University of Kansas

He drove 13 hours to see his son. Why Pooka’s dad was emotional after KU’s victory

Anthony Williams Sr. has his best friends around him, smiling as wide as he can while standing in the fifth row of section 7.

This is moments after Kansas football’s 55-14 home victory over Rutgers, and the man who’s driven 13 hours from New Orleans to see his son is trying to reflect on all that’s happened in two short weeks.

Here’s the quick version: True freshman Pooka Williams — with two dynamic performances — has become the talk of Lawrence.

“It’s on fire now. You see it smoking over there,” Anthony Sr. says, pointing back toward the city before delivering a deep laugh. “It’s just the beginning.”

Anthony hears it now wherever he goes. The KU fans who approach him — knowing who he is because of his blue No. 1 jersey — seem to tell him something different every time.

“Pooka juice.” “Pooka mania.” “Big Pooka.”

Anthony has trouble processing it all. He’s coached Pooka since he was 5, so he’s used to seeing game-breaking runs and over-the-top athleticism.

These people, though? The ones around him who haven’t seen winning football in almost a decade? The ones who have taken to his son so quickly in a place so far from home?

This is the part that makes Anthony emotional. He chokes up once, then says he’s speechless a few seconds later.

“Everybody loves him here,” Anthony said. “It makes me feel good.”

Anthony has been through a lot with his son. There was the lawn-mower accident when Pooka was 9, which severed all five toes off his right foot.

“They told me he’d never play football again. They told me never,” Anthony said, his head dropping. “Since then, we’ve been going forward, supporting him. I’d give my last breath if I have to.”

On Saturday, that meant a long trip up Interstate 55 wasn’t going to keep father from son — not this week, and as of now, not any other week either.

“I’d drive 13 more to see him again,” Anthony said. “It’s wonderful.”

Here’s what Pooka did Saturday: He had 18 carries for 158 yards, adding the 52-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter. He became the first KU freshman — ever — to run for more than 100 yards in each of his first two games.

And he also wowed fans and teammates with one first-quarter run where he tried to hurdle 6-foot-1 cornerback Isaiah Wharton ... and nearly made it, getting upended on his back leg before fumbling the ball out of bounds.

“That was insane,” KU nickelback Bryce Torneden said.

“He’s got bunnies,” KU running back Khalil Herbert said.

“There goes Superman,” Anthony said. “I tell him don’t do that, but if his IQ feels that he wants to do it, hey. ... If he’s happy with it, I’m happy with it.”

So on a day when KU’s defense was dominant again, and when the program took a huge step toward respectability by winning its second straight game for the first time since 2011, the talk once again is likely to center around Pooka.

There’s good reason for that too.

Linebacker Joe Dineen mentioned this when he found Torneden on the sideline in the first half. Every time Pooka touched the ball, Dineen had noticed that students on the northwest end were starting a “Poook” chant, much like KU basketball fans yelled “Sviiii” when guard Svi Mykhailiuk put up a three-pointer at Allen Fieldhouse.

Dineen had never witnessed anything like that during his five years with KU football.

“They’re staring to recognize,” Dineen said, “he’s a pretty damn good football player.”

KU coach David Beaty was even impressed with Pooka before the game. On the bus ride to Booth Memorial Stadium, Beaty asked him where he’d gotten his football intelligence, and Pooka praised his father. When other kids were out playing, Pooka would watch video with Anthony, learning more about where his eyes should go on each play.

“We start hearing him talk about how he’s looking and what he’s looking at, and for a young guy that’s not usually normal,” Beaty said. “He plays with a lot of football aptitude.”

The actual running was noteworthy too.

There was the speed to get to the open field, with Anthony claiming that Pooka has run a 4.27-second 40-yard dash. There’s also the elusiveness, with Beaty saying few backs are able to get as close to a defender before making a move as Pooka does.

“He’s going to be one of the best to come through here I think,” Dineen said.

And in the big picture for KU football, he’s made a huge impact.

Following a devastating Week 1 loss to FCS opponent Nicholls State, KU has resurrected its season with Pooka’s help. The Jayhawks have gone 2-0 since he was declared eligible last week, as he’s brought a struggling team both on-field production and much-needed swagger.

“I think he’s just extremely talented and gifted, to where he doesn’t even realize how good he is,” KU quarterback Peyton Bender said. “He just goes out and runs — just runs around people and right by people.”

So where will KU go from here? Team captain Daniel Wise made an effort to refocus his team even before the postgame celebration, meeting his teammates at the locker room door with these two messages: “Don’t get complacent” and “We haven’t arrived yet.”

It’s a different world for KU football. The team is winning. It’s having to take steps to not be overconfident.

And it has a true superstar in the making — a 5-foot-10 freshman running back so excited for the opportunity that he called his dad near midnight following last week’s win over Central Michigan.

“I said, ‘Pooka, it’s time to go to sleep. I saw you. You done it, son,’” Anthony said with a grin. “I’m just a proud father, man.”