Washington State's Dom Williams playing for something more on Saturday
The crowd was booing. What would have been a 20-yard reception to the Oregon 12-yard line ended in a dull thud as the ball fell through Dom Williams' hands to the turf. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift for a second to his grandmother.
The redshirt senior wide receiver could always count on looking up into the stands to see her face, cheering him on amongst a sea of supporters she made sure came along. When she was unable to travel, he would say a prayer before the game, confident that she was watching.
When he was able to return to his home in Pomona, California, he spent hours talking with his grandmother, Jennie Dodd, who raised Williams and his siblings with his mother absent and his father incarcerated. The two used to sit together watching late night TV all night with a bowl of popcorn between them, laughing at inside jokes between the two of them.
"She was his spark. She was his angel. She was his everything," Williams' aunt, Lynette Moton said. "When he was home, he spent all his time just letting her know he appreciated her and that he would make her proud."
What the masses in Autzen Stadium did not know was Williams had lost his everything just six days before the Oregon game. On Oct. 4, Dodd, 73, died in a hospital in California, a thousand miles from Williams in Pullman.
As he had done many times before in his life, he chose not to run. He chose to finish. It was mid-semester and his team was preparing for a much-anticipated game. After a long conversation with his aunt, he decided he needed to be with his team. He stayed in Pullman.
When his oldest brother was shot while home for spring break from college, it was his grandmother that continued to remind him to remain positive and work hard. Just nine when his brother died, Williams remained angry at the violence surrounding him. With the patience and love that made her Williams' foundation, she kept him involved in the family's church, encouraged his pursuit of sports and academics and instilled a deep faith in him.
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"[My biggest supporter] was my grandma. She still is no matter what," Williams said.
Without the woman that raised him for the first time, Williams struggled in the first half of the Oregon game. When the coaches asked if he wanted to be subbed out, Williams vigorously refused. Minutes later, he caught the touchdown pass to send the game into overtime.
He is resilient, yes, but he is also uncommonly positive in spite of it all.
"In the past, he's been the second guy to go in, and not gotten the majority of the reps, and he's been OK with that," wide receivers coach Graham Harrell told The Seattle Times after Williams' two-touchdown performance against Wyoming. "The skill set is there. He's so much of a team guy, he's almost OK with the ball going elsewhere. I'm like, 'Dom, you need to want the ball to come to you.'"
With his grandmother as an example, he loves without abandon. His biggest regret from college was not meeting more people, he said.
He will have 60 minutes more with his teammates. The day after Christmas, Williams' will play his final game in a Cougar uniform when WSU takes the field for the Hyundai Sun Bowl. He is just two touchdowns shy of tying Jason Hill's record of 32 career touchdown receptions. He has currently pulled in 11 touchdowns on the season (a career high) with 73 receptions for 997 yards.
Williams has seen it all with WSU. From two three-win seasons to a top-20 ranking, he has been there from the cellar-dwelling days before the Cougars became a nationally ranked, offensive powerhouse. While he may not be the most recognized receiver, he has been a pillar of the reincarnation of WSU football.
When Williams is finished playing, he plans to use the degree in criminal justice he will finish in May to work with troubled youth as a parole officer or warden.
There is a saying his grandmother used to say frequently that resonated with him.
"No fear in life, no fear in death. Do what makes you happy, whatever it is," Williams said.
For Williams, that means giving everything he has to football, and when he can no longer play, to improving the community just as his grandmother did.
Kelsey Jones is SI's campus correspondent for Washington State University. Follow her on Twitter.