When Curtis Williams took the field for the Huskies' 2000 season opener, the University of Washington's media guide described him like this...
When Curtis Williams took the field for the Huskies’ 2000 season opener, the University of Washington’s media guide described him like this:
Senior, strong safety, 5-foot-10, 200 pounds. Named, in 1999, the team’s best hitter. Led team in solo tackles. Went to high school in Fresno, Calif., where he was a top recruit. The seventh of eight kids. Pursuing a degree in American ethnic studies.
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When Williams played against Idaho, he had a warrant out for his arrest. He’d been arrested every year he was here: 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000. He was a convicted felon who’d served time for choking his wife. Two other assault charges were pending against him. He was accused of cutting his wife’s face, breaking her arm, breaking her nose.
Ordered to pay $283 a month in child support, Williams had paid nothing. Earlier in the year, he’d flunked two classes. If not for Swahili — a notoriously easy class at the UW and a favorite of football players — he would have been ineligible to play.
In the season’s first game — played at Husky Stadium in front of 70,000 fans — Williams recorded eight tackles and forced a fumble on a kickoff return. The UW beat Idaho, 44-20.
Williams could certainly play. The question was: Why was the UW allowing him to?
When Curtis Williams arrived at the UW in the summer of 1996, he was a father, husband, student and football player, all at the age of 18. Michelle, his 20-year-old wife, was with him. So was their daughter, 1 ½ years old.
They’d met in California. Michelle was a swimmer and cheerleader at her high school, Curtis a football star at his. Once, he bought new speakers for her car — and picked her up, with her favorite song playing.
A few weeks before arriving on campus, they got married in Alaska, Michelle’s home state. They saw a flier for a minister who married couples for $50 — provided they came to his house. So that’s what they did. Afterward, they ate at Denny’s.
In Seattle, Michelle planned to work while Curtis played football and studied. Later, she’d pursue her dream of becoming a physical therapist.
In August 1996, The Seattle Times ran a profile of Curtis that mentioned his marriage to Michelle: “In the storybooks, they might live happily ever after; in reality, Williams’ story is just beginning.”
Two weeks after that story ran, a UW graduate student called 911. He’d heard a woman in a neighboring housing unit say, “No! No!” followed by a scream. Another neighbor heard the woman say, “I can’t take it anymore!” followed by, “That hurts.”
Police, from the outside, heard a woman crying upstairs. They knocked. The crying stopped and the light, upstairs, went off.
For 25 minutes the knocking continued. Finally, police threatened to force the door. Only then did Curtis Williams and his wife answer. Nothing’s going on here, the couple told police. Police documented the call and left.
In the next three months, police were summoned to Williams’ home three more times. One of those times, Williams was charged with misdemeanor assault.
Jan Zientek, the grad student who’d called 911, said Michelle sometimes “looked like a punching bag,” with bruises, a black eye, and marks on her arm. He says he was so disturbed he called Jim Lambright, the UW’s head coach. “He thanked me for being concerned,” Zientek says.
Then, in December 1996, a fifth call came in.
A neighbor heard shouting, thumps against a wall and a woman crying. The fourth time that police knocked, Curtis answered, wearing only sweat pants. Officers saw specks of blood on his stomach and arms. Upstairs, blood puddled on and around the bed, and droplets ran to the bathroom. When Michelle came out of the bathroom, her nose appeared broken.
An officer asked if police had ever been called out to the couple’s home before. Curtis lied, saying no. When police questioned the couple — separately — their accounts made little sense and failed to match.
Police arrested Williams and took him to jail. He was charged, for a second time, with misdemeanor assault.
A victim advocate in the prosecutor’s office met with Michelle. Curtis did not break her nose, Michelle insisted. She said she didn’t want charges filed because it would ruin his reputation as a football player and he would lose his scholarship.
The victim advocate learned that Michelle had previously broken her arm while pregnant. Although Michelle denied it, her family suspected Curtis was responsible.
