Greg Herenda doesn’t usually have a guest accompany him when he attends Fairleigh Dickinson’s annual graduation ceremony at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The spring of 2017 was different though, as Herenda swung by Newark Airport beforehand to pick up his guest.
The guest was 6-foot-7, 220-pound Chicago area native Elyjah Williams. The high school senior from Evanston, Illinois was just starting an official visit to FDU that May, late as it may have been in the recruiting season.
As Williams made his way into MetLife Stadium, the physically imposing, yet affable kid had the look of a football player because, well, he was a football player. And a good one at that. The former tight end and defensive lineman at Evanston High had thoughts about playing on the collegiate gridiron, especially after receiving a couple of serious Division I offers. But basketball was his true love, so there he was serving as Herenda’s wing man on graduation day.
That didn’t stop the gregarious Herenda from having a little fun at the FDU graduation ceremony as he brought Williams around to meet the university’s students and facility. His guest, Herenda quipped, was a free agent football player looking to sign with the New York Giants.
“It was actually pretty funny,” Williams said with a chuckle when recalling the event. “A couple of people I think actually believed him.”
The next day Herenda brought Williams to Prestos Pizza, a popular restaurant in Hackensack less than a mile away from the Rothman Center, the Knight’s home basketball court. Herenda likes to bring prospective student-athletes to his favorite pizza joint – it’s part of the process and a way to get to know his recruits in a one-on-one setting. It was on that day at Prestos where Herenda witnessed Williams’s attention to detail firsthand.
“I asked him to grab me a Diet Coke out of the case and it took him about five minutes,” Herenda said. “The next thing you know he comes back with a Diet Coke and on the back of it, it said the name Greg.”
Williams has astutely used Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign to impress his soon-to-be head coach. The teen had meticulously searched Prestos’ entire stock of 20-ounce Diet Coke bottles before finally finding a “Greg” on the back of one. According to Herenda, Williams even spun the bottle around perfectly when presenting the coach’s drink in the sitting booth.
Shortly thereafter on the visit, Williams was offered one of the Knights’ final scholarships for their 2017-18 roster. He swiftly accepted and the ordeal of being in recruitment limbo – should he or shouldn’t he go to prep school to extend his Division I dream – was thankfully over.
“It was definitely a rough process for me personally,” Williams, who a few months earlier had an offer from Holy Cross fall through, said. “When I came to the East Coast I really liked it a lot.”
With a versatile game centered around a myriad of skills and physicality, Williams made an immediate impact as a freshman. It wasn’t easy to do given FDU’s talent base and incoming recruiting class, which also included Jahlil Jenkins and Noah Morgan. Nevertheless, Williams was part of the Knights’ rotation for much of the 2017-18 campaign.
His effort that season in a January road game versus Bryant opened some eyes. On the very first play, Williams received the ball on the left baseline, made a move toward the basket, and flushed it home. The play was a harbinger of things to come in the game – he finished with then-career highs of 16 points, 14 rebounds and 3 steals – and it showcased his immense potential.
The following season illustrated Williams’ maturation, so much so that Herenda nearly doubled his minutes on the floor. The power forward’s impact during FDU’s magical NEC tournament run may have been understated alongside stars Darnell Edge, Mike Holloway and Jahlil Jenkins. But it surely wasn’t forgotten by the program bearer.
“Back then Elyjah just was a steady force on that team,” Herenda said of Williams’ impact as a role player. “He always did what was necessary of him.”
After procuring two critical offensive rebounds in the final minute of tight tournament semifinal victory over Robert Morris, Williams was fully entrenched as the Knights’ 3-man alongside Holloway and Kaleb Bishop in the finals. His insertion into the lineup to replace Xzavier Malone-Key, who missed the entire NEC tournament due to injury, created significant matchup problems for the number-1 seeded, perimeter centric Saint Francis U Red Flash.
“I think Elyjah Williams was the reason they were able to come in and knock us off, because of his physicality, and because of his versatility, and because of his skill set,” Saint Francis head coach Rob Krimmel said when reliving that painful loss in Loretto. “It was a better matchup for us with Malone-Key, and Malone-Key was a good player.”
In the nationally televised game, Williams played nearly 40 minutes, then a career high, and was terrific on both ends of the floor. The then-sophomore finished with 12 points on 5 of 7 shooting to go along with 3 rebounds and 4 blocks. The Knights were practically perfect offensively and won the championship game going away, 85-76. The Knights were bound for Dayton for the second time in four seasons.
But afterwards, Williams’ actions caught Krimmel’s eye once again. As the FDU players and coaches celebrated their triumph on the DeGol Arena floor, Williams ran past Krimmel and into the back hallway toward the Red Flash locker room. The Saint Francis coach initially thought something was amiss, so he quickly worked his way toward the hallway.
“I walk back and peek my head back and all (Williams) did was respect and congratulate Jamal (King) and Keith (Braxton),” Krimmel said of the moment. “Here his team is celebrating and he’s back in our hallway congratulating (SFU players). That’s a credit to the type of kid he is.”
Now merely games away from closing out his fourth season, the burly Williams has emerged as a top 10 player within the league. His impact on both ends is unmistakable, as he currently sits among the NEC leaders in a variety of categories such as effective field goal percentage (60.8%, 5th), blocks per game (1.4, 4th), scoring (14.2 ppg, 5th) and rebounding (7.5 rpg, 6th). And that production is there despite being quarantined due to COVID contract tracing protocols for more than 20 days during this season.
Among the impressive numbers, Williams’ versatility at his size is truly unique and a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. “He just has a real physical presence,” Herenda said. “When he goes downhill with the ball, especially in the open court he’s had highlights.” The coach also compared Williams’s transition game to watching a bruising running back barrel his way toward the goal line.
While the on-the-court production is nice, Herenda and Williams will forever cherish their close relationship – there are frequent one-on-one discussions far beyond the scope of basketball – both in the good times and the bad. The thing that Herenda most admires about his senior forward is his kindness and consistency, day in and day out.
“After every single game he comes and grabs me and gives me a pound or a hug,” Herenda said of Williams. “And we’ve lost some really hard games, we’ve won some big ones, but he’s very consistent in that. He’s a great sport.”
Williams’ future as a Knight is uncertain – he and Jenkins will discuss their future with Herenda at the conclusion of this season – but his impact is immense, whether there’s just two or 32 games left. After signing with the Knights late in the recruiting season, Williams has entrenched himself as an easy to root for champion and all-time great in FDU lore.