Legendary St. Aug's Athletic Director, Track and Field coach recalls near-death crash in Qatar

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- In the track and field world, the name George Williams means something special. All he does is win. And he's been doing it at St. Augustine's University in Raleigh since the 1960's. But over the fall, the legendary coach thought he'd seen his last track meet.

Wednesday, Williams was back on the track at St. Aug's -- and back from the brink of death.

"I think I was dead. God just brought me back. Because I don't remember nothing but that light and everything went dark," Williams said.

It happened last October -- 7,000 miles away from Raleigh in Doha, Qatar. Williams was there for the 2019 World Athletics Championships -- serving as a liaison for the U.S. Olympic Team and coaching four of his students from St. Augustine's.

It was in an afternoon of downtime with his family, a tour of the desert, when the 76-year old coach made a dangerous decision while riding an A-T-V on the sand.

"I decided I was gonna attack the big sand dune -- that I knew I could do. You know, I'm an athlete, regardless of my age, I'm still full of pep," he said. "I hit that thing at about 60, 70 miles per hour. And when I went up, it stalled on me, came back, and all I remember saying, oh God!"

That's when Williams says everything went white. He remembers seeing his body and not being in it.

He was flown by helicopter to a trauma center in Doha. When he regained consciousness, he thought he was in heaven with an English to Arabic language barrier.

"I said really God, I have to learn this language. I said I know I'm in Heaven. I thought that was the language they spoke in Heaven," said Williams who had broken four ribs, torn his liver and kidneys; his shoulder bone was fractured and both lungs had collapsed.

"My son asked the doctor, 'Was my situation life or death?'. And the doctor said, 'Death'," Williams recalled.

"It was heartbreaking," said St. Aug's senior track runner Christian Smith. "I haven't even known him that long -- it feels like I've known him forever."

Junior runner Shannon Kalawan said, "It kinda shook the team."

It didn't just leave the team shaken. It shook the track world.

Williams is a giant in the sport -- winning gold as head coach of the 2004 USA Track and Field Team. He's coached St. Aug's Track every CIAA Championship since 1998. And he could fill a building with NCAA national championship trophies. His team have won 39 NCAA National Championships, more than any other living coach.

Coach Williams arrived back on campus in January following three weeks in a Doha hospital and more than a month at REX and WakeMed and multiple surgeries.

He admits he's not the screamer he used to be. But says he still has plenty of passion to coach young people.

"We gotta win Nationals this year," said Smith. "We gotta get him his 40th (National Championship). We gotta get him one more."

In a life full of winning, Williams said his near-death experience showed he's not done learning.

"One thing that changed my mind about life, is right now. It's not the past, it's not the future. It's right now," Williams said. "You never know what's going to happen. It's right now."

Williams could not walk for a month following the wreck. He is back on his feet now and doing a couple of days of physical therapy a week.

He says he's onboard for trying at another NCAA National Championship, but thinking seriously about retirement in 2021.
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