Notre Dame rover Asmar Bilal (Ben Davis High School) on what it meant to hear coach Brian Kelly compliment his play vs. Stanford
Mike Berardino, Mike Berardino
SOUTH BEND – Cheryl Williams had just finished making breakfast for the youngest of her five children when her cellphone buzzed with a call from a reporter.
What was on the menu for Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams, fresh off a 21-carry, 161-yard season debut against Stanford, on this Thursday morning?
“Oh, he likes soft scrambled eggs, toast — two slices — bacon and/or sausage and grits,” says Williams, 60. “That’s every day. He’s eating biscuits this morning.”
The young man she affectionately calls “Big Baby” left for college several years ago, but mother and son were reunited this fall as the senior served an unconfirmed four-game suspension. Concerned about Dexter’s spirits as he waited for September to crawl past, Cheryl Williams flew north from Davenport, Fla., west of Orlando, and moved in with her son.
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Ever since, the Williams apartment has been a beehive of activity, just the way it was when Dexter was starring at West Orange High School in Winter Garden, Fla. Teammates come and go throughout the day, hot meals awaiting them at nearly any hour, as Williams and his mother make all feel welcome.
“She’s the matriarch of that family,” Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly says. “I remember recruiting Dexter, and Dexter’s home was kind of the safe sanctuary for all the kids in the neighborhood. I know when I visited that home, she would have 10, 15 kids in that home, just because it was a safe sanctuary — and she was the matriarch of that neighborhood.”
Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois, Kent State quarterback Woody Barrett and Indiana defensive end Brandon Wilson all were honorary Williams family members.
“Everybody’s kids are my kids,” Cheryl Williams says. “It’s always been that way. I’m not at home, but there’s never a weekend I don’t have somebody else’s kids at my house. I’m always the place to go.”
So it has become again this fall for the Fighting Irish.
“These guys on this team are the most mannerly guys that I’ve ever met in my life,” she says. “When I cook for Dexter, if there’s food and they’re here or they’re nearby, he’ll call them and they’ll come over. I don’t mind. That’s just me. I’ve always been that way. They all call me, ‘Mom.’”
Listening to Cheryl Williams talk about the joy she derives from helping others, it’s easy to forget she is slowly dying.
Since 2006 she has battled myasthenia gravis, a terminal illness for which there is no cure. Every two months or so, her symptoms (fatigue, shortness of breath, sensitivity to extreme heat or cold) would worsen to the point she required hospitalization.
In 2010, she spent three months in the hospital and was nearly taken off life support before rallying. Her condition still caused her to give up teaching at Pentecostal Christian Academy, where she was responsible at various times for kindergarten through fifth grade.
Since the spring she has been dealing with pulmonary arterial hypertension, which came with a sobering prognosis from her team of doctors: She probably wouldn’t survive more than another three to five years.
That news hit Dexter and the rest of the Williams family hard, but once the tears had dried it was time to get back to work. Leonard Williams, her husband of 27 years, works long hours building swimming pools, but he did all he could to pick up the slack and drive his wife to her many doctor’s appointments whenever he could.
“Leonard is my backbone,” Cheryl says. “Nobody ever asks about him, but he’s there.”
A close family friend pitched in with rides as well. Nurses named Sue and Diane showed uncommon devotion, and another nurse who calls herself Grandma Sandy has been calling almost daily.
Now living in Ohio, Grandma Sandy and her husband plan to attend next week’s home game against Pittsburgh with the Williams family.
Skipping scheduled treatments probably isn’t the best idea, but Cheryl Williams made a value judgment to be here for her son in his darkest hour.
“My nurse calls me just about every day to check on me and to see how I’m doing,” she says. “They’ve been fussing at me. I really should be back there getting my treatments, but this is a little bit more important to me right now. I’m trusting that same one that has always taken care of me is going to do that while I do this.”
Her son the football star, the one dubbed “Juice” at West Orange High by coach Bob Head for his outsized personality, has been caring for her as well.
“Dexter’s one of those kids that would give you the shirt off his back and come home and tell his mom, ‘I don’t know what happened to it,’ “ she says. “That’s my reason for going. That … is … my … reason. He feeds off of me, and I feed off of him. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Kelly has seen that bond at work.
“There’s a very strong relationship there,” Kelly says. “If I’ve ever had a problem, I just call her and it gets fixed like that. There’s no debating when it comes to his response to his mother.”
As he made the Player Walk into Notre Dame Stadium for the first time as a senior, Dexter Williams stopped and hugged his parents.
Photos were snapped. Tears were shed. And just before Williams departed for the home locker room, his mother pulled him close and whispered in his ear.
“Just go out there and live your dream,” she said.
As always, Cheryl Williams had chosen just the right words to ignite her son. He raced up the middle for a 45-yard touchdown the first time he touched the ball in 2018.
“I said, ‘Today, I’m not going to worry about any stats,’” Dexter Williams said after the best game of his career. “Whatever happens when I get the rock, just go ahead and do what I have to do.”
Even though Cheryl Williams was in the stands, she didn’t see her son’s touchdown live. What she heard instead was the most wonderful noise.
“When he first got the ball, I was sitting because I couldn’t see from where I was sitting,” she says. “I just heard his name and all the screaming. And I knew once they called his name, if he touched the ball, he was gone.”
Her pride in that moment, great as it was, could not match what she has felt this fall as she watched her son plow through his disappointment, throw himself into his studies and his conditioning and his preparation, and support all those around him — his mother and his teammates alike — while putting his own needs last.
“There are certain basic things I think every parent would want for their kid: to learn responsibility, to learn kindness, and he’s always been that kind of person,” she says. “I’ve met so many people that he’s been able to encourage about health issues with their parents and others. When he comes home, we’ll go and visit the hospital or we take time talking to others that are struggling and going through health issues, because he knows firsthand what it’s like.”
Kelly marvels at the impact Cheryl Williams has had on her son, even at this stage of her struggle.
“Certainly, she’s going through a difficult time right now, but she’s very strong and inspirational to Dexter,” Kelly says. “His fight to get back to where he is certainly is personal, but family had something to do with it as well.”
Cheryl Williams has no idea how much time she has left on this earth.
“I don’t do numbers that way,” she says. “I don’t accept that. I don’t think anybody knows what tomorrow holds, so I’m not living to die or trying to live my life around the idea that I’ve got five years.”
She just knows that for as long as she is able to draw her next breath, she will make the most of that time. This fall, that has meant watching the positive changes in her son up close.
“With my health like it is, I’ve had to miss a lot of his extracurricular activities with sports, even through high school,” she says. “With the last few months of health scares, I just needed to be here.”
She plans to fly home after the Pittsburgh game on Oct. 13 to resume her treatments. Now that Dexter is back playing, her work here is mostly done.
“I just needed to make sure that he was good,” she says. “I know how important playing is for him and I know how hard it is when there’s something that you really want to do really bad and you can’t do it because I’ve been there physically. There are days with esthemia where I can’t walk, I can’t take care of myself. I didn’t want him to have to go through this by himself.”
There was no talk of transferring, even amid the disappointment of a four-game suspension.
“I’ve always taught my kids, ‘You start something, you finish it, and whatever comes in that you take responsibility for it,’ ” she says. “This was a blessing for him — for us — and within blessings you have lessons, and they’re not always things that make you feel good.”
Follow IndyStar and USA TODAY Sports Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter at @MikeBerardino.
NO. 7 NOTRE DAME VS. NO. 23 VIRGINIA TECH
Kickoff: 8 p.m., Saturday, Blacksburg, Va.
TV/Radio: RTV-6/WXNT-1430 AM.
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