Washington Redskins Rookie Edwin Williams Learns from His Parents' Mistakes

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

They crowded into the basement of Assumption Catholic Church in Southeast Washington, hundreds of people, all to celebrate something. As a child, Edwin Williams was never quite sure what, exactly. He knew there would be food and that he and his older sister would have to sing "Jesus Is Love." He knew they were there to honor his mother and father.

What Williams did not know was that both his parents were former cocaine users and that he and his sister, Danielle, were born addicts. So when family, friends and other members of Narcotics Anonymous gathered for one day each September to rejoice in the survival of Cheron and Edwin Williams Sr., the young boy sang, though he did not understand why.

"The good thing about my family was that they always sheltered me," Edwin Jr. said. "I didn't know what NA stood for. I didn't know what any of that stuff stood for until I was probably 12 years old. I was so stupid, you know? I just never put it together, I guess."

Those who raised Williams during his formative years -- the period in which his parents traveled up and down the East Coast in search of cocaine -- take his perceived ignorance as an affirmation of their diligence. Williams's grandparents, aunts and older sister shielded him as best they could. Had the family taken any other approach, he likely would not have graduated from the University of Maryland in 2008 with one season of eligibility left as an offensive lineman on the school's football team. The chances of him being signed by the Washington Redskins as a 6-foot-3, 315-pound undrafted rookie would have been equally slim.

"We beat it into his head," Cheron Williams said. "You don't want to end up like your mom and dad. You don't want to end up like your mom and dad. You don't want to end up like your mom and dad."

Cheron and Edwin Sr. said neither of their children suffered any physical, mental or emotional consequences of Cheron's prenatal cocaine use. Edwin Jr. dealt with intense migraines as a young boy and is dyslexic, but Cheron said the former was because of allergies and the latter was proven not to be a direct result of her addiction. That the child of a mother who used cocaine throughout pregnancy would grow up perfectly healthy is not unusual, despite theories suggesting otherwise that were propagated for much of the past three decades. Most of the effects of a mother's cocaine use on a child can be "ameliorated or reduced" in a healthy postnatal environment, according to Gregg Stanwood, an assistant professor of pharmacology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

"A number of studies have shown that the kids can recover just fine from the prenatal insults," Stanwood said. "The general sense is that on average it does impact a child's neural development, but the classic idea of the 'crack baby' is generally an exaggeration."

The prevailing view in the 1980s was more ominous. Cheron said that during both of her pregnancies the damage her drug use could be doing to her children was constantly on her mind and that her family had both kids "tested every which way they could be tested," just to be sure.

* * *

Williams and his sister moved in with their grandparents, Thomas and Orlean Pierce, shortly after he was born, and the Pierces were determined not to allow the neighborhood in which their grandchildren lived claim two more young victims.

In 1988, Thomas Pierce, then the head mechanic for the D.C. transit system, built a one-story brick house in Deanwood, a low-income sector along Eastern Avenue NE near the Maryland border. Drug and alcohol addicts loitered on the street corners, as did prostitutes.

"It was not unusual to read the newspaper and read that a kid got killed over a leather coat or tennis shoes," said Camille Pierce, Williams's aunt. "And it was six blocks from us."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company