Washington coach Rick Neuheisel held the Rose Bowl trophy toward the top of the stadium, tears forming in his eyes as his voice choked with emotion.
“This was for you, C.W.,” Neuheisel shouted toward the press box Monday, minutes after No. 4 Washington beat No. 14 Purdue 34-24.
Curtis Williams, paralyzed in a game two months ago, was crying before the game as were several of his teammates when he visited them in the locker room before the Rose Bowl.
Some of the players kissed him on the head and some patted his shoulder. Neuheisel and a few of the players whispered into his ear.
“I’m very happy to be here,” Williams said in a voice that was barely audible. “It was great to see everyone again. I’ve missed them.”
Then the Huskies, wearing Williams’ initials on their jerseys, went out and won.
Inspiration off the Field
“We had a dream to give our buddy a chance to get a Rose Bowl ring and we achieved it,” Neuheisel said. “I promised him after the Stanford game that we’d try to get it done. It was an absolute thrill to have him here.”
Williams, a fifth-year senior from Fresno, sustained a severe spinal cord injury Oct. 28 at Stanford in a helmet-to-helmet hit. He has had spinal-cord surgery and has no voluntary muscle movement.
After he arrived at the Rose Bowl on Monday, he asked to be taken to the Huskies’ dressing room, something that wasn’t on the schedule. He was fitted with his No. 25 game jersey and sat in a wheelchair as his teammates came up to him one by one.
“I told him he didn’t have a thing to worry about,” linebacker Derrell Daniels said after the game. “I told him we were going to go out there and win it for him.”
Since Williams was injured, his teammates have worn his initials on their jerseys and he got to watch them Monday from the press box level.
“We all knew we had to do one thing,” fullback Pat Conniff said. “We knew we had to play our guts out for the guy. The guy is batting it every single day. The least we could do was go out and battle it out for four hours.”
Washington quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, who was voted player of the game, was thinking about Williams all day.
“It was a boost for all of us to see him before the game,” Tuiasosopo said. “A lot of us hadn’t seen him since the Stanford game.”
Williams, 22, was flown from San Jose, where he is in a rehabilitation center, to the nearby airport in Burbank, and then taken to the Rose Bowl by ambulance. He slept most of the flight.
He said he was appreciative of Washington’s fans.
“I miss them and I want to thank them for all their support,” he said.
Several of Williams’ family members, including brother David Williams, 36, of Fresno, flew to the game with him.
“For me, I wanted to get him here because he fought so hard to get his team here,” David Williams said. “He’s still optimistic he can get something back, but he knows he’s not going to get it all back.
“He’s coming to peace with things, but I think he’s going to be OK.”
Homecoming Scheduled for February
As he watched from the press box, Curtis Williams was accompanied by a medical team from San Jose.
After the game, he was to be flown back to San Jose.
David Williams said his 5-foot-10 younger brother had lost “30 to 40 pounds” from his 200-pound frame since his injury. He said the family hopes to bring him home in February.
Former Washington coach Jim Lambright, who recruited Williams to the Huskies, has visited Williams since his injury.
“I don’t think there’s a day in his life where he doesn’t think he will get up and walk again,” Lambright said. “I’m positive it’s going to happen.”