The advocate wrote a report, saying: “I feel victim in serious danger.”
In May 1997, Williams appeared in King County District Court and cut a deal. If he completed batterers’ counseling and stayed out of trouble, prosecutors would drop the two assault charges.
The hearing lasted only minutes. Judge Douglas J. Smith accepted the deal and lifted a no-contact order that had kept Williams away from Michelle. Then, the judge and Williams talked football.
The two chatted about spring ball, weightlifting, the advantages of redshirting and the previous year’s game against Notre Dame. “OK. As long as you don’t play [against] the Irish anymore, we can root for you,” Smith told Williams. “Except against the Cal Bears, too, I have a problem with that.”
Four days after this hearing, Michelle Williams called 911. When police arrived, she was crying. Her face was red, her hair disheveled. An officer saw marks on her throat and the side of her neck.
She and Curtis had argued, Michelle told police. He wanted to go out with teammates. She wanted him to stay home. She worked two jobs, 75 hours a week, supporting the family. She’d typically start at 7 a.m., working day care. Then she’d put in a full shift at the mall, either at Footlocker or Gymboree. This was her one day off.
Curtis demanded the family car, but Michelle had hidden the alarm deactivator. He grabbed her by the throat and choked her until she passed out, Michelle told police. She awoke, coughing and vomiting. He choked her again and drove away, the alarm sounding.
Michelle said Curtis had choked her before and cut her face with a key. She also confirmed her family’s suspicions, saying he’d broken her arm, too. “He has told me not to tell anyone what happens,” Michelle said, “but I cannot take it anymore.”
Police took Williams to the King County Jail. Unable to make bail, he stayed there for the next 74 days.
Williams had to withdraw from all his classes, making him ineligible to play in the upcoming season.
In September 1997, Williams pleaded guilty to third-degree assault, a felony. A probation officer who prepared the sentencing report interviewed Lambright, the head coach. The coaching staff seemed oblivious to how many times Williams had attacked Michelle and how dangerous he could be, the officer noted.
Williams was sentenced to 90 days in jail — a sentence he’d already served, with credit for good behavior. The judge placed Williams on probation and ordered him to stay away from his wife and daughter.
The felony conviction negated Williams’ deal in the two other assault cases. One week later, Judge Smith convicted Williams of those charges and moved straight to sentencing.
Williams told the judge: “Well, I feel bad because I do, on the felony, you know, I hurt Michelle and I’m real sorry about that. I know that I need to get into counseling and I need to get my life back together because I lost it.”
Smith sentenced Williams to an additional six months in jail. But Williams appealed the misdemeanor assault convictions — and remained free in the meantime.
In December 1997, authorities learned that Williams was living with Michelle and their daughter, Kymberly, despite the no-contact order. Michelle’s mother told a probation officer that Curtis had threatened to kill his wife and daughter if Michelle left him.
Prosecutors filed two more charges against Williams — pushing the total to five since he arrived at the UW. He was arrested and stayed in jail for 15 days.
Williams was let out after two assistant UW coaches went before a judge and vouched for him, urging his release.
In the summer of 1998, Lambright, the Huskies’ head coach, decided he’d had enough.
Williams had yet to play a down for the team. He’d sat out his first year, to preserve all four years of his eligibility. He’d been off the team his second — the year he spent 2 ½ months in jail. He was a felon and a lousy student. And now his estranged wife and her mother were contacting coaches, asking why they’d kept Curtis on the team. Michelle wanted Curtis to get a job, to help pay for their daughter’s support.
Lambright wanted Williams’ scholarship taken away, so that he could give it to someone else. He provided the university with a report that cited Williams’ problems “socially, academically and athletically.”
Though light on details, Lambright’s report noted Williams’ felony conviction, saying he’d had “an altercation” with his wife. Lambright said the team had ordered Williams to attend counseling — only to discover he’d blown off most of his appointments.
