SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Dexter Williams catches the ball on the last route of his pro day workout and runs down the field near the entrance of the Loftus Sports Center. He looks up into the balcony of bleachers above him and searches for her.
Cheryl Williams is already standing at the railing, waiting for her son. She wears a Notre Dame winter beanie over her long hair and smiles down at Dexter, who is hard to miss with the back section of his hair dyed a bright Irish green. Dexter points up and she points back.
Dexter’s pro day workout had gone well. The same could be said of his life in general since his roomate—mama—moved in. When he was younger, he thought he lost her. Now, as she has been for the past few months and plans to be as Dexter starts his NFL career, she’s here.
Dexter was 14, a freshman at Orlando’s Olympia High School. He was already a budding star as a running back, brought up to varsity after just three games with the JV team, which rarely happens at high schools in the football-strong area. One typical morning he got ready to go to school, gave his mom a goodbye kiss on the cheek and said, Love you mama, I’ll see you later this evening.
Cheryl, then a private school teacher for kindergarten through second grade, had the day off. While Dexter was in class, Cheryl suddenly began to feel exhausted. A couple years earlier, she’d been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes muscle weakness—she assumed these were the usual symptoms. Myasthenia affects her skeletal muscles, as well as facial muscles, eyelids, vision, and even her voice. She speaks softly because she loses her voice easily. Her husband, Leonard, was also home that day, and suggested she lie down to rest, which typically improves myasthenia symptoms. Cheryl went to their bedroom and quickly fell asleep.
When Dexter got home from school that afternoon, he went to find his mom—they would always catch up as soon as he got home and go over homework together. He found her asleep in her bed and tried waking up her up. Cheryl didn’t respond. Dexter knew something was wrong and ran to find his dad. Mom isn’t waking up!
Leonard rushed into the bedroom and started shaking Cheryl. “It was like she just couldn’t come out of it,” Leonard says. Cheryl could crack her eyes open a sliver but her eyelids were too heavy. Her breathing had slowed drastically, and Leonard knew he needed to get her to the hospital immediately. She was experiencing a mysathenic crisis; her respiratory system was shutting down. When Cheryl arrived at Florida Hospital, doctors immediately hooked her up to a ventilator to restore her breathing. They had to put her in a coma.
A day went by, and then two, then more. It didn’t seem real to Dexter until January 6, his 15th birthday. “It’s not like she was on vacation, she was gone,” he says. “It really didn’t hit me until it was my birthday and I was like, Wow, she’s not here… It was really tough because I was used to doing the same routine every morning. Going in, giving her a kiss and a hug and telling her I love her.”
Dexter visited his mom a few times at the hospital but not often because he couldn’t bear to see her look so helpless. Instead, his dad would visit daily and relay updates to Dexter. “When you see your mom like that—she was just healthy and then the next day she is hooked up to all these tubes—it was hard for me to digest,” he says. “It’s still a memory I won’t forget.”
As the days turned into weeks and then months, Dexter veered back and forth between dread and optimism. “At times I would think, Damn, my mom is gone,” he says. “But then there were times where I knew I just needed to pray, have faith and keep faith.”
At school, Dexter leaned on his football coach, Bob Head. Head often gave Dexter rides home after practices and offseason workouts, and the two grew close from their one-on-one conversations in Head’s car. Florida high school football knows no offseason, and even though Dexter was dealing with his mom in a coma he never missed a workout, something Head tells his players as an motivational tactic still today. “Dexter was really, really, really on a roller coaster,” Head says. “One day he felt really good and really excited about his mom's progress and next thing you know he is down in the dumps.”
Head wanted to support Dexter, but also prepare him for what seemed like the most likely outcome. “Honestly, if she’s in a coma, I’m thinking that she’s not going to make it,” says Head. “So I am trying to prepare him mentally, like, Hey listen buddy, God has a plan, you can't get down, you have tests, exams, you are a freshman in high school, you have your whole life ahead of you. I was trying to get his mind in the right place. But I was really preparing for her to pass. And every day she kept surviving and fighting and living.”
