New Castle News

March 11, 2014

Steelers Partnership: From rags to riches, Croton native finds success by putting God, others first

David Burcham
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — As a boy, Damian Williams believed in himself even when circumstances didn’t seem to merit it.

Growing up in poverty in lower Croton, Damian didn’t always know when his next meal was coming.

When hunger pangs caused his stomach to growl, rummaging through a Dumpster in the back of a neighborhood grocery store usually sufficed. There, he found bread and other items that had been tossed out due of their expiration dates.

His family received food stamps, but they were often used to provide others in the family with cigarettes.

At Ben Franklin Junior High, Damian qualified for free lunches, but he wouldn’t use the green tickets to get them. “I had too much pride,” he said.

It might have appeared there was no way out, but the boy was determined to prove that persistence — along with faith in God and one’s self — can overcome obstacles.

Even as a youngster, Damian had an entrepreneurial spirit. He’d stop at Q’s Dairy and use money earned from doing chores for his neighbors to buy a box of snack cakes. Then he’d sell them out of the box for 50 cents each to other students.

“I always found ways to survive,” he said. “We have control over how we respond to adversity.”



BUSINESS LEADER AND CEO

Today, the New Wilmington resident is founder and chief executive officer of Leadership League LLC, a multi-faceted company. Damian lives on a 10,000-acre farm with his wife and business partner, Anne, and their two children, Jerica and Markus. His Pittsburgh office is located at the top of the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh.

In partnership with the Pittsburgh Steelers and former player and current broadcaster Tunch Ilkin, Damian has co-authored a new book “Forged in Steel: The Seven Time-Tested Leadership Principles Practiced By the Pittsburgh Steelers,” published by Mark Miner Communications.

These principles are used to teach leadership at the annual Forged in Steel leadership forum and in corporate training programs.

Leadership League manages a number of events for professional sports teams, the latest being the inaugural “Steelers Cruise” — involving more than 35 current and former players, as well as hundreds of fans. They set sail yesterday for a Caribbean tour.

“At 38, Damian is wise beyond his years with great poise and maturity,” said Miner, who passed on an initial offer to publish the book. When a second overture came weeks later, Miner hopped on board because of what he saw in Damian. “He understands human motivation and how teams respond to leadership and what good leadership is and what it is not.”

Damian learned it all along the way.

“My parents divorced and we bounced around a lot when I was young,” he said. 

After attending Ben Franklin in seventh and eighth grades, Damian went to New Castle High School for his freshman year. But he went to live with his grandfather, switching to Neshannock High School, where he competed in cross country.



DIFFERENT PATH

Had he followed the path of some others in his family, things might have turned out differently.

One of his relatives earned a place on America’s Most Wanted List for murder. Others had drug problems.

“That kind of thing can repeat unless a person chooses to go a different direction,” he said. “That wasn’t what I wanted.”

But Damian acknowledges he didn’t do it by himself. “You have to be blessed with good people in your life,” he said.

“And every step of my journey, from a kid through teen years and into adulthood, I was blessed with good mentors.

Mrs. Collingwood, a teacher at Croton Elementary, was one of those. “She made an impression about getting a good education and making something out of my life.”

Damian became more serious about his studies and eventually began tutoring other students.

“She was key in helping me set a trajectory.”

Growing up in New Castle was another blessing, according to Damian. “It’s the most competitive place in the world,” he said.



FOLLOWING CHRIST

As a young teen, Damian became a follower of Jesus Christ.

A neighbor, Dr. Jim Snow, used to drive neighborhood children to vacation Bible School and Sunday School at Croton United Methodist.

Damian began reading Scripture in seventh grade and was particularly affected by a verse that proclaimed the followers of Jesus “would have springs of living water flowing in and through them.”

He joined the youth group at Wesleyan Church on Pulaski Road, although he admitted at first it was just to play basketball there.

“But Rob Wothridge and Rev. Tim Figgs took me under their wings,” said Damian, who became a youth group leader there. By age 15, was teaching and preaching at church.

He desired to be a pastor and after high school attended Indiana Wesleyan College in Marion, Ind. He moved to Wisconsin and helped start a church — the first of many he would plant.

He met Anne in 1997 at a church camp in Wyoming, recruiting for a Christian School. He was so smitten by her that he convinced a pastor friend to create a position for her. They eventually married and he brought her to western Pennsylvania.

“Ministry was the right idea for me, but not as a traditional pastor,” Damian said.

He decided to launch an inner-city church in Pittsburgh. In 2006, the Steel City Church opened at a location that previously served as a nightclub.

“We put up posters throughout the Strip District and more than 200 people came to the first service,” he said. “Drug dealers, drug users, prostitutes and impoverished people came looking for God.”

Damian linked with Ilkin following a sports team chapel service he conducted. They soon shared ideas, and Ilkin embraced Damian’s vision.

“We created an experience on the road for Steeler fans, who are already there (in road locations prior to Steeler games) waiting for the team because they live in those markets,” Damian said.

“Fans can show up the team hotel, meet players and have a meal. Then Tunch talks about his Steeler experience and what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. We used that revenue to keep the inner city church going.

“Steeler fans just want to hear about the journey, and we let the players like Antwaan Randel-El and Randy Clark tell the story.”

As for Damian’s journey, it’s been quite a ride, and it’s still going.

(Email: d_burcham@ncnewsonline.com)