By Darren Lum
Haliburton Highlands Hall of Fame inductee Taly Williams may be the first pro football player to come from here, but it’s his achievements in applied science and environmental engineering that has truly changed lives.
Williams, who is the co-founder and managing partner at AQORA Capital, an investment firm in Los Angeles focused on water infrastructure, technology and services, is among the first group of inductees for the Hall of Fame. He joins fellow athletes Michael Bradley, Glen Dart, Cody Hodgson, Donald Beverley “Joe” Iles, Marla MacNaull, Bernie Nicholls, Ron Stackhouse, Lesley Tashlin, Anna Tomlinson, and Jake Walker while Linda Brandon, Albert John “Ab” LaRue and Lenny Salvatori are going in as builders. There was an induction ceremony planned for later this year, but that has been postponed until next year because of concerns related to COVID-19.
Williams learned he was being inducted earlier this year around the time the JDHES student effort to have him and his sister be added to the athletes’ mural wall on the side of the A.J. LaRue Arena was at its height.
He appreciated being recognized with the induction.
“It’s great to be in the Haliburton [Highlands] Hall of Fame. Haliburton is obviously a phenomenal hockey town and includes athletes from here that made it to the highest level in other sports too. The announcement did come during the whole mural discussion so it kind of overshadowed it a bit for me, but I’m still very happy to be inducted. I don’t think I ever looked back at my career until this year when the mural discussion came up and a comment came up during council whether or not who deserved that. So it was an opportunity to go back and take a look at and say, ‘What are my accomplishments?’”
His achievements include holding two high school track records that still stand today, being the first Highlands athlete to play pro football, which he did with the Hamilton Tiger Cats and the Toronto Argonauts from 1994 to 1996, graduating from Waterloo University with a degree in applied science/civil engineer and environmental engineering in 1994, awarded patents and trademarks, designing and overseeing the construction of the first drinking water plant in US history to comply with the U.S. Government’s public health requirements to remediate the toxic gasoline additive, MTBE, including using his applied science background to invent a golfing training aid, the TALY MIND Set.
When Williams was a youth he moved from the area to live in Toronto for several years following a divorce. Near the end of his high school career, he returned to the area and would graduate with the second highest overall average from the Haliburton Highlands Secondary School. It was an achievement he still holds high on his list of achievements for what it was and for how it countered the stereotype that Blacks are not intelligent.
HHSS was where he not only first played football, but was where his teachers inspired, his coaches motivated, his peers spurred him on to his academic best, but it also set him up for professional success.
High school coaches called Williams a gifted athlete. He still holds a record in the high jump of 1.90 metres and triple jump of 13.10 metres. These are records that still stand after more than three decades.
His high academic average helped him earn entry to the well-regarded engineering program at Waterloo University.
Williams said even though his degree was in civil engineering, it was his optional area of study in environmental engineering that led him down a path for his success and to what he currently does.
“One thing I wanted as an engineer was I did not want to just go and redo what everybody else had done. Environmental engineering … there’s always something new going in the environment and some new contaminant out there that’s destroying water or something. That’s why I got into environmental engineering. You got an opportunity to come up with new things,” he said.
There is pride behind being a key figure for water remediation in the environmental engineering field.
“That’s actually why I went over to Los Angeles. I had an idea and I worked with another engineering firm over there and we pilot-tested and came up with a new type of treatment and were able to get it permitted,” he said.
Before the treatment plant, Santa Monica didn’t have drinking water available through their water treatment plant in 1999. The oil companies were paying to bring in drinking water because of how they were contaminating the water source.
After a few years, his water plant proved its self.
“We ran it for a number of years and showed, hey, it’s reliable and its effective and we’re able to get their water back. At the same time, my job turned into more of a litigation support because of the big lawsuit against the oil companies for actually contaminating the water, so I ended up being the lead technical expert, as part of my role, which is something I do a lot of now,” he said.
Now he is often called on as an expert and is currently still involved with lawsuits related to MTBE contamination of water sources in New Jersey, Pennsylannia, Puerto Rico. His expertise in water remediation is recognized around the world.
There is a value in giving back. It’s something he wants to do since being involved with the mural effort in Haliburton. He hopes his story can inspire others, who may be facing similar challenges that he endured growing up in a small town with his four sisters, including Tashlin, an Olympian.
