Dex!: Through trials and tribulations, senior running back Dexter Williams has pushed himself to new heights
Elizabeth Greason | Friday, November 9, 2018
Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 12 edition of The Observer.
For Dexter Williams, the journey to — and through — Notre Dame hasn’t been a road that’s been easy to travel. Except when he’s heading to the end zone.
The senior running back has seen the field in all four of his seasons at Notre Dame, and has seen a steady increase in his playing time and in his impact on the team over his four years. However, some of Williams’ actions off the field have distracted from his accomplishments on it.
Williams did not play in the first four games of the current season due to a rumored internal suspension, a potential second disciplinary issue after he was arrested before the start of his sophomore year along with four other players and was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. But through the good times and the bad, he’s had a stellar support system in place, led without fail by his mother, Cheryl.
Cheryl and Williams do not have your typical mother-son relationship. Williams lights up when talking about his mother, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness, myasthenia gravis, in 2006. When Cheryl heard that her son would not be able to play football for the first month of his senior year, she left her treatments behind in Florida and moved in with Williams in South Bend to provide support for him.
“It’s been great having her, just having her emotional support and just being here with me, just being able to just stay with me — and also she’s been cooking for me a lot, so I love that as well,” Williams said. “I love my mom’s cooking and just having her here just helped me to just stay humble and just keep my mind on the right track, so I can just continue to focus and push hard.”
Williams is not the only member of the Notre Dame squad who has benefitted from Cheryl’s home-cooked meals during her time living with her son. He said seniors Alizé Mack and Shaun Crawford, in particular, take advantage, but the entire team is welcome to join the Williams family for meals, just as any children from the neighborhood were welcome in the Williams house while he was growing up.
“Dexter’s home was kind of the safe sanctuary for all the kids in the neighborhood. So she would have — I know when I visited that home — 10, 15 kids in that home, just because it was a safe sanctuary. And [Cheryl] was the matriarch of that neighborhood,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Oct. 2. “So there’s a very strong relationship there. If I have ever had a problem, I just call her and it gets fixed like that. There’s no debating when it comes to his response to his mother. Certainly, she’s going through a difficult time right now, but she’s very strong and inspirational to Dexter. His fight to get back to where he is is certainly personal. But family had something to do with it as well.”
Cheryl has been there for Williams through all the ups and the downs, but he has been there for her just as much. While Williams was in high school, Cheryl’s condition took a turn for the worse. She fell into a three-month coma and was nearly taken off life support.
“It was definitely a hard process, just her not being there for three months. It was kind of hard just dealing with it, and then she wasn’t there on my birthday,” Williams said. “So it kind of hit home — hit hard, really. And I just had to continue to just stay focused and just continue to fight for her and just believe that everything is going to be OK and just stay the course, because I know she’ll be happy with me doing what I’m doing now.”
And happy she was. It was Cheryl who ultimately nudged Williams in the direction of attending Notre Dame after the Orlando, Florida, native had already committed to Miami.
“Just getting up here to see Notre Dame and having a chance to see Miami as well, I just fell in love with Notre Dame. It was just something about the school and the tradition and just the players [who] were here. It was just a lot of love and I felt like I belonged here,” Williams said. “And then on top of that, my mom, she was really pushing for me to come here as well. So I had that support from home and it was kind of hard to leave home. But I knew it was a better choice, a better opportunity for me here. And so, I decided to just leave home and come to Notre Dame and just enjoy this process.”
Williams de-committed from the Hurricanes and promptly signed with the Irish. And he has not looked back since.
“I definitely feel like it’s the right decision,” he said. “Just being here with these guys, it’s just a wonderful group of guys and we grind each and every day. It’s a lot of love here, and the tradition and the fans here, it’s crazy. And just being on this campus, it just gives you a feeling that you don’t get anywhere.”
Love is a theme with Williams, both among him and his teammates and his family — his parents, Cheryl and his father, Leonard. There’s love at Notre Dame everywhere Williams looks, and he felt it especially in his time of need — those first four games when he couldn’t play and wanted nothing more than to get his hands on the football, or “the rock,” as he calls it.
“It was definitely a lot of love. Just having all my teammates come over and just spend some time with me and my mom — it’s just great having them there, and just like how she supports me, they support me a lot,” he said. “They’re holding me accountable for all my actions, and just having them just to spend time with me, it’s been very helpful through this whole process.”
Another helpful — and light-hearted — element of Williams’ life throughout the process has been his pet bearded dragon, Rocco.
