Starting a drive with their backs against their own goal line, Stanford had just attempted a draw play with Kerry Carter taking the handoff. Washington safety Curtis Williams came charging in downhill like he always did, and closed in and made impact upon the powerfully built Cardinal running back.
It was sobering and shocking the manner in which Williams' body suddenly went upright and limp, then falling back, and collapsing to the turf in a motionless heap.
Amid a steady drizzle, a full thirty minutes elapsed as trainers and medical staff attended to the fallen Husky. It was a horrific moment as the Husky sideline went into both shock and panic. When secondary Coach Bobby Hauck went onto the field, his reaction upon reaching Williams told everyone that this was a terrible, terrible injury.
When play finally resumed, Washington's wind was fully out of their sails. A commanding lead of 24-6 frittered away amid a seemingly endless series of recovered onside kicks, bizarre breaks, and big plays by the Cardinal offense.
As the Husky coaches called timeout to try and focus their crumbling defense, they could be heard from the sidelines, screaming to watch out for the bootleg. Hakim Akbar wasn't listening, as he hung his head and thought about his friend that had fallen.
The very next play the Cardinal ran a bootleg and quarterback Randy Fasani scored on the keeper around Akbar's end.
Suddenly with 0:53 showing on the clock, Washington had the ball on their own twenty-yard line and found themselves trailing 28-24.
How they did it I will never know, but Washington proceeded to drive 80 yards in three plays. All were completions from QB Marques Tuiasosopo. It was the most amazing comeback you'd ever want to see. As Tui scrambled away from pressure, true freshman receiver Justin Robbins broke free and began to run back toward his quarterback along the back of the end zone. Tui found him, Robbins made the grab, and the victory was complete.
Yet after the game there was obviously no exuberance in the victorious locker room. It was a scene of tombstone silence and frantic whispers, intermixed with a fearful outpouring of emotion and tears.
Watching Jamaun Willis and Anthony Kelley both 260-pounders, walk by and unabashedly crying their eyes out, they knew that something terrible had happened despite the incredulous victory in Palo Alto. The juxtaposition of those two events, along with the gloomy rain, made this day surreal.
The following week of practice was a somber and quiet one. There was not a lot of hitting taking place, and Husky coaches withheld some of the details of the severity of the injury until midweek, although many players talking amongst themselves had fathomed the reality from innuendo.
Arizona was coming to town, and a tribute was to take place before the game to honor the fallen Husky. In a stirring ceremony, the entire Washington team lined up on one 25-yard line and the Wildcats on the other. At that moment, Curtis Williams lay motionless in his California hospital bed, staring up at the televised broadcast from Seattle. He watched and listened as 70,411 fans in attendance held hands and prayed for his return to good health, at the direction of the noticeably cracking voice of PA announcer Lou Gellerman.
As the game started, Washington came out very flat and looked physically overmatched. It was as if the Huskies suddenly were leery of major physical contact. Half way through the first quarter, the Arizona Wildcats had taken a commanding lead and were talking smack on the field. It was more monologue than dialogue, as collectively the Huskies remained somber and muted.
By halftime, Arizona led 16-10 and had controlled the football for nearly 23 of the 30 minutes, while rushing for 194 yards. The Husky coaches knew what was happening, and got together and urged the players to keep fighting and remember that Curtis Williams was watching this game and that they couldn't lose it.
The third quarter then started horribly, as Wildcat sensation Bobby Wade returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown, followed by a field goal a few minutes later by place kicker Sean Keel. Suddenly Arizona led 25-10 and Husky Stadium was a picture of muted exasperation.
