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.”