Notre Dame RB Dexter Williams inspires mother in fight against rare disease

Running for a purpose

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Cheryl Williams won’t let go.

She can’t. She made a promise.

Williams — whose son, Dexter, is a sophomore running back at Notre Dame — was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune neuromuscular disorder called myasthenia gravis in 2006, following a series of small strokes. The disease effectively disconnects the nerves and voluntary muscles, resulting in weakness of the arms and legs, double vision, drooping eyelids and difficulty speaking, chewing, swallowing and breathing.

There is no cure for myasthenia gravis, which is derived from the Greek and Latin words meaning “grave muscular weakness.”

But in Cheryl and Dexter, there is abundant strength.

“Dexter’s my reason for fighting this illness like I do,” Cheryl Williams wrote in a series of messages to the Tribune on Monday. “A day doesn’t pass that he and I aren't on the phone encouraging each other and praying together.”

Even when they’re apart, they’re together.

They were together in 2010, when Dexter came home from school and went to give his mother a kiss, only to find her unresponsive. Cheryl was rushed to a hospital, where she remained on life support for three months.

“I woke up 23 hours before my family was to disconnect the machines,” Cheryl wrote, “and guess who was standing at my side?”

“Not yet, momma,” Dexter told her, pleading through his tears. “Not yet. Not yet.”

So she kept fighting. Cheryl attended very few of her son’s high school football games in Orlando, receiving regular chemotherapy and plasmapheresis treatments that continues to land her in the hospital every three to four months.

Meanwhile, Dexter ran — for his mother, and for himself.

“He was like a Pop Warner legend around here, man,” his high school coach, Bob Head, said with a hearty chuckle. “The first time I saw him get in the open field … we had a pretty good defense. We made it to the third round of the playoffs (in his freshman) year. Our defense, in 8A football, was really good.

“Dexter just pulled away from them (in practice), and I was like, ‘Oh my God. This kid has got a different gear.’”

Williams starred for Head for two years at Olympia High School in Orlando, then transferred to West Orange High School for his senior season to be reunited with his former coach. The consensus four-star recruit rushed for 1,072 yards in his junior season and 871 more yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior, leading West Orange to its best record (11-1) in school history.

Publicly, he soared. But privately, he struggled.

“It was really hard on Dexter, because he and his mom are best friends,” Head said. “His mom was going through some really rough chemotherapy, really going through a rough time. There were a couple days Dexter came to me crying, saying, ‘Coach, I don’t know if I can make it to practice today. My mom’s really, really struggling.’

“It was horrible. He persevered and got through it. He was dynamite. We couldn’t get the ball to him enough.”

Dexter gobbled up carries and yards, radiating positivity, emitting a light that continued to burn even in the midst of a crushing darkness. Together, he and his mother committed to Notre Dame.

Always together, even when apart.

“He sends me flowers on occasion,” Cheryl wrote, “constantly checking on me to make sure I want for nothing.”

A 5-foot-11, 210-pound sophomore, Williams played sparingly as a freshman, rushing for 81 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. In August, Dexter was arrested along with four teammates and charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. He has yet to be made available for interviews since.

Life hasn’t always been easy, both for Cheryl and her son.

“I'm sure it has been very difficult at times for him to be so far away, especially when he's in trouble,” Cheryl wrote. “He has handled himself as I expected — with respect, gratitude and patience.

“He has grown and matured so much in this last month, and I couldn't be more proud.”

Williams’ physical growth has been evident on Saturdays, as he has chugged for 163 yards, three touchdowns and 7.8 yards per carry. The losses have piled up in Notre Dame's 2-3 start, but Dexter’s determination hasn’t wavered.

“The way he practices during the week, his energy, his enthusiasm, his attitude … all the things that I'm looking for in this football team he embodies right now,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Williams following Notre Dame’s unexpected loss to Duke.

Dexter’s success fuels Cheryl’s perseverance. They strengthen each other, encourage each other.

She remembers what he told her. Not yet. Not yet.

“I watch every game, some during treatment along with the doctors and nurses. They all know him,” Cheryl wrote. “His dad and I both are attending the game against Miami and the one (against Navy) in Jacksonville. My greatest regret is that I can't be there more often.”

Maybe so, but she’s there enough. Despite the lingering effects of chemotherapy, Cheryl attended Notre Dame’s loss to Duke on Sept. 28, watching as her son grinded through one tackle, two tackles, three tackles, before diving emphatically into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown.

He pointed into the crowd, at his mother.

She sat inside Notre Dame Stadium and cried.

“There is nothing greater than seeing him and the joy in his eyes when he's given the chance to play,” Cheryl wrote. “I literally cry like a baby when he's playing, but simply out of joy and gratitude.”

“We had one guy on the entire football team that had emotion and fire,” Kelly said following the loss. “That is Dexter Williams.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to understand why.

Williams built on his Duke performance in last weekend’s 50-33 victory over Syracuse, reversing field on a handoff in the second half and bolting 59 yards for another score.

“I consider Dexter like a son to me,” Head said. “I texted him after he scored on Saturday. I was fired up to say the least.”

“It was a very good performance by him,” Notre Dame associate head coach and offensive play caller Mike Denbrock said on WSBT's Weekday Sportsbeat on Monday. “I loved his aggressiveness running the ball. His vision and his breakaway ability is unmistakable.

“He’s a guy that’s going to continue, I think, to work himself in there. We’ve got to get him on the field and get him playing more.”

The more he plays, the more Dexter Williams dazzles. He runs for a greater purpose.

He keeps fighting. So does she.

“I promised him that I wouldn't let go until he reached his goals,” Cheryl Williams wrote.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) pumps up the crowd after taking the field during the Notre Dame-Michigan State NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN