William James was born at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on April 26, 1966, the second son of Stephen James, a retired Army sergeant, and Anna James, a government secretary.
He was a glowing, smiling baby whose mother says he was "adorable, just adorable; just look at little Willie." And she hands you the framed snapshot of Willie as a baby that sits in a place of honor atop the TV set. He was adorable, all right.
But Willie had serious troubles almost from the beginning, and they haven't gone away. As he nears his 17th birthday, Willie James hasn't smelled many roses.
"We would feed him when he was a little baby, and he would just sit," recalls his father, Stephen. "You know, he was listless. Slow."
"For the first three years of his life," adds his mother, Anna, "he never said 'Mama.' He never said anything."
His parents are still not sure what happened to their youngest child. He suffered an attack of acute anemia at the age of 13 months. But Willie's parents suspect he suffered brain damage, either at that time or earlier. To meet Willie is to notice immediately what they mean.
He is a strapping teen-ager, nearly 6 feet tall. He bounces quickly out of his chair and shakes hands with confidence.
But ask Willie a question, and he must think for about 10 seconds before answering. When he finally speaks, he says "yes." Or "no." Or "sure." "As you can see," says his father, "he's slow, that's all."
Willie reads at a third-grade level, enough to recognize "Avondale" on the front of the bus that takes him to school and "Federal Triangle" on the one that takes him home. But he can't read the newspaper. He can barely read a basic book. He doesn't retain much of anything he reads.
Willie is better at counting, but he has trouble doing it without making ticks on a piece of paper, or using his fingers. He is getting better at chores and simple tasks, but he must be reminded repeatedly how to perform them.
"He has made progress," says his father, "and we are encouraged by that. But he has so much more progress he has to make."
A young man like Willie James isn't used to making that progress in big gulps. But that's what happened a couple of weeks ago when he swung a hockey stick.
The stick fired a puck past a goalie and into a net, and with that, Willie's floor hockey team from the Kennedy Institute had defeated its coaches.
It was the first goal Willie had ever scored in the 18 months he has been playing floor hockey at Kennedy, a school for the mentally handicapped in Northeast. The goal not only won the game for Willie and his teammates, but it assured them a trip to Baton Rouge, La., this July as part of Washington's delegation to the Sixth International Summer Special Olympics.
How does Willie James feel about the chance to compete on an international level? "Fine," he said the other night, as we sat in the living room of his family's home near Catholic University. And how has hockey success changed Willie? "He's much more outgoing," said his mother. "He knows now he can accomplish something. Before, you could pass William and he wouldn't say a word. Now he talks to everybody."
Over the next four months, I'll be charting the progress of Willie James as he prepares for his trip to Baton Rouge, and a possible gold medal.
I'll be reporting from time to time on the team's practices. I'll be talking to Willie's teachers and coaches. And I'll be in Baton Rouge with Willie and Company as they take on teams from 50 states, 40 foreign countries and four U.S. territories.
My reports on Willie won't be stories of goals and saves alone. For Willie, and hundreds of other young Washingtonians who are mentally handicapped, sports present a chance to excel that has eluded them in every other area of their lives, and may elude them forever.
In following Willie this spring, we'll be looking at how hockey rubs off on a young man who hasn't competed much, or won much, or been very visible in his home town.
For Willie, Baton Rouge is a chance to smell the roses for the first time.