Mom's spirit facing terminal illness inspires Dexter Williams' return to Notre Dame football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The diagnosis of a second terminal illness last spring came with a blunt prognosis of just how long Cheryl Williams could expect to keep fighting back and making it matter.

She rattles off the details of her pulmonary arterial hypertension — and the equally incurable myasthenia gravis that preceded it by 12 years — seemingly detached from where this all may lead, as she leans back in a chair in a team meeting room Friday afternoon at Notre Dame’s Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

“You know what,” she says as a smile lights up her face, like she’s giving away a secret. “I’m one of those people that you don’t tell me when to check out. I’ll tell you when I’m ready to go. That’s me.”

Who Cheryl Williams is also apparently means flying to South Bend from her home in Orlando, Fla., roughly five weeks ago to curate the relaunch of the football career of the youngest of her five children, Irish senior running back Dexter Williams. She did so without any kind of safety net except for her faith.

Since moving into the South Bend apartment with Dexter — and, reluctantly, his pet bearded dragon lizard, Rocko — Cheryl has missed a handful of doctor’s appointments and three scheduled plasma-infusion treatments for her labored breathing.

She never had the time to script out an emergency plan should her condition deteriorate to the point that it regularly has at roughly two-month intervals since 2006, where hospitalization is required to bring her symptoms under control.

In fact, in 2010, it got so bad that she spent three months in the hospital on life support, waking up less than 24 hours before she was to be disconnected from the equipment keeping her alive.

Through it all and even more now, Cheryl Williams, 60, has never heard the clock ticking on the three- to five-year window she was given to live last spring break — the window when one or both of her maladies are supposed to make her indomitable spirit irrelevant.

What she didn’t miss were the tears, her son Dexter sobbing after each of the four games he missed due to a university-imposed suspension that has lapsed and given way to his reintegration into the Irish running back mix.

“Dexter never once thought about leaving and going somewhere else after he was suspended. No. No. No,” Cheryl says. “Dexter’s been taught to take responsibility for anything that he does. He did that, and he did it well.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly agrees.

“He’s better in all facets than the Dexter Williams version that we had in the spring,” he said earlier in the week.

Saturday night, Dexter Williams — ND’s No. 1 option at running back last spring, and still its most explosive — made his re-entry on a grand stage as No. 8 Notre Dame clashed with No. 7 Stanford in the first top 10 showdown at Notre Dame Stadium in 13 seasons.

The very first time he touched the ball, he blasted through the line and ran away from the Stanford defense for a 45-yard touchdown. At night's end, he had overshadowed and outplayed Cardinal Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love, with career highs in carries (21) and yards (161) in a 38-17 Irish rout.

The last time Dexter lost the battle with his tear ducts, though, after watching on TV as his Irish teammates dismantled Wake Forest on the road, had a different emotion attached than the first three.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Cheryl said. “I’m like, ‘Oh God, what is it now?’ And he just told me, ‘Mom I’m just happy it’s almost over. I’m just happy. I’ll be able to play this weekend.’

“And how the guys rallied around him that Sunday after they got back from the Wake Forest game and welcomed him back. He said ‘Mom, these are my brothers. And that made all the difference in the world to me.’ “

Former ND running backs Josh Adams and C.J. Prosise, both in the NFL now and both of whom gobbled up carries ahead of Williams, are still a part of that, too.

“C.J.and Josh, they’re on the phone with Dexter almost every single day,” Cheryl says. “Like they’re still here, and I think the brotherhood that these guys have is going to take Dexter beyond those days when I’m no longer here. So I want him to have that.”

As she finishes her sentence, Notre Dame players start filing down the hallway in the Gug on their way to a team meeting.

Every one of them who happens to peek through the door, to see who the voices they are hearing are connected to, reroute into the room to give Cheryl a hug. Every one.

“I don’t know whether a lot of times people don’t pay any attention to it, but there can be so much bashing with these kids,” she says, “when they have little flaws or they have errors in their life. I don’t think anybody’s perfect. Nobody.