Keith Gilbertson started talking with quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo and running back Willie Hurst, with specific instructions. Arizona was one of the very few teams in the nation that ran the flex defense, which by design was immensely difficult to run against. The Huskies had been getting completely stuffed all game long. But Gilbertson told Tui and Hurst to specifically wait for the flex to completely collapse upon them - then pitch it outside. The key would all be in the immaculate timing. Working the option to the right side, Tui did as told and waited until the very last possible instant before whipping the ball out to the trailing Willie Hurst. As Tuiasosopo got clobbered and went down, Hurst secured the football and had nothing but daylight before him. He scampered wildly down the sideline untouched 65 yards for a touchdown.
It was as if a lit match had been tossed into a giant lake of gasoline. Husky Stadium awoke from its hibernation and it was an earthquake of epic proportions.
Arizona came back out to start a new drive, but suddenly the emotion shift had them flummoxed and they promptly turned the ball over at their own 42-yard line.
Washington took over, and as the offense approached the line of scrimmage, Husky tight end Jerramy Stevens shouted over to the Wildcat defense. "You guys have no idea what's about to happen to you!" Three plays later, the Dawgs went option right again. This time, the ball was pitched out to Willie Hurst again. As a Wildcat defender came in and lowered the boom, Hurst absorbed the impact and spun 360 degrees in the air, landing upon his outstretched arm, before popping up and instantly realizing that he hadn't heard any whistles, continuing then to streak like a wild man into the end zone for a touchdown.
Hurst ran to the nearest camera and pointed emotionally at the commemorative patch upon his jersey for Williams, and quite simply, Husky Stadium went berserk.
Arizona would not go quietly into that good night, as Leo Mills promptly busted loose for a 51-yard touchdown with 4:48 left to play. Washington now trailed 28-25, and all thoughts on the Husky sideline were with Curtis Williams.
Washington returned the ensuing kickoff to their 33-yard line. Soon they were facing a do-or-die fourth down situation. In the Husky huddle Marques Tuiasosopo gathered everyone together to call the play. Running back Willie Hurst was yelling encouragement to his teammates to do this for C-Dub. Jerramy Stevens turned to freshman wide receiver Justin Robbins and shouted a question at him. "You know what were about to do???" Robbins, being an inexperienced freshman in a big-time pressure cooker, hesitated his answer for just a moment, prompting Stevens to yell even louder. "Don't make me kick your ass! They don't know what's coming… We're gonna win this game for Curtis!"
As he addressed the huddle, Marques Tuiasosopo had that determined and powerful look in his eyes. He told them they were going to win it for Curtis and then gave the instructions for the play.
Seven plays later, Tui scored on a keeper from 2 yards out. Washington reclaimed the lead 32-28. Arizona still had even more fight left and got itself in position for a 51-yard field goal attempt. However, big Larry Triplett fought his way in and blocked it, sealing the victory.
In the jubilant Husky locker room, Curtis Williams was quickly reached via a conference call. Countless Huskies scurried for position shouted toward the speaker.
"This was for you C-Dub!!"
In the days and weeks that followed, the prognosis was a gruesome one. Curtis had no voluntary muscular movement from the neck down. In time he would be able to breath for up to 17 hours consecutive on his own, but only with the assistance of an instrument called a Phrenic Nerve Stimulator, which was placed in his diaphragm. It was fairly clear he wouldn't ever again use a knife and fork, take a walk with his devoted fiancée, play with his 6-year old daughter, or throw a football with one of his brothers.
He made a stirring trip to Pasadena and was partially the inspiration for a Rose Bowl triumph over Purdue. He made a trip the following spring up to Seattle to attend the spring game. The perpetual smile on his face despite his paralysis stunned everyone.
The following month in Seattle, Willie Hurst was driving down the freeway, heading to a teammate's house, when he received a phone call from Jerramy Stevens. He told Hurst that Curtis Williams had just passed away. Recalled Hurst last week, "I just closed my eyes for what seemed a long time. God must have been steering that car for me, I don't know. All I knew is that God had called on one of his angels."
"I used to think that football was absolutely everything. But after something like that, you realize that life is much bigger than just that."
Curtis Williams was 24 years old.
Derek Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Tribute Victory for Curtis Williams
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