The last play of Ty Williams’s football career was a September first down, 10 to go, a red-zone pass. Georgetown’s official record of that game said the pass was dropped, but Williams, in truth, had broken it up: He went low, the slot receiver for Saint Francis of Pennsylvania went high, and the impact caused the ball to bound off the latter’s hands and to the turf. The impact also did something else.
“It was all tingling,” Williams recalled. “I had no idea what position my legs were in.”
His neck had recoiled at the receiver’s waist, and he spent 30 minutes lying on the field, two weeks in a hospital and the next four months at another facility in Atlanta. The diagnosis, he learned, was “C6 incomplete” — a fractured vertebra that has left the 21-year-old with partial feeling in his lower body but not the ability to will it to movement.
“Everything changed in an instant,” said his mother, Melissa Rand. And as the one-year anniversary and the Hoyas’ first season opener since that day approach, Williams wants nothing more than to change it all back.
He has been known as relentlessly positive dating from his youth in Gaithersburg, a trait that keeps him going. He has not been told, “You will walk again” by doctors, nor has he heard, “You won’t.”
“I don’t really think a single day goes by that he isn’t wondering,” said his girlfriend, Alexa Ritchie. “The hardest thing for him is just not knowing.”
“I’ve gotten a lot better over these 11 months,” Williams said. “I’ve made big strides. It helps to look back on it. But it’s tough knowing there’s a lot more to go through.”
For now, his progress is measured in lesser milestones. He started playing video games, FIFA and Super Smash Bros., again in the spring. He mastered transferring in and out of vehicles a month ago. Around the same time, with another person holding his knees, he stood upright.
Williams motivates the Hoyas “every day,” roommate and defensive tackle Bryan Jefferson said, and they see him often. He is still a frequent practice attendee, still No. 2 on the roster, still front and center in this year’s team picture. Still taking classes at Georgetown, where he is completing his junior year as a government major after he missed the semester last fall. Still a part of the program, in short, in all respects but the one he perhaps craves most. When he regained consciousness after the initial surgery, Rand said, one of his first questions was, “Is my football career over?”
“Every day I hated looking across from the line because there’d just be that big smile, and I know he’s blitzing, and there’s just nothing you can do about it,” said senior quarterback Tim Barnes, set to replace the graduated Kyle Nolan under center.
“He’d be the best-looking kid out here right now,” Georgetown Coach Rob Sgarlata said after a recent practice.
A bruising running back at Quince Orchard High who started every game for the Hoyas at outside linebacker by his sophomore year in 2014, Williams was “a physically impressive kid,” Sgarlata said, standing 6 feet 1 and weighing 220 pounds. Now that physicality has been compromised but not eradicated. He works out his upper body regularly. He uses a special stationary bike, too.
“I’ve got one option: just to work and keep working,” he concluded early on, and on one recent Wednesday, work means another round of physical therapy at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Northwest Washington.
His personal specialist, Katie Seward, begins by fitting him with “the exoskeleton,” an apparatus designed to assist those who have suffered spinal-cord injuries or strokes in relearning to walk. Until a doctor tells him it’s over, he figures, Williams is going to try.
He steps slowly down the hospital hallway, hands clutching a walker, legs in the black metal suit. The first time he used the exoskeleton, he went for 27 minutes; this time, the third, he goes longer. He wants to get better not only for himself, he says, but “because it lessens the burden on the people around me,” because “everything’s just easier that way.”
“He’s never given up hope,” Rand said the next day. “Sometimes I don’t even know how he does it.”
Later that afternoon, there’s a point when Williams is tasked with lying on his back and bursting upward, arms extending forth, then right. Over and over he goes on his own — setting himself, springing up, stretching out, restarting.
It is not as eye-catching as the exoskeleton, certainly, and it is not the end. One more exercise remained, then another two sessions the next week and who knows how many years to follow.
But while much has changed, the motion is familiar: It looks almost like breaking up a pass.