At the UW, the Athletic Financial Aid Committee decides whether a student-athlete’s scholarship can be revoked. The committee was headed by Eric Godfrey, then an assistant vice president, now vice provost for student life.
In September 1998, Godfrey wrote Williams, telling him the committee had ruled in his favor: His scholarship would not be lifted.
Williams had recently completed a summer course that had pulled up his grades, Godfrey wrote. Plus, the coaches had sent Williams mixed messages — first getting him out of jail, then saying he was unfit for the team.
Godfrey’s letter referred to Williams’ marriage as the principal source of his troubles. But now his wife was gone. “[Y]our personal difficulties appear to have been eliminated, largely because your wife has relocated to Alaska,” Godfrey wrote.
Curtis and Michelle separated in 1998 but never got divorced.
At this point, Williams had three assault convictions, two on appeal. Two other charges were pending against him.
For Williams and his wife, there was no “happily ever after.” But what story there was — a top recruit convicted of assaulting his wife — didn’t make the newspapers.
In 1997, when Williams served time on the felony, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a brief note, saying Williams “is off the team with what Lambright called ‘personal problems.’ “
For the next three years, other newspapers, including The Seattle Times and The News Tribune of Tacoma, attributed Williams’ missed season to “academic and unspecified off-field problems,” or “family and academic problems,” or “academic and personal problems.”
When Williams returned to the team in 1998 — after the team failed to get his scholarship lifted — Lambright went on his weekly radio show and said: “He’s actually gotten all his academic credentials, and he seems to have his social life under control.”
Williams’ “off-field problems” were spelled out in court records. But reporters didn’t read the files — or, if they did, they didn’t write about them.
To remain eligible to play, UW football players are supposed to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average, the equivalent of a “C.”
In 1997 and 1998, Williams finished four straight quarters with a GPA below that line, placing his scholarship in jeopardy.
But then came Swahili.
At the UW, athletes get to sign up for classes before regular students. Athletes flock to Swahili in such numbers that other students can wait three or four years to get into the class. The course is easy, football players say.
When Robert Aronson, a law professor, served as faculty representative to the Athletic Department, he noticed that Swahili seemed to appeal to those football players who struggled academically. “It was awfully suspicious to me,” he says.
Seyed Maulana, the UW’s sole Swahili teacher since 1985, says athletes have typically accounted for about half his students. During away games, he faxes the exams to coaches, and they fax the answers back. After a year’s study, most students can speak some Swahili, Maulana says. “They are able to do greetings. I tend to focus more on the structure of the language.”
In the summer of 1998, Williams took “Intensive Swahili,” a class worth 15 credits. He earned a “B” — pushing his GPA to 2.06, just enough to let him keep his scholarship. Afterward, Williams continued to take Swahili, earning a “C,” an “A-” and a “B+.” He earned 30 Swahili credits in all, nearly a fifth of his UW total.
With those Swahili grades, Williams managed a final GPA of 2.05, just high enough to keep him playing.
After being convicted in 1997 of choking his wife, Williams was placed on probation for two years.
In June 1999, a probation officer wrote that Williams still did not accept responsibility for his violence: “[H]e is as narcissistic as ever, does not feel the rules apply to him and decides which rules he will follow.”
When Williams was sentenced in 1997, a judge ordered him to complete two kinds of treatment — batterers’ counseling, to protect the community, and victim-awareness counseling, because he lacked compassion for the suffering he’d caused.
Time and again, Williams failed to enter the two programs, or missed individual sessions, or showed up late. Plus, he repeatedly missed appointments with probation officers. He usually blamed these lapses on the demands of football practices, games and school.
Probation officers reached to the courts for help. One officer, who wrote that Williams showed an “absolute blatant disregard” for his court-ordered obligations, asked that Williams be jailed 240 days for violating his probation. But a Superior Court judge instead gave Williams 15 days — time he had already served.