“And nobody’s kids are perfect. For these players to encourage themselves and each other like they do, it makes a lot of difference.”

'Gift from God'

Cheryl makes Dexter breakfast every day, since relocating 1,100 miles to the north. There’s a hot meal waiting for him when he gets home at night. And someone to listen.

She even went with him to his African Arts class on Thursday.

“When I found out late last spring that he was going to be suspended the first few games, I didn’t want him to go through that alone,” Cheryl says. “Dexter is my gift from God. When I got sick (in 2010), Dexter’s was the last face I saw. When I woke up, he was standing next to my bed.

“Before I go to bed every night, we’re praying. When we get up in the morning, he asks me if I have the strength to pray with him. And those days when I don’t feel well enough to pray, he’ll say, ‘Mama, I got you. I’ll pray for the both of us. Go ahead and rest.’

“And that’s the way we handle each other. We take it one day at a time. That’s all we’re given. I’ve said if I had to tell anybody anything that I’ve learned from my experience, it would be to not worry about tomorrow or yesterday. Today. Live for today.”

Myasthenia gravis makes even that challenging. It is defined by its disconnecting of the nerves and voluntary muscles, which results in symptoms such as weakness of the arms and legs, double vision, drooping eyelids and difficulty speaking, chewing, swallowing and breathing.

The double vision and slurred speech chased Cheryl from a career as a private school teacher more than a decade ago. It has become even more limiting over time.

Extreme heat or extreme cold aggravate it. That’s why she had to miss the Sept. 1 opener with Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium on a brutally muggy night. She can’t be in direct sunlight either.

“Where you get a sniffle or a little cold, you can take something and you’re good,” Cheryl says. “For me, it will turn into pneumonia overnight. On a good day, I can be active for up to 30 or 40 minutes. After that I have to stop. After that my body will shut down.”

The pulmonary arterial hypertension is defined as high pressure in the lungs.

“It puts a lot of stress on the heart,” Cheryl says. “For Dexter, when they put a number on it (life expectancy), it disturbed him more than anything.

“But I don’t let me illness define me. I don’t let the way I feel from day to day define how I’m going to be with anybody. You will always see me with a smile on my face and never know if I’m sick or well.”

She is determined that Dexter’s 2016 arrest for marijuana possession and this season’s suspension for undisclosed reasons won’t define him, either.

“He was telling me at one time, ‘I keep having these little bad things happen to me, just one after another. It’s just nothing positive ever,’” Cheryl says. “And I told Dexter, “You have two options, and the best one that’s going to get you the furthest down the road is for you to look at it like blessings and lessons.

“So even though these things are lessons — hard lessons — you have to consider them as blessings, too. You’ve got to change the way you’re looking at it. Learn from it. Grow from it.’ ”

'A good mom'

The blessing Cheryl sees in her own lessons is that she never let her circumstances alter her dream.

“All I ever wanted to be is a mom. A good mom,” she says.

And a mom who was determined that her children’s dreams would come alive for them.

“Dexter’s dream long term? For him to make it to the NFL, of course,” she says. “And to find a girl like his mom.”

She flashes the broad smile again.

Today’s dream is about stepping into a second chance. Playing football again for Notre Dame and working toward the degree Dexter is on track to complete work on in December.

By midweek, he’ll be doing both with only Rocko around in the apartment, as Cheryl flies back to Orlando to catch up on her medical treatments.

“Dexter, he’s turned into such a young man, I think the hardships have done that for him, his own and mine. He knows with myasthenia, you don’t know what it’s going to be like from one day to the next day. So he’s kind of used to living on the edge.

“He doesn’t like it. I don’t like it, but you have what you have and you have to deal with it. I think my being here every day, so that he can see me, made all the difference in the world.”

Dexter Williams hugs his mom, Cheryl, during the player walk before the Notre Dame's 38-17 romp over Stanford, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame's Dexter Williams high fives fans before the Michigan at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.