After three months of Cheryl living with the help of machines, Leonard sat Dexter down. “I remember the conversation with my dad like it was yesterday,” Dexter says. Father and son were in Leonard’s truck on their drive home from a hospital visit. Leonard sighed, Son, I’m thinking about about pulling the plug, because mama, she’s struggling and I don’t want to see her like this and I know you don’t want to see her like this.
Leonard says doctors weren’t sure whether Cheryl would ever come out of the coma, but every day that went by made it less likely. Because of her previous diagnosis, Leonard and Cheryl had already talked about worst-case scenarios, and Cheryl had said she didn’t want to be kept alive by machines.
Dexter nodded, put his head in his hands and cried. The rest of the ride home was silent. The decision affected him so much he didn’t go to school the next day. “I was so frustrated and so angry and I didn’t understand,” he says. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around everything that was going on.”
Leonard made the calls to Dexter’s four siblings—Dexter is the baby of the family—to get to Orlando to say goodbye to their mom. On the day before their oldest son Jonathan could get there from Georgia, Leonard and Dexter went back to the hospital to sit by Cheryl’s bedside. Dexter took her hand in his and rubbed it. He thought about the deadline quickly approaching. He could have sworn her hand moved, but Leonard reminded him she’d moved here and there before and nothing else happened. But then, almost as if he willed it to happen, Cheryl opened her eyes. Dexter was the first person she saw standing next to her bedside. “I just felt like I had a good night’s sleep,” Cheryl says. “But when I woke up it was three months later. I saw all the tubes and I couldn’t understand why I was tied to the bed. I couldn’t talk because I had a trach, I had a feeding tube. I didn’t know where I was. I was looking around like, what is going on?”
When the doctor came in to see her, Cheryl realized she recognized his voice. She thinks now that she heard his voice while she was in a coma, and heard her family talking when they visited. “People will ask, did you see lights?” she says. “No, I didn’t. None of that happened to me. I just remember hearing their voices and being not able to respond.”
Dexter and Leonard cried, in part from the shock, and in part from knowing how close they had come to giving up. They were planning to take Cheryl off life support in less than 24 hours. “It caught me off-guard,” Dexter says. “There were tears of joy knowing I get a second chance with my mom. Ever since then, I have wanted to spend a lot of time with my family before our time comes.”
After three seasons as a seldom-used backup, Dexter’s senior year at Notre Dame started with a suspension for violating team rules. Knowing her son would be frustrated, upset with himself and in need of support, Cheryl offered a solution: Since Dexter didn’t have a roommate, she’d move in with him. Dexter agreed without hesitation, because of the time they had lost and because of the uncertain amount of time they have left. Along with myasthenia gravis, Cheryl, now 62, had recently been diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs), a condition that brought a life expectancy of three to five years.
When Cheryl arrived at Dexter’s apartment in South Bend’s Campus View complex, her first order of business was giving the dingy bathroom a makeover. She bought a new shower curtain, bath mat, toothbrush holder… “It just needed a upgrade, badly,” Cheryl laughs. “It was the college life.”
“She made the house feel like a home again,” says Dexter.
Dexter declined to specify why he was suspended, but it wasn’t his first issue with discipline at Notre Dame. In 2016, he was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana after he and a group of teammates were stopped for speeding and an officer discovered marijuana in the car.
“Everybody makes some bad decisions,” Cheryl says. “I’ve done it and I know how important it is to have somebody there to encourage you and help keep you grounded mentally. There’s more to it than just football, there’s more to it than just the classroom, he’s still a person. My person. I don’t think any mother would allow their kid to waste away mentally and emotionally and not comfort him.”
