At Mount Vernon High School, Darryl Williams’ teammates called him “Bossman.” Nearly four decades later, the nickname remains as apt as ever.
Over the course of his nearly four-decade career, Williams has risen through the ranks of the U.S. Army to become a three-star general. His latest posting has put him in command of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where the 1979 Mount Vernon grad has made history by becoming the first black superintendent in the academy’s 231-year history.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley presided over Williams’ July 2 change-of-command ceremony, saying Williams was the right person for the job after proving himself time and again in some of the toughest leadership positions the Army has to offer.
“This is an officer of tremendous talent, confidence [and] character,” Milley said during the ceremony. “And I have no doubt in my mind he’s going to make his own historic mark on this academy.”
Williams began his Army career 39 years ago this summer as a plebe at West Point, just months after leading the Mount Vernon basketball team to the 1979 Virginia AAA title. He would excel in a different sport at West Point, becoming a three-year letterman in football while playing defensive line. He graduated in 1983, and since then has served around the world, including combat tours in the Iraq War and Operation Desert Storm.
As a two-star general in 2014, Williams held his most high-profile job, overseeing the U.S. military’s response to the Ebola crisis in Liberia as commander of U.S. Army Africa.
Darryl Williams is pictured with two generals from Tanzania during Williams’ tenure as commander of U.S. Army Africa. (Army image)
Williams’ most recent job was in Turkey as commander of Allied Land Command for NATO. Other stops during his career include a stint as Deputy Chief of Staff for U.S. Army in Europe in Germany, and Deputy Commanding General for Support for the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea. He also has served as commanding general for the Army Warrior Transition Command.
‘He just dominated’
Mount Vernon’s 1979 state championship basketball team is ingrained in the sports lore of the Route 1 area. Coached by Virginia High School League hall of famer Don McCool, the undersized Majors managed to outrun and outwork taller teams all the way to the title.
Derek Steele, currently an assistant principal at Mount Vernon, was a junior point guard for the Majors that year. On a squad loaded with talented players, Steele said nobody meant more to the team’s success than Williams, who was an imposing force at the center position despite standing just 6 foot 2 inches tall.
“He was so strong physically,” Steele recalls. “But mentally he worked so much harder [than opponents]. He controlled the middle of the floor.”
Steele said teammates referred to Williams as “Bossman,” because he was a natural leader. He wasn’t particularly vocal, but he carried himself in a down-to-earth, confident manner that commanded respect, Steele said.
“And when he did speak, everybody listened,” Steele said. “He was the leader of leaders. He did not back down from anybody.”
Williams was also a standout on the football team as well, playing defensive end.
“He just dominated,” Steele said.
The year after Williams graduated, the Majors would win the Northern Region football championship and embark on a nearly 10-year run of being one of the best teams in Northern Virginia. Steele credits the example set by Williams for inspiring student-athletes who came after him.
“He had a tremendous impact on Mount Vernon’s culture,” Steele said, listing off other Majors who would earn scholarships and go on to play college sports. “That was all driven by Darryl because of what he did in the classroom, and what he did on the field.”
A deep connection
Williams isn’t the only former Major to move to West Point this summer. Five members of Mount Vernon’s class of 2018 are currently going through cadet basic training at the academy before starting classes in the fall.
In fact, Mount Vernon has prided itself on regularly sending graduates to West Point and the other military academies, according to former principal Nardos King and current principal Anthony Terrell. The most high-profile recent grad was Eugene “E.J.” Coleman, who graduated from Mount Vernon in 2012 and was commissioned as an officer in 2016. Coleman was the first African American to serve as Class President and First Captain in West Point’s history, and only the seventh cadet overall to accomplish those feats.
Terrell said West Point’s deep ties to Mount Vernon are a point of community pride.
“We are awfully proud of them, and grateful to West Point for honoring our graduates’ commitment to academic excellence and service,” said Terrell.
Despite the constant moves and deployments that come with a nearly 40-year military career — Williams has lived or served on four different continents during that time — Williams has maintained a connection with Mount Vernon. He was honored at Mount Vernon’s 75th anniversary in 2015 and voted into the school’s athletic hall of fame the same year. He’s also visited the school on occasion, speaking with current teachers and coaches.
Majors boys basketball coach Lou Golden met Williams when he returned to Mount Vernon during a 2016 Christmas tournament. After the game, Williams spoke with Golden at length and gave him an Army “challenge coin” from his unit.
“I felt very honored to receive it from him and have the opportunity just to talk about Mount Vernon and how he made it to where he is,” Golden said.
The late Michael Skinner, a longtime principal at Mount Vernon who worked at the school for 28 years, often spoke of Williams to staff members and students, according to King.
“[Skinner] just had such high admiration of him,” King said. “He just beamed every time he talked about Darryl.”
Skinner, who passed away in 2016, emphasized to others that Williams had excelled at Mount Vernon far beyond his achievements on the football field or basketball court.
“He was very proud … not only because of [Darryl’s] athletic ability,” King recalled Skinner saying. “[But because] he was a great student, a great kid, a great leader.”