Gophers Ties Bind Men Decades Later
John Williams will have kidney transplant surgery next week at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. How could Williams have known more than 40 years ago that his organ donor would be someone he met as a Gophers football hero?
Williams was an all-Big Ten offensive tackle on the 1967 Gophers team that tied for the conference championship. Another young man associated with the team was Steve Nestor, now a Glenwood, Minnesota businessman, but back then he was one of the Gophers trainers.
Williams and Nestor share a passion for the Gophers. Their friendship has grown over the years. “We reconnected about four years ago,” Williams told Sports Headliners. “He’s a person of integrity and high moral values.”
A few years ago Williams, who played in the NFL before setting up a dental practice in north Minneapolis, was informed he had kidney disease and eventually would need a transplant. Last fall Williams learned that he would need the transplant before 2012 ended. Word got out to his family and many friends around the country. Many individuals expressed interest in being a donor including Nestor.
“I feel very humbled and appreciative of all the people who stepped forward,” Williams said. “It’s hard to put into words how I feel about Steve. It says who he is.”
The willingness of others to help says a lot about Williams also. Even last weekend a group email was circulating with messages offering prayers and good wishes from his many friends.
Williams is not just any ex-football hero. He chose to practice dentistry on the north side, a place where he can not only provide service but be a role model to young African-Americans and others in that inner city community. For years he’s been recognized for his volunteer efforts.
Williams is a lay minister who for more than 25 years has visited prisoners. A commitment to helping others was formed at an early age, back in Ohio where his father was a Baptist minister. “I grew up in the church,” Williams said.
Ohio State coach Woody Hayes was angry when Williams, then a much sought after high school star in Toledo, said no to the Buckeyes and accepted a scholarship to Minnesota. It was with the Gophers that he first started a life in Minneapolis and built a network of teammates who remain close to him to this day.
Those teammates and other friends know Williams for his cheerful disposition. Some of them know him as “Burgerbare.” That’s a nickname placed on Williams years ago when a football teammate learned that every night he went out for malts and hamburgers.
During this time of stress, prayers are welcome for Williams, Nestor and their families. “I know I have a long recovery ahead and I know we will need prayers going forward,” Williams said.
Williams expects to make a full recovery, planning to be back practicing dentistry in July. He also said that donors like Nestor typically live longer than others, perhaps partially because of their commitment to a healthy lifestyle.
A CaringBridge website for Williams has been posted to share his story and provide updates on his progress. http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/johnbjwilliams
Nestor said in an email to friends he realized awhile back that he was meant to be the kidney donor. He wrote that friends are “God’s way of taking care of us.”
Nestor and Williams will head to the Mayo Clinic soon, with the transplant scheduled next Tuesday. “Our task at hand is to get John healthy and we are facing this challenge together,” Nestor wrote. “It quite simply is no more than that.”
Williams was a Time Magazine first team All-American offensive tackle in 1967. He switched from fullback to tackle during his Gophers career and his run blocking was a key part of the team’s Big Ten title drive during 1967, his last season with Minnesota.
He was a first round draft choice of the Baltimore Colts and later played for the Los Angeles Rams. During a professional career that ended in 1980 he played in three Super Bowls including for the 1971 champion Colts.