Williams never completed victim-awareness counseling. Twice, he entered the program. Twice, he dropped out. But he was released from probation anyway.
In 1999, after two years of off-and-on counseling, Williams finished batterers’ treatment. On a scale of 0 to 9 — with 0 the most dangerous, 9 the least — Williams scored a 2: “able to recognize his controlling behavior.”
This same year, Williams received an extraordinary break in two other cases. In the summer of 1999, a judge reversed Williams’ two misdemeanor assault convictions based upon a screw-up in the clerk’s office.
Police records crucial to the case were supposed to be in the court file. But they “were inexplicably removed or lost or destroyed,” the judge wrote, throwing out the convictions and ordering a new trial. Prosecutors now had to start over with those two charges.
The missing records allowed Williams to avoid six months in jail — and to keep playing football.
Williams first played for the UW in 1998, starring on special teams. When Rick Neuheisel replaced Lambright as coach in 1999, Williams was named a starting safety on defense.
Teammates loved Williams’ ready smile, the way he joked around in the locker room. Neuheisel’s staff loved how he never shied from contact.
Williams preferred playing without a mouth guard — standard gear that protects teeth and jaws. He wanted to intimidate, teammates say. Protective gear whispered fear. A mouth guard also garbled his words — and when Williams taunted an opposing player, he wanted to be understood.
He would go for the ballcarrier’s mouth — hitting him, face mask to face mask — and then get into his ear. “Curtis would run up, hit you in your mouth, take your lunch money and tell you you ain’t nothing,” says Hakim Akbar, a fellow safety.
Hitting another player helmet to helmet comes with risk. Football has worked since the 1970s to reduce such blows, after they led to scores of deaths from brain or spinal-cord injuries. Tackle with your shoulder, coaches typically tell players. A hit becomes particularly dangerous if a player leads with his helmet and dips his head.
In the 2000 season, the Huskies’ fifth game was at home, on Oct. 7. The game program included a profile of Williams, titled “Designated Hitter.” The story started:
“On the football field, Curtis Williams just likes to hit.
“There is not much about which you can ask Williams that will get him to open up. That is, until you mention laying a hit on an opposing player from the safety position. Then his eyes light up.
” ‘It’s just a good feeling,’ the 5-foot-10, 200-pound senior says. ‘You can get all your frustrations out on that guy. Hitting a guy real hard like that, that’s what the game is all about.’ “
Williams now appeared to have a legitimate shot at the NFL.
Off the field, Williams’ struggles continued.
He flunked biology in the winter quarter of 2000 and astronomy in the spring.
In October, Williams hired Mike Hunsinger, a Seattle lawyer who’d represented lots of other Huskies. The state was coming after Williams, for unpaid child support. Two years before, Michelle had obtained a court judgment requiring Curtis to pay $283 a month. Hunsinger maintained that Williams hadn’t been notified of his obligation. But the state said that wasn’t true.
Williams had written in court documents that he couldn’t afford to pay anything, being in school: “When I was living with Michelle she supported all three of us. So why does she need money from me for just her and Kym at this point?”
Williams also had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. He’d kept missing court hearings — to review his probation in one case, or to prepare for his new trial on the two reinstated assault charges. Each time, the judge would issue an arrest warrant.
In mid-October, Hunsinger helped Williams get an appearance bond so that the latest warrant would be dropped. Then the two went to lunch. Hunsinger found he liked Williams. He seemed like a guy who was 22 going on 30. “He’d been a terrible father,” Hunsinger says. But Williams knew it — and was looking forward to turning that around.
Williams had tattooed “Kymberly,” his daughter’s name, in cursive across his heart. He’d picked his number — 25 — to match the day of her birth.
He hadn’t seen Kymberly for a year but talked to her on the telephone twice a week.
Curtis Williams mouthed the words: I can’t breathe.
