For most athletes, athletic careers start, and often end, in local youth sports organizations. For Gerard Johnson and Lionel Williams, their time together at... Johnson, Williams to play pro football in Europe

For most athletes, athletic careers start, and often end, in local youth sports organizations.

For Gerard Johnson and Lionel Williams, their time together at Beulah Elementary School ended up being a springboard all the way to pro football.

Johnson, a Meadowbrook High graduate, and Williams, a L.C. Bird High alum, are preparing to travel to Europe to play professionally in Finland’s Maple League. This will be Johnson’s second season in the league, while Williams will be entering his rookie year.

Under coach Troy Taylor at Meadowbrook, Johnson was one of the area’s best quarterbacks, leading the Monarchs to a Central District title his senior year. He committed and signed with Old Dominion University, where he primarily played running back. He transferred to Norfolk State under coach Latrell Scott looking for a fresh start after his sophomore season and got one, but battled some injuries his senior year.

In 23 games, including 15 starts, Johnson gained 1,478 yards from scrimmage and scored four touchdowns. He caught 44 passes, showing he could be a dual threat. He proved he could play at the next level.

Johnson explored his National Football League options, but ultimately, on the advice of a friend and former teammate from ODU, Colby Goodwin, emailed his film to European coaches. That led to him playing for the Goteborg Marvels in Sweden last year. As a dual threat quarterback, he was fourth in passing with 976 yards and nine touchdowns, and ran for 314 yards and seven scores.

“My first year playing professionally was a life-changing experience,” Johnson said. “Being able to play the game you love while seeing different countries is something most people don’t get to do,” he continued. “I won’t take it for granted for a second.”

Williams was on the radar of several top schools during his sophomore and junior years. However, an injury sustained during his junior season left the recruiting trail cold. Schools such as UVA, Virginia Tech and Rutgers had shown interest, but backed off. As a senior, Williams visited Norfolk State and Christopher Newport universities. “[CNU coach Justin Wood] basically just told me to bet on myself and to go Division I,” Williams said. “He told me not to settle and to take a chance on myself.”

During his senior season, when the Skyhawks and coach David Bedwell won the first of three state championships, Williams caught the eye of a Alabama recruiter who had originally come to watch Manchester’s Holland Fisher, who eventually committed to Virginia Tech. With the help of Wood and a few emails, Williams eventually went to Louisiana State University with a “preferred” walk-on status. Good film and outstanding academics enabled him to take the step to Baton Rouge.

“My mother really instilled academics in me,” Williams said. “She worked her butt off for my siblings and [me], and I learned how to work hard from her.”

Williams flourished on special teams with the Tigers, and saw some time at linebacker while playing with some names today that NFL fans know well, such as Cleveland Browns wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry and Jacksonsville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette.

After three seasons with the Tigers and an undergraduate degree, Williams had a year of eligibility left. He played out his last year of eligibility at Northwestern State, a Division I FCS school in Natchitoches, La. He played in all 10 games for the Demons, tallying 14 tackles, a sack and three pass break-ups.

After a productive pro day, a stint playing football in China, and then for the USA Eagles in Dayton, Ohio, Williams got in touch with Johnson, who helped make it possible for him to log his first season in Europe.

This year, Johnson will suit up for the Kuopio Steelers, and Williams will play for the Tampere Saints.

Over time, American football has risen in popularity in Europe, with many countries founding their own leagues.

NFL commissioner Roger Goddell helped operate NFL Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, which served as a proving ground for many athletes to make the jump to the NFL. Proving themselves is a goal for both Johnson and Williams, who are hungry for more success.

“I’m blessed,” Williams said. “Even being considered or scouted for the next level is a great opportunity to have. I am just putting my best foot forward.”

“Any chance that I get to step on the field, I’m appreciative of,” Johnson said. “Being able to showcase my talent to others is just a plus.”

The Maple League kicks off May 23-25, and it will be the next opportunity for two local standouts to make themselves known, yet again.