“We grew up with very little. We were poor. Haliburton is a beautiful place with cottages and lakes, but that’s not how I grew up. And I’ve come to learn that that’s not how many that live in Haliburton even now, grow up. And kudos to my mom because even though we didn’t have much, somehow she raised five kids who all went on to be great parents, excellent citizens, with careers. For anyone out there who is going through this right now, I say: hang in there. You can do it. It gets better. As hard as my childhood was, I would never change it. It made me the person that I am today. And I am comfortable in saying that I am one of the best in the world and I came from very little. And it’s because I came from very little, that I’m able to empathize with certain things and hopefully help others coming up,” he wrote in an email. “To others out there: If you can; give, give, give. It’s absolutely amazing what the littlest amount of giving can do for a child. Even a used pair of shoes gives confidence to a child. Don’t ask if they need help. Just find a way to discreetly have something show up at their door. When I was in college one of my sisters used to send me baked cookies once in a while. An aunt used to send a box every couple of years with some toiletries and stuff. These little bits of giving can provide that little bit of a pick-me-up that brings a little smile that day, that helps that kid keep pushing on.”
When it comes to being the best in the world, it does not have anything to do with football, he said.
“It’s a belief that I have and that I preach that we are all the best in the world at something. We just have to uncover what that is. It may be fishing. It may be driving a Ski-Doo. You may never know. Along the way in life we start to notice, or other people notice, (or some people never discover), what it is that we are the best in the world at. And it’s our choice what we do with it. But it takes a tremendous amount of digging to discover exactly what that is. We may have an idea that we are a pretty good writer, but with a lot of digging it may be that we discover that it is a very specific type of kids book that we are the best in the world at writing. Once you’ve discovered it or come close, you can be confident in saying that you are the best in the world at it,” he said.
His time in the pro ranks of the gridiron was brief.
Leaving football was a conscious decision for his health and for his professional future.
“Hey, I’m an engineer. I’m not dumb,” he said. “Football is very dangerous. That’s the first thing and it’s very cut throat.”
He adds as a defensive back he was used to hearing a lot of trash talking while covering wide receivers, who he said were the “mouthiest” players on the field. Second to them were the defensive backs. The coaches for both groups were also equally mouthy.
“What you would get was, ‘Be glad you got a job Williams!’ You get a lot of that kind of talk. It’s all fun and games, but at the same time it’s very real. Everybody there needs that cheque and a lot of these guys from the U.S. really need that cheque and they’ll really use that against you. They’ll cut you or threaten to cut you. So, [it was often], ‘Cut the Canadian. He’s not going to go and join another team somewhere else per se he’s going to be here. He’s not going to be flying back and be out of town. I can call him two weeks later and get him back on the team,’” he said.
He equated the treatment of players to being like a “piece of meat” and he even recounts leaving and then being asked to return, but with an increased salary.
With his academic background he didn’t have to rely solely on football to make money so left the game.
At the foundation of his strength are Christian tenets.
He said the Bible is his favourite book.
“I really believe in honesty. I really believe in doing things the proper way. We grew up as a very religious family. I think honesty and integrity and some of the principles that are taught in the bible … at the end of the day you got to have some basis and morals for anything you do and there’s no book better than that,” he said.
Coincidentally, football wasn’t a passion for Williams growing up, who always liked basketball and track and field more. It came down to the odds for success that seemed to embolden his decision to play on the gridiron.
With 53 roster spots for a CFL team compared to 15 for an NBA basketball team, the law of averages to make a professional team was better. He actually loved basketball more than football.
It took some encouragement from one of his football coaches at Waterloo, who noticed CFL scouts watching him play, to put a tape together so his skills could be documented for the CFL draft. Playing professionally just wasn’t part of his reality until then.
“Football was never a dream of mine. And it wasn’t until even my – three years of football at Waterloo – it was my last year of football my coach said, ‘Hey, there are some scouts here looking to come and see other players, a running back, but everybody keeps asking about, ‘Hey, who’s that guy there?’ And he said you should probably put together a little highlight reel together because maybe you might get drafted. And we did that.’ It was from that point there where I started to dream about playing professional football. You know, making the big play. Making the big interception, or doing this, or doing that. I never really did that as a kid. I missed out on that,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to dream and I know I didn’t have those representations when I was growing up in Haliburton. For example, that is what those murals can bring, or any sort of recognition in Haliburton to definitely for other Black kids, minorities, Asian, Indian, Indigenous … it could be even just poor people to understand, you know what even if you don’t come from a lot … believe in your self. Keep plugging away. Just keeping doing what you can do. Differentiate yourself from other people and keep working hard and there’s a chance that you can be anything you put your mind to,” he said.