Of course, Dexter wanted his mother to see his final season of college football up close—she’d missed a lot of games because of her health problems. But that terrifying timeline, three to five years, loomed over him. Cheryl reminded him to have faith. “Nobody is to tell me when I will die except God,” Cheryl says.” I am one of those people who believes that you can live through anything. I’m not going to say I don’t believe it, but I do know that I don’t have to die. I don’t have a stamp or an expiration date.”
When Cheryl prays, she doesn’t pray for a cure for her illnesses, she prays for Dexter’s dream of playing in the NFL, a dream hatched when he first started playing football as a 9-year-old kid in Orlando.
“Him being on the field, that is medicine for me,” she says. “That’s my treatment. That’s what keeps me going, seeing that he is happy and he is seeing some of his dreams come true. I’ve not asked for healing. He’s my healing.”
Dexter has to constantly remind her to rest, because she hasn’t slowed down. Cheryl made the most of her life on campus. She went to nearly every football game, two of Dexter’s Africana studies classes, and became a second mom to many of Dexter’s teammates, who would come over every weekend for chicken parmesan and, sometimes, advice.
“It’s always about girls and being themselves,” Cheryl says. “They’d ask questions that were just basic girl knowledge that most moms know.”
Cheryl is typically hospitalized every two months or so because her myasthenia symptoms escalate to the point where her respiratory system starts shutting down. To prevent this, she receives intravenous immunoglobulin treatments (immunoglobulin are antibodies found in blood plasma). While in South Bend living with Dexter, she missed her twice-a-month IVIG treatments, but her symptoms never got severe enough to require hospitalization. Even though he missed the first four games, Dexter thrived last season. His 995 rushing yards and 13 total TDs both surpassed his numbers from his first three seasons combined. He was the centerpiece of an Irish offense that earned the program’s first ever College Football Playoff berth, and Williams earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl where he was named Practice Player of the Week for his position group. Mother and son both had their best seasons.
“When she’s there I play a little harder,” Dexter says. “When she’s there I can feel her presence, I know she is watching.”
After the college football season, Cheryl followed Dexter to Bradenton, Fla., where he trained for the NFL combine at IMG Academy. IMG assigns prospects to three-bedroom stuccoed villas in the palm-tree dotted neighborhood across the street from the IMG campus. Some prospects bring their gaming consoles, or smuggle in their dogs. Some have even brought their girlfriends along for the eight-week stay, but until the Williamses, no prospect at IMG had ever brought their mom. “I definitely didn’t see any other moms there,” Cheryl laughs.
When Dexter was a freshman, his dorm was close to the Grotto, Notre Dame’s replica of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, the famous French shrine. The Grotto is beloved among Notre Dame students and alumni as a place for quiet reflection and prayer. Dexter would stop by three or four times a month, usually after practice or study hall let out, to light a votive candle and say a prayer for his mom. Inside the small rocky cave lit by the soft flicker of candles, Dexter found a sense of shelter and peace. “I always pray that she will be able to see me have a lot of success,” he says. “That she will be able to see my reach my dreams and goals because I know that if I can make my mom happy, that is energy and medicine for her. The more good things I can do will take a lot of stress off her.”
Even if the medical timeline for Cheryl holds true, Dexter is very close to making that ultimate NFL dream a reality for himself and his mom. Scouts believe his marijuana possession arrest and the suspension this past season will probably cause him to be selected a little later than his true value, but his name will be called. NFL teams admire Cheryl and Dexter’s relationship and their outlook on life. They also understand the steadying influence Cheryl has on Dexter. Cheryl is ready to pack her bags for whichever NFL city Dexter lands in. She’ll have to help him dye his hair—from the current Adore hair color shade 165 “Clover”—to his next team’s colors.
“Wherever he goes,” Cheryl says. “If he needs me, I will be there.”
Dexter says every NFL team he has interviewed with, whether formally or casually, has asked him about his mother. “Every single one,” he says. “They ask, Is she going to come with you if you come to play here? And I tell them, Most definitely she’ll be there. You only get one mom. We are counting our days, and we are thankful for every day that we have.”
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