Photo: Westbrook Christian graduate and current Auburn University football player John Reese Bellew (left) poses with former Etowah High and AU football standout and interim AU head football coach Carnell Williams following a recent practice. (Courtesy of Lana Bellew)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, interim head coach for the Auburn University Tigers who hailed from Etowah High School before pursuing his football career at Auburn University and the NFL, has returned home in more ways than one.
Now coaching for his alma mater, Williams also mentors a player from his hometown in John Reese Bellew.
“I think that [Williams] had always been an idol,” said Dr. Lana Bellew, Bellew’s mother and grant writer for the University of Alabama Gadsden Center. “That was the first pro football player he had ever known.”
Bellew graduated from Westbrook High School in 2020 and walked onto the Auburn University football team in 2021. Growing up, Bellew lived next door to Williams’ mother, Sherry, and would see Williams often.
“We would go over to his mom’s house next door when he would visit, and he would talk to [Williams] and just try to ask him for advice,” Lana Bellew said. “It was probably a very calming thing, I would imagine, for John Reese when he would see him in that facility, because it was a familiar face.”
She pointed out that although many college football coaches intentionally recruit players from their hometowns, Bellew and Williams “both ended up at Auburn independent of each other.”
“As [John Reese] started playing football in high school and being recruited, he would communicate with Cadillac about recruitment, but Cadillac wasn’t at Auburn at that point,” she said. “He wasn’t there; he was just kind of giving him advice.”
When he first began playing at Auburn, Bellew was coached by Williams at the running back position. After making the switch to safety, Bellew now plays under Williams once again, this time as his head coach.
“Having Coach Cadillac as a coach is an amazing opportunity,” Bellew said. “He was my position coach when I was a running back starting out with the team and shortly switched to safety. He brought the energy every day and always checked on us no matter what was going on.”
“They do have a strong connection through background,” said Lana Bellew, noting that Bellew’s father, like Williams, played football for both Etowah High School and Auburn University.
Williams has been a role model for her son since he was young, Lana Bellew explained. She marveled at the fact that her son went from being a 3-year-old excited to meet the pro football player next door to a college student playing for him as head coach.
“I feel like they were comfortable with each other regarding football,” she said. “I don’t think he ever talked to him outside of football, like, ‘What should I be when I grow up?’ He only related him to football, so there was never a big brother situation of, ‘Hey, what do I do about this?’”
Both Williams and his mother have set an ethical example for the Bellew family, however.
“He was raised by a very strong woman of faith, so he has always had a strong faith,” Lana Bellew said. “That was refreshing to the boys, the renewal of talking about faith.”
According to Lana Bellew, Williams has increasingly involved the Rev. Chette Williams, longtime team chaplain who served during Williams’ college years.
“He said that Brother Chett helped him through so many times, and he wanted to renew that,” she said. “He brought Brother Chette into a stronger role, and eight boys rededicated or were saved the week before last.”
Lana Bellew said it was comforting to parents that faith was a focus of the team, religious and otherwise. She was encouraged by the support the team — and Williams — received at Saturday’s game as the Tigers faced Texas A&M at home.
“It was wonderful to see so many people come back to see a team that’s basically had a losing season,” she said. “And it was a sold-out game. It was like a reunion. Everybody was there to see that game, and so many of Cadillac’s teammates came to support him. We saw Sherry, his mom, and we got to visit with her. All over town, people were standing in lines around buildings to buy the ‘go crazy Cadillac’ shirts.”
Although Lana Bellew said she didn’t think Williams really understood the influence he had over the team and the fans alike, he probably felt it on Saturday.
“I know that there’s people who think that we were overdramatic because we were so excited about beating a non-ranked team, but we’re just excited that our fans came back out and gave everyone a chance again after I had seen the stands empty when we were losing,” she said. “Then it came back. It’s just typical of Auburn.”
Coach Williams credits his success — from his current position to his first win as head coach — to his faith. According to Lana Bellew, “he says it’s all God.”
“The best part of the entire game was Tank Bigsby was running and Cadillac kept up with him on the sidelines,” she said. “What coach can keep up with a star running back, running all the way down the sidelines? That was the most amazing thing to witness.”
Bellew said he felt the excitement as the team rallied behind Williams.
“The atmosphere is completely different, night and day I would say,” Bellew said. “The workouts, meetings and practices are more fun. The energy is there, and we are truly fighting with Coach ‘Lac.”