shooting and confidence has drastically improved. But Williams also claims that he himself has taught the former scholarship wide receiver a thing or two when it comes to sports.

"I taught him how to take a loss," Williams said. "He storms off the court."

Upon hearing the comment, Saunders immediately responds.

"Oh my goodness," Saunders said in shock, rolling his eyes. "Never."

The two go back and forth, with Williams claiming that he's beaten Saunders four times, the most recent loss involving a basketball being hurled upstairs in frustration by Saunders.

"He's never beaten me in his life," Saunders said, looking in Williams' eyes as he began to laugh. "I taught him to tell the truth, and this kid is straight lying."

Williams approaches Saunders as practice is coming to a close. His soft-spoken, quiet personality has disappeared, and a large smile expands across his face.

The two joke around as they talk sports while heading towards Saunders’ car. While they do not get to see each other as regularly as they used to with Saunders now living in Kansas City, they still manage to keep in contact on a daily basis.

"It's been so rewarding for me to see him grow, and grow into the player he is now," Saunders said. "He's not the player he used to be, and he's not the player he's going to be.

"I'm really excited to see him on the court this season, and next season, and see where his basketball career is going to take him."

The two walk towards the car. Saunders puts his arm around Williams' neck and gives him a little shake.

They both begin to smile. 

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