Through his research, a Mercer University Ph.D. graduate hopes to bring awareness to the grief that Black college athletes — particularly Black Division I college football players — face after their sports careers end and help improve their overall well-being.
Dr. Marlon Williams, a Double Bear, just completed his doctoral degree in counselor education and supervision from the College of Professional Advancement (COPA) and earned his master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling in December 2016.
“He has been perhaps the most unique and impressive student I’ve had in my entire teaching career,” said Dr. Don Redmond, COPA associate professor of counseling and founding director of the College’s Center for the Study of Narrative. “Once Marlon is introduced to a new idea or experience, he absorbs it and uses it in ways that are exceptional, creative and deeply personal.”
Dr. Williams already has an extensive background in education, with much of his work related to prevention intervention for drugs, violence, bullying and gang activity. He helped lead a substance misuse intervention program for middle and high school students in the DeKalb County School District; worked with non-custodial fathers and low-income, first-generation college students as an educational program specialist and program coordinator at Georgia State University; and focused on student attendance, discipline, grades and interventions at Ronald E. McNair Middle School in Decatur.
Since 2014, Dr. Williams has handled discipline and school culture and climate at Flat Shoals Elementary School in DeKalb County as a student support specialist.
“I’ve had a really fulfilling and successful career in education, but I had a desire to follow my passion and give back to a population and sport I’m very passionate about. That sport is football, and I have always had an interest in helping people,” he said.
Through his personal experiences and guiding young students through challenges, he recognized a need for more support for athletes as they transitioned through life. Dr. Williams earned his undergraduate degree in business management from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he also played football. As an outside linebacker, he was a four-year starter and played on the 1990 National Championship team.
“When I finished playing football, there were some things that I could have used in terms of helping with feelings of my career being over and adjusting to life without sports. I was also seeing what many of my teammates were going through. I wanted to go back to school and learn more about addressing these challenges holistically,” he said.
Sports counseling offered the holistic approach Dr. Williams was looking for and would allow him to help athletes perform well not only academically and athletically but in the chapters following their sports careers. On his first night of class at Mercer, he knew he had chosen the right master’s program as well as the right university.
“While I was at Mercer and learning about theories and different challenges people have, it really dawned on me that grief was what I was experiencing when my football career was over,” he said. “I wanted to find out if it was just me or if others were feeling the same thing.”
Dr. Williams was awarded the outstanding graduate student award for clinical and mental health counseling, which gave him automatic admission into the Ph.D. program. As he began work on his dissertation, he decided to do a qualitative research study and use narrative theory, which is based on the concept that people are storytellers who make sense of their lives and connect with others through stories.
“I felt like instead of doing a quantitative study, I wanted to do a study that really captured the richness of these stories and narratives. It was a good decision because talking to the participants, it was amazing the things that were revealed,” he said.
He was first introduced to narrative theory and narrative therapy during a 2015 study abroad trip to Europe with the Center for the Study of Narrative. The concepts really resonated with him since he’s been telling his own stories through poetry since age 14. Dr. Williams recently presented the keynote lecture for the Center’s seventh annual Narrative Showcase.
“Marlon took the theoretical foundation of his introduction to narrative theory into his doctoral work by embedding this interdisciplinary approach throughout his advanced coursework, culminating with him combining qualitative research, narrative theory, narrative therapy and the psychological impacts of the grief of Black football players transitioning out of sports into a dissertation that I believe will become a seminal study,” Dr. Redmon said.
Dr. Williams interviewed 10 Black former Division I college football players between the ages of 29 and 50 from across the country. All of them experienced non-bereavement grief for at least six months and some for as long as 20 years. The loss of their careers, social network and identity all contributed to the burden they felt, and many didn’t have anyone to talk to about what they were going through.
Dr. Williams, who has published two books of poetry, is now working on a book that ties together his personal experiences as a collegiate athlete with the findings from his study. He hopes to eventually do a quantitative study to see just how prevalent grief is among Black former college football players nationwide and later conduct the study with former athletes in other sports.
He wants to help all athletes make the most of their lives after their sports careers end and provide mental health practitioners, coaches and families with a better understanding of what athletes are going through and how to navigate the challenges. It’s an opportunity to improve the outcome and well-being of athletes overall, since whole and healthy athletes are the most consistent ones.
“I want to empower other counselors and do research toward something that benefits us as a community of counselors and a country,” said Dr. Williams, who is teaching social and cultural issues in counseling as an adjunct professor at Mercer this summer. “With depression, anxiety and loneliness going way up among college students because of all the things going on right now, I want to help not only athletes but students and people in general.”