HYATTSVILLE, Md. – It’s a cold and windy Thursday afternoon, and Washington Redskins safety Madieu Williams is leading the huddle.
Only, it’s not December and he’s not on FedEx Field calling a play to fend off an opposing offense trying to score.
It’s March, and he’s on the playground of Hyattsville Elementary School trying to convince a group of kids it’s too cold to play outside.
“We’re going inside on three,” Williams says to the chorus of “no’s” coming from 16 voices bundled up in winter coats. But, they’re here both for and because of Williams, so they break the huddle and head to the gym.
He started the Madieu Williams Foundation in 2006 while in his third season playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. Even before signing with the Redskins, Williams brought the foundation to Prince George’s County in 2011 while playing for the San Francisco 49ers.
“It’s something we’ve talked about for a long time, Dahlia, and I,” says Williams, a DuVal High School graduate. Dahlia, is Dahlia Levin, executive director of the Madieu Williams Foundation.
Levin and Williams first met while they were both students at the University of Maryland. Levin worked for Maryland football as an academic counselor for players. Williams was one of her students. They’ve been close friends ever since.
A call from Williams led Levin to joining forces with him.
“He said ‘you’d be perfect for this,'” recalls Levin.
Luckily, or unluckily, for her, she was open. After working 10 years as an adviser in the Terrapins football program, she was fired once head coach Randy Edsall brought his new regime to town.
“One of the things on my bucket list is working for something I really believe in, and I am now,” says Levin.
Among Levin’s countless responsibilities, laying out the program guidelines is one of the biggest. They fall into three categories: physical activity, academics and life skills. The kids get a heavy dose of each one.
“We learn life skills every day. We haven’t missed one single day,” says 11-year- old Areya Plummer.
The sixth-grader also says she wants to be a singer and an actress, and likes to climb things. So, for now, she’ll stick with queen of hanging on the 7-foot basketball rim in the gym.
The program is for students from the 3rd- through 6th grades. They meet with the 20 kids in the program from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
There are nine volunteers, among them current and former Maryland football players. It’s a step up from the one day a week meeting last year, and only two volunteers. Williams and Levin both attribute that to parent involvement, and a growing relationship with the school.
“The teachers here are amazing,” Levin says. “They’re all in now.”
Adrian Dunston, 12, says Williams is an inspiration for him.
“I’m happy I get to work with him, because he’s inspiring me more to follow my dream to go to the NFL,” Dunston says. He’ll go to middle school next year and says he’ll miss being a member of “Dieu’s Crew.”
For Williams it’s the education aspect where he’s most focused. He grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He says because resources were scarce, education was at a premium and his mother, Abigail Burscher, wouldn’t let go it to waste.
“It was not negotiable. I knew I was going to school. I knew I was going to college,” Williams says.
Williams moved to the U.S. with his mother and his younger brother Michael Williams when he was 9.
Being exposed to an abundance of educational opportunities in the states led Williams to stress its importance in the program because kids in other parts of the world “don’t have the same access to education” as American children.
Williams is expecting his first child in July, and says he’ll do the same with his son.
For now he’ll continue to impart what wisdom he can on his 20 impressionable kids. And, while some will be moving on, he smiles knowing they see “Dieu’s Crew” not as a program, but as a family.
“You look forward to coming in here on Tuesdays and Thursdays because it’s an adventure,” Williams says.