Column: Success story: Jaden Williams found himself after losing his mom

Campbell Hall lineman Jaden Williams has rededicated himself since the death of his mother last March.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Amid tears of sorrow, 16-year-old Jaden Williams said goodbye. For nearly 45 minutes, he was alone in a hospital room as his mother, Cleo, lay motionless. The hissing from a ventilator and the beeping from a heart monitor broke agonizing silence. There was no brain activity after she had an aneurysm, so the decision had been made to remove her from life support.

A son never wants to let go of his mom, but this tragedy required a teenage football player to dig deep, think hard and let out every hidden emotion.

“I was telling her, ‘I know you want to be here for my first things, but you will be always guiding me.’ I told her, ‘I love you and appreciate what you did for me and I’d pay you back if I could, but I can’t.’”

Cleo Branch died on March 1. She was 48.

Williams was a 6-foot-4, 250-pound defensive lineman at North Hollywood Campbell Hall in the middle of his junior year of high school at the time. It was his mother who got him into a football camp at Campbell Hall in eighth grade that led him to leave public schools in Inglewood for his first experience at a private school.


“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “It was crazy. A new community, a new life. People were different, a lot more white people than I had ever seen.”

It was supposed to be about getting a first-class education, and Williams wasn’t following through to the best of his ability.

“His struggle was focus,” football coach Dennis Keyes said.

Williams said it was laziness. For three years of studies and football, he wasn’t reaching levels everyone thought he could attain.

Then, on a morning in late February, Williams woke up to the sound of his grandmother and sister talking loudly and urgently. He got up and found his mother in distress in the bathroom.

“It was terrible to look into her eyes,” he said. “They were going everywhere like she had no control. It was a final look I won’t forget.”

After his mother’s death, he missed a day of school, then returned to football practice. Everything changed.

“Just a complete transformation, understanding mom’s not there to help and he’s got to get it done,” Keyes said.


Jaden Williams when he was 12 with his mother, Cleo Branch.
(Williams family)

His grades improved. His football talent started to emerge. It has continued this fall. As Campbell Hall has rolled to a 7-0 record, Williams has been a star, making sacks and blocking at left tackle. For five games, he was credited with 30 solo tackles and five sacks. He even returned a kickoff 70 yards for a touchdown — he’s quick for a lineman.

“He’s living up to his potential,” Keyes said. “He’s a whole different kid.”

Williams, 17, lives with his grandmother now. He’s doing everything he can to make his mother proud.

“Through my whole life, I’ve been kind of lazy in sports and school,” he said. “She’s been giving me that extra motivation to perform. After she died, it gave me a reason to do my best in everything. Her death really pushed me. My eyes opened. It showed how life is and how quickly it can be taken away. I decided to give it my all. Mentally, I was a different person. I started taking things seriously. Homework assignments I’d take my time. Now I get them in as soon as possible.”

He went to a football camp in Sacramento last summer, was spotted by several college recruiters and they’re monitoring his progress. With his size and athleticism, anything seems possible.

Remember how he told his mother he couldn’t pay her back for being his backbone? In reality, finally being able to follow through on lessons she tried to teach him is everything she would have hoped for.

It is dream every mother wants for their child.

“Everything we talked about is starting to come to life,” Williams said.