Never to be forgotten

"We said goodbye ..., but we'll never forget." -- Rick Neuheisel, head coach of the Washington Huskies. The men in purple and gold will walk onto the football field in the fall of 2002 with the memories of fallen teammates, Curtis Williams and Anthony Vontoure, drawing inspiration from them every step of the way.

From the first day of fall camp, the Huskies will have the numbers 25 and 23 in their thoughts. With every drill, every sprint, every bear crawl and every rep on the bench press, they'll be pushed by their spirit, heart and determination.

Curtis Williams wore #25. "C-dub" had a soft-spoken manner that others admired, and had the hitting ability and athleticism that earned respect from his peers. He fought his way through tough times at Washington, once even being dropped from the roster because of academic and off-the-field difficulties. He turned it all around, became a full-time starter as a strong safety in the first game of his junior season and was a leader by example for his teammates. Having come so far since his days at Bullard High School in Fresno, Williams' success at Washington was a definite feel-good story.

It felt even better when he turned on his 1,000-watt smile.

That all changed on a rainy afternoon in Palo Alto when Williams and Stanford running back Kerry Carter collided helmet-to-helmet on a short yardage play. Williams never got up from the hit and faced life in a wheelchair after his C2 vertebra had been damaged permanently, leaving him a quadriplegic.

He fought on gamely, never losing that smile and inspiring not just his teammates, but also anyone lucky enough to have met him. His surprise visit to the Huskies in their locker room prior to the 2001 Rose Bowl game against Purdue was moving. There was no way Washington was going to lose that game, not with #25 in the press box as a captain that day. There was not a dry eye in the locker room or the press box as the team turned and waved to C-Dub as he sat high above the Rose Bowl field, assuming his captain's role.

The following season, before the Apple Cup, he once again phoned his teammates and told the seniors how important it was to not lose their final game. C-dub never got to play a final game as a senior, so he wanted his Husky brethren to relish the opportunity that he never had. Washington went on to defeat a very tough WSU squad.

Williams' fight on this earth ended on May 6th when his system could no longer function. He went to sleep the evening before and the Lord took him home sometime in the early morning. He touched many lives in his short 24 years, and Husky fans and friends are still mourning his loss. He is gone but will never be forgotten.

Anthony Vontoure wore #23, and his story is just as difficult to comprehend. When I first met Anthony, he was a freshman going through scout drills with the rest of coach Ron Milus' troops. It was a regular practice back in 1997 and quarterback Brock Huard threw what looked to be a perfect missile on an out route intended for Fred Coleman.

It didn't quite work out as planned.

A scout-team defensive back's radar went up, he zoomed over and made an amazing break on the ball and was able to lay out and intercept Huard's perfect pass. The defense went nuts and I sat up and wondered just who the heck this kid was.

There was Anthony, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

What I didn't know, what most people didn't know, was that Anthony was in the midst of a terrible fight – with himself.

"Anthony was as good of a cover corner that we've ever had at Washington, but this young man was mentally ill," said former recruiting coordinator Dick Baird. "His high school coach told us that he had some issues, he was very straight up with us about it. Our staff, as well as the staff that followed us, offered psychiatric help to him. I know he was on medication but I'm not sure if he took it or not."

When Vontoure was feeling good, he was a blast. He was quick to smile, even quicker to poke playful fun at you (with me, it was my hairline that doesn't exist), and he was also infectious in his exuberance for football. He was talented enough to have made a living at it.

In 1999, Vontoure had his finest season. Appearing focused and ready to prove himself, the sophomore burst onto the scene with a huge season at corner with six interceptions and several pass breakups. However, it was during this time that Anthony seemed to be losing his happy-go-lucky side. Walking with him down to the weight room one afternoon, he stopped and asked me, "Why is everyone on your message board such a critic? Why can't they just support us and get behind us instead of bashing us?"

He heard the boos. He read the scathing comments written by message board jockeys, and he also internalized a great deal of personal pain that he was dealing with. He never was able to cope with the tragic drowning of his older brother Chris, who was Anthony's hero. Chris died in a rafting accident when Anthony was just 13. The divorce of his parents Michael and Emma was another issue that Anthony never fully put behind him. The tensions were mounting and they were not going away.

Washington went to the Rose Bowl after the 2000 season and defeated Purdue, but Vontoure played a very limited role. Disciplinary actions as a result of insubordination forced him to miss a lot of action and fall down the depth chart. His career was pretty much over after he got into an altercation in the locker room following the game. It was to be the final time that Anthony's emotions would get the best of him as a UW student athlete. He transferred to Portland State, where he would've been under the tutelage of former teammate Nigel Burton, but that never materialized. The events of September 11th had a lot to do with it, as Anthony was a sensitive and caring young man. He never played football again.

Just weeks after Curtis Williams' funeral (attended by Anthony), Husky fans learned of the terrible news. Sacramento deputies had been summoned to an apartment at 4 a.m. responding to a caller who said a friend was "bipolar and being violent." The sheriff's office reported that the young man was Anthony Vontoure and that he was hallucinating as civilians tried to restrain him, screaming that men in "green masks" were coming to get him.

Deputies subdued and handcuffed Vontoure as he thrashed and kicked them, the police report said. In a patrol car, Vontoure experienced shortness of breath and was taken out of handcuffs and laid on his side, but he stopped breathing. Attempts at CPR failed to revive him. Anthony Vontoure's battle with his inner demons was over.

2002 will be a season of remembrance for the Husky football team, as they will carry with them the spirits of two fallen warriors. Long live numbers 25 and 23. C-dub and AV, you will be missed. You left us much too soon. God bless.

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