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Tuesday, May 14, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW Football

Current and former Huskies say goodbye to Williams

Seattle Times staff reporter

FRESNO, Calif. — Curtis Williams died a week earlier, but Anthony Kelley saw the reality yesterday when he stared through tears at Williams' casket.

"It was overwhelming," Kelley said. "He was literally gone. It was that reality. We knew about it, but to actually see it was just a whole different perspective that came across in our minds to touch his casket and know that he was in there."

Williams died on Monday, May 6, about 18 months after he suffered a paralyzing spinal-cord injury while playing safety for the Washington football team. He was 24. His funeral was yesterday in Fresno, and he was later buried in nearby Clovis.

Kelley was one of 21 UW football players who flew from Seattle to Fresno yesterday for Williams' funeral. Rick Neuheisel was one of six coaches on the trip, and more than 10 other former Huskies, including NFL players Marques Tuiasosopo and Chad Ward, also attended the service.

About 600 people attended the funeral at a church only blocks away from Bullard High School, where Williams once played. At the graveside service on a warm, sunny day, some teammates left tributes to their teammate: a picture of Williams and Braxton Cleman taken at the 2001 Holiday Bowl; a helmet decal for Coalinga High School, where Williams first played before coming to Fresno; and a picture of his daughter, Kymberly.

Kelley left two copper bracelets to symbolize their friendship. Willie Hurst left two dog tags, like those soldiers wear. One had Hurst's name on it and the other bore two scripture verses Hurst wanted to keep close to his heart.

"I thought he should have them," Hurst said. "So I took them off, gave them a kiss, and then I gave his casket a kiss and I handed them over."

UW safety Greg Carothers, who replaced Williams at strong safety, kissed his hand before touching Williams' casket. Jimmy Newell held his hand on the casket, bowing his head in silence.

It was an emotional end to a struggle that began on Oct. 28, 2000, when Williams was paralyzed from the neck down in a Washington football game at Stanford. At the end of the graveside service, Neuheisel took Williams' No. 25 jersey from atop the casket and gave it to Williams' parents.

What happens with the number in the future won't be decided until a team meeting, Neuheisel said. The No. 25 could be retired, or it could be honored in a different way. At Ole Miss, the No. 38 worn by Chucky Mullins is given annually to the team's outstanding defensive player. Mullins, also a defensive back, was paralyzed in a game in 1989 and died May 6, 1991.

"It's critical that Curtis is not forgotten," Neuheisel said. "He's meant a great deal not only because he was a great player and a great friend but because of the way he fought and the way he dealt with maybe the cruelest card that can be dealt."

The resolve he showed after his injury was commemorated yesterday. The program handed out at the church read, "He fought the Good Fight," on the front and pictured Williams in his Washington uniform. On the inside, a verse titled, "I'm free," began: "Don't grieve for me, for now I'm free."

Football was a focal point of Williams' funeral just as it was a focal point in his life. His UW helmet was displayed. So was the statue he received for being the team's most inspirational player in the 2000 season, when he was injured. The ceremony concluded with more than three minutes of footage from Williams' football career at Washington.

Athletic Director Barbara Hedges and former coach Jim Lambright were at the funeral. Fresno State Coach Pat Hill attended as well. So did Ted Leland, Stanford's athletic director who was on the field at Stanford after Williams' injury.

But, other than Williams' family, the biggest contingent at the funeral was his former teammates, who came together from all over the West Coast.

A week earlier, Tuiasosopo was told of Williams' death after returning from an offseason conditioning run in Oakland, where he plays for the Raiders. Pat Conniff, a former UW teammate, now works in real estate, and his boss told him of Williams' death. Hurst was driving to Jerramy Stevens' house when Stevens called to tell him.

Yesterday, they reunited to honor their former teammate.

"You draw from the experience, the courage that he showed," Neuheisel said. "The ability to stare into the eyes of adversity and not blink. Keep your chin up and keep fighting. And as a coach, all you ask people do is to compete. ... One thing you can honestly say about Curtis Williams: He competed to the bitter end. For that we're all thankful.

"And all of us that were fortunate enough to be on this trip experienced a day we will never forget in saying goodbye to a friend but maintaining a focus on that spirit: Regardless of what happens, you keep fighting."

It's a spirit Williams showed when he played, Kelley said. And it's a spirit Kelley vowed to live up to in his final season.

"Curtis played with his heart," Kelley said. "And that's the reason why we went to the Rose Bowl. This past season, that's not what I've been playing with. That fire and desire, I was having a lot of trouble. I was having a lot of battles with myself about not even wanting to play anymore.

"This let me know that I can't go into self-pity mode or be unsure of things. God blessed me with the situation of playing football at Washington, and I'm going to take advantage of it. I'm going to play my hardest and give it anything I've got just like Curtis did."

Danny O'Neil can be reached at 206-515-5536 or doneil@seattletimes.com.

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