As a hyperactive 7-year-old, Javon Williams thought he might die of boredom following another day of isolation in Arizona, but Barbara Plummer knew better.
Her grandson could deal with the restlessness; it was the gangs, guns and drugs that were the real killers.
Plummer had seen it all. The mother of eight, grandmother of 20 and great-grandmother of two was born in New Orleans, lived on the south side of Chicago in her early 20s and then moved to the Hunters Point projects of San Francisco about a decade later.
As much as the scenery and weather changed, the bleak reality stayed the same: Gunshots were as common as car horns. Crime scene tape decorated houses. Mothers spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about their sons or daughters getting mixed up with the wrong crowd.
“Every time I go back, I say, when are these people going to understand that they should get away from this?” Plummer said.
Williams was born in Hunters Point in 1994. It was a neighborhood with a dark side, and his circumstances weren’t anything close to ideal.
His mother, Twavida, had Javon when she was only 16, and Williams never knew his father.
From an early age, Javon saw the way the streets would swallow up friends and relatives. While Hunters Point accounts for approximately 5 percent of San Francisco’s population, in 2007 it was home to nearly a quarter of the city’s murders, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I heard shooting basically every night,” Williams said. “People were dying every other day. It’s not good to think like this, but it made it seem like (dying) was a normal thing because it kept happening over and over again.”
In 1997, Twavida was incarcerated, and Plummer couldn’t bear the thought of letting Javon go to a foster family. She had moved to Arizona a year earlier, and sent for Williams to join her.
Eighteen months later, after Twavida seemed to have her life turned around, he went back to California. After another misstep, though, Plummer knew a permanent decision had to be made.
“(Twavida) tried her best to do what she thought was best,” Plummer said. “He went and stayed with her for a year and a half. She got back in trouble again and I went and got him. I just refused to let him go back and go through that trauma again.”
It wasn’t an easy transition for Williams. He moved into a house with 11 other people. He had six cousins with him, including former Chandler football standouts Dion and Michael Jordan.
“It was hectic, but as family, we all took care of each other,” Dion Jordan said. “Whenever someone needed something, we had to sacrifice. That made us closer.”
Twavida called every day and paid for many of Javon’s possessions, but Plummer was the boss in the house. The long-term outlook for Williams may have been greatly improved, but he was living in the present.
“She was so strict, and I didn’t like living with her,” he said. “I love San Francisco. Other than the gangs and all the bad stuff that went on, it really is a beautiful city. I loved being there. There’s a lot of fun things to do. When I moved here, it was really boring.”
With sports as an outlet, and with Michael and Dion around, it eventually got better.
The three boys didn’t have a father figure in their lives, so they relied on each other. And no matter what the cousins were doing, they always competed.
Basketball. Football. Bike riding. Footraces up and down the street. As they pushed each other, their athletic prowess shone through.
“He’s always been coming with Dion, so you saw (the potential), especially when they were running track,” Chandler coach Shaun Aguano said.
Dion was the oldest of the trio and blazed the path. He starred at Chandler, and now plays college football for Oregon. The junior defensive end had 30 tackles for last year’s national title game participants, and is expected to start this year for the Ducks.
Michael earned a scholarship to Montana.
All three still talk regularly.
“We went through everything together,” Dion said. “The ups, the downs. We aren’t just cousins. He’s like my little brother.”
Javon is set to follow in the same footsteps.
He was an unknown commodity before last season, but with the help of former star quarterback Brett Hundley throwing him passes, Williams finished the year with 30 catches for 664 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior.
His speed and big-play ability grabbed the attention of recruiters, and scholarship offers began pouring in. Williams hasn’t decided on a college yet, but has several teams vying for his services, including Arizona State, Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma State.
“I’m real proud of him,” Jordan said. “I’m not surprised at all that these things are coming to him.”
Jordan and Williams don’t believe the gang lifestyle in Hunters Point would have reeled them in. Both point to six strong aunts who were determined to keep the boys out of trouble when they lived in San Francisco, and their own resolve.
However, the move did make things less complicated.
“A lot of the young people that he would have grown up with are either in jail or dead,” Plummer said.
“I feel like with the determination and personality that Javon has — that I have — we would have stayed focused, we would have had a chance,” Jordan said. “Moving to Arizona, it just helped to slow things down. San Francisco’s a big city. There were a lot of things to get into. In (Arizona), we weren’t focused on life outside sports or school.”
As Williams prepares for his final year of high school, it’s only he and Plummer in a house near Alma School and Galveston in Chandler. It’s a far cry from the rough streets of Hunters Point or the crowded house of 12, but Javon is grateful to be with Plummer for one more year.
“She’s taken care of me since day one,” Williams said. “She’s always been there. I don’t even know how to explain it. She’s just an awesome grandmother.”
The feeling is mutual.
“You just don’t know the pride I have in (Williams and his cousins),” Plummer said. “It just makes me feel good to see them choosing the right path and going in the right direction.”
It’s been more than a decade since Williams relocated permanently to Chandler, a place where he can worry more about his play sheet than a rap sheet. The surroundings may be quieter, but Javon fully comprehends the decision Plummer made. Moments of boredom are a small price to pay for the feeling of peace.
From now on, the only loud, popping noises Williams intends to hear will be fireworks after his touchdowns.
“When I was younger, I wanted to go back,” he said. “My grandmother told me, ‘No, this is the best place for you.’ Looking back at it now, I’m happy she didn’t let me make that decision.”