That’s what teammate Anthony Kelley remembers, Williams lying there, looking up at him, trying to talk, while another player ran up and told Williams, “Shake it off, shake it off, hop up.”
The UW was playing at Stanford, on Oct. 28. Kerry Carter, Stanford’s 235-pound running back, had cut into the line. Williams came flying in, beating Kelley to the tackle. Williams’ head dipped, just a little, before the hit, which was helmet to helmet. Kelley knew it was a bad hit, he knew it right away.
Williams bounced off — but his body was already rigid, like it was frozen in air. After Williams fell, he just lay there. Then his body started to shake, his eyes started to roll: I can’t breathe.
Kelley remembers telling Williams: “Relax, relax.” A photographer remembers Kelley screaming: “Curtis! Don’t you stop. Curtis! Don’t give up. Curtis! Keep fighting.”
For about 15 minutes, a medical team attended to Williams on the field. He responded only with his eyes. Awareness and panic — that’s what one doctor saw.
A driving rain soaked the field. The official attendance said 31,300, but all those empty seats said the number was smaller. The afternoon was gray, but Husky fans cut through it, making a wedge of purple in one end zone.
The Huskies gathered on the sideline, and Kelley led a prayer: “I just lifted him up to God, telling Him to heal him, take care of him, look over him, and to bring him back to his family.”
Medics put Williams on a stretcher and into an ambulance.
When play resumed, Kelley struggled to keep it together. Crying, he almost jumped offside, he was so desperate to hit someone.
With the game almost over, the UW trailed Stanford, 28-24. The Huskies had 80 yards to go, and 47 seconds to get there.
“We could have curled up,” says Matt Fraize, an offensive lineman. “But we did what we thought Curtis wanted us to do — to keep fighting, to finish what we started.”
In three plays, in 30 seconds, the Huskies scored, keeping their Rose Bowl hopes alive.
The day after the game, Neuheisel and another coach visited Williams in the hospital. Williams, with a ventilator in his mouth, could respond only with his eyes. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
“We told him we were going to play our tails off for him. When I said that he blinked his eyes several times,” Neuheisel said afterward.
The next week, 70,000 fans chanted “C-Dub,” Williams’ nickname, across Husky Stadium, while the marching band formed the letters below. A few days later, the UW created a fund that raised more than $300,000 for Williams’ medical care. At season’s end, the team named Williams its most inspirational player and carved his initials into every Rose Bowl ring.
Williams became the focal point of the Rose Bowl season, with dozens of stories written about him. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer never reported his criminal history, while The Seattle Times mentioned it twice in passing.
Without saying that Curtis had served time for assaulting Michelle, a Times sports columnist wrote: “Friends of Curtis said Michelle was more abusive than he. It was a bad marriage.”
When Michelle read that column, she couldn’t believe it. “A lot was written about what a great football player he was. With the other issues it was like, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell. Don’t look, don’t see.’ “
After getting injured, Curtis moved in with his brother David in California.
“He got to sit back and reflect on his life a bit,” David says. “Some days he would be laughing, other days he’d be crying.”
On May 6, 2002, his body shut down.
Two days after his 24th birthday — and 18 months after he crumpled on the field — Williams died in the quiet of the night, sometime between midnight and dawn.
The UW painted his number on the sidelines of Husky Stadium and awarded him a posthumous degree.
At Williams’ funeral, some 600 people filed into a Fresno church. The mourners included more than 30 current or former UW football players — Marques Tuiasosopo, Anthony Kelley, Jerramy Stevens — and a half-dozen coaches. A Husky helmet and pictures of Williams, in uniform, flanked the altar. Purple and gold flowers covered the casket. A video showed football highlights.
At a graveside service afterward, Neuheisel took Williams’ No. 25 jersey from atop the casket and presented it to Williams’ parents.
Michelle also attended the funeral, along with Kymberly. To this day, Michelle wishes Curtis were alive and part of his daughter’s life — to teach her how to drive, to be there when she graduates.