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Wednesday, May 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

UW says good-bye to Williams

A building meant for noise was quiet last night. A place built for celebrations was peopled with mourners.

About 2,000 friends, family and fans of former Washington football player Curtis Williams came to the new Edmundson Pavilion to laugh about his orneriness, to cheer his athleticism, to honor his courage.

Death came to this neighborhood last week, suddenly and surprisingly like an earthquake.

An injury as severe as Curtis Williams', and a death as unexpected as his, is too much for a brain to decode. Last night was meant to bring some coherent order to the events of the last nine days, to put some meaning into so much pain.

This was an all-inclusive kind of moment. It was a University of Washington event, and deservedly so, but clearly the impact of Williams' death was felt more broadly.

It was felt the length of the West Coast, where he was known as a fearless, free-spirited safety. And it was felt across the country, in the state of Mississippi, where another defensive back, Chucky Mullins, suffered a similar injury and died a similar death, exactly 11 years before Williams.

Eleven years later, fans of Mississippi football, who are every bit as fervent as Washington's, still remember Mullins.

The good that Mullins has done for his school is so profound and so obvious it hasn't stopped since his death. Many who have written e-mails to me in the last week have said they consider him a catalyst for a new era at the University of Mississippi, a school that still feels the aftereffects from the hatred associated with African-American James Meredith's enrollment there some 40 years ago.

In e-mail after e-mail from both whites and blacks last week I read about the galvanizing effect Mullins has had on his university. They told me how, as a football player, he had been a fan favorite. His will was greater than his talent and the fans appreciated the passion he brought to the game.

But the e-mailers also wrote about what Mullins did for the school after his injury. They mentioned an incandescent smile that never was dimmed. They mentioned a will that was transcendent. They mentioned the contagion of his spirit. They wrote that the character and civility he displayed after his injury were instructive.

Much of this also can be said about Curtis Williams.

"When he had to struggle for every breath. When it mattered the most. When his arms and legs had been taken from him, those might have been his finest hours in terms of his competitiveness," said Washington Coach Rick Neuheisel, choking back his emotions.

For the last 18 months of his life, Williams was paralyzed, but when we saw him, he never let his misfortune show. All of us will remember him smiling, in a press box at the Rose Bowl, near home plate at Safeco Field.

In person, in the papers, on television, Curtis Williams always had a grin, as genuine as gold. It was as if he knew his smile would make us all feel better. In many ways the terrible injury made him a better person. He touched more lives. He enriched more people.

Williams often talked by telephone to his teammates on the Thursdays before game day.

"Maybe Curtis would talk for 20 minutes and get out 100 words," said former teammate Wondame Davis, "or maybe he would talk for three seconds and get out three words. But what he said, no matter how long it took him to say it, was truly motivating."

Curtis Williams died last week, but his name and his spirit are enduring. Just as Mullins is at Mississippi, Williams will be a force for good, forever at Washington.

He will live in the healthy minds of the students who will benefit from the scholarship endowed in his name. And he will elevate future Washington teams.

"He will always be part of the family," Williams' position coach Bobby Hauck said.

Chucky Mullins and Curtis Williams, who were injured on the same date and died on the same date, are intertwined like DNA.

Their impressions have been embedded in our lives. Their lives will be commemorated on both campuses.

"The greatest lesson Curtis taught us was the true spirit of courage," Athletic Director Barbara Hedges said.

Last night David Hodge, the dean of the College of Arts and Science, presented a Bachelor of Arts degree in Williams' name to David Williams, Curtis' brother, who cared for him in the 18 months after the accident.

"Curtis, we did it," said sociology professor Al Black, Williams' favorite teacher.

Williams can be remembered in many other, meaningful ways.

A preseason football game between Mississippi and Washington could be scheduled. The Mullins-Williams Classic could be played in late August. A large percentage of the proceeds could go to spinal-cord research. Who knows, it could be the start of an unusually rich rivalry.

And Washington could remember Williams by allowing the most inspirational player from the game the week before to wear his jersey No. 25 in the next week's game. In that way, a part of him never will leave the field.

Last night Bobby Hauck pulled a pecan from his pocket, rolled it around in his fingers and showed it to the audience. The pecan came from David Williams' farm, where Curtis lived the last months of his life.

"Every time I start thinking things aren't going well, or woe is me, I rub that pecan," Hauck said. "I rub that thing and I think about the guts Curtis had, just to get up every morning. I carry it with me everywhere. And when it wears down, I'll go down to the farm and get another one."

Death came to this neighborhood last week. But this school, this football program, this neighborhood never will let the soul and essence of Curtis Williams die.

Steve Kelley can be reached at 206-464-2176 or

at skelley@seattletimes.com.

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