“That’s been my buddy, he’s been with me through this process and we be kicking it every day,” he said, beaming. “That’s been my guy.”
During the time he wasn’t available as one of Notre Dame’s most talented running backs, Williams knew he still had a role to play on the team. He needed to step up and be a leader in the locker room, no matter how hard he found the time.
“I just had to remain humble and just trust God’s timing and also just continue to just trust my teammates and just continue to just trust this process, because it was a hard process not being there the first four games,” he said. “But at the same time, I had to just continue to think about I had to just grind each and every day and just continue to take things day-by-day. I didn’t really want to force anything, and I just had to continue to be that leader for my teammates. And also, just continue to just grind. And so when I did step on the field, I knew I would be ready.”
As a leader for the Irish, Williams considers himself to have a specific role: That of hype man, or, in his words “juice man.”
“I just really have to be the juice man. I have to really just be the spark for my team, because I know they need me,” he said. “They feed off my energy. So, I know if I get going, they’re going to follow along. And then the energy is just going to spring from the offense to the defense, so just having them and just being a guy that they need on the team is being helpful.”
That “juice” Williams is referring to? It’s also his nickname. The 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pounder has gone by “Juice” since well before he got to Notre Dame, another impact his mother has had in his life.
“I have gotten the nickname ‘Juice’ because I like orange juice,” he said. “So my mom would call me ‘Juice.’ A lot of my teammates in high school called me ‘Juice,’ and I just brought their name here with me as well. So it just stuck with me ever since.”
Williams lets his juice flow any chance he can get, whether it’s dancing on the sidelines or amping up his teammates, but it might be best exemplified by one of the plays he considers to be the highlight of his Notre Dame career thus far.
“The Duke game, my sophomore year, I think [former running back] Josh [Adams’] shoe came off in the game and the coach didn’t know who to put in,” Williams recounted. “So I just ran in and the first time I touched the ball, I broke, like, I think four or five tackles and I scored, so it was definitely one of the highlight reels of my career.”
While that juice is loose any time Williams steps foot on the field, it might have been poured out like never before as four games’ worth of pent-up energy was unleashed against Stanford on Sept. 29, when he took the field in Notre Dame Stadium for the first time as a senior. And on his first touch, he took the ball 45 yards to the house to put the Irish up 7-0.
“I was just really so happy just to be out there with my teammates again and just being able to just play football and just do the thing I love and just, really, just take the field,” Williams said. “And just get a chance to beat Stanford because we hadn’t beat Stanford my three years here. And for my senior year, to beat them, it was a great accomplishment.”
In his two games since returning, Williams has continued his successful start, nearly totaling his season yardage from last year. He has already picked up four touchdowns, including a 97-yard touchdown run against Virginia Tech last weekend, and he is averaging nearly 170 yards per game — leaving his 36 yards per game from last season in the dust.
“[My impact has] definitely been a good impact, and I just can’t really just thank my teammates enough, because they’ve been there with me through this whole process,” he said. “So just having them there, just having them showing the love and support and I just do everything for them because I know they will do a lot for me, so I’m sacrificing every carry I can get.
“And also just laying it all on the line every time we cross that line to take the field. And definitely with that front five, none of this is possible without them, so I really thank them a lot, and I’m showing them a lot of love because I need them, just like they need me. And I need everyone on this field including the defense, and we got to stick together and continue to trust the process.”
Despite the success, Williams has remained humble, perhaps in part due to another off-the-field incident before the start of his sophomore season — his aforementioned arrest with four other Notre Dame players. Williams said his arrest has helped him mature and learn about himself, as well as improve his work ethic.
“I just had to hold myself accountable and just really just know that everything doesn’t just fall around me. This world doesn’t just revolve around me so I have to continue to hold myself accountable and just continue to push, continue the grind,” Williams said, dropping his signature smile. “And also just really know what I have ahead of me. So just the whole process, I just had to keep my head down and just keep grinding. I can’t give up because if I give up then I will let my family down, so I have to continue to just push and just let my teammates know that they can count on me.”
Having left the incident in the past, Williams is focused on the future and has his eyes on the prize. And the person who has given him the encouragement to get to that future?
“My mom, she always just tells me to trust and believe in myself that I’m a king’s kid and to always continue to push and to never give up,” Williams said. “And that’s just how I’ve just been going through this whole process, is never giving up and just continue to trust her and just be with her. And also, she wants me to continue fighting. And I know she’s fighting through her illness. So just, her feeding off my energy and me feeding off her energy is just something special, and she’s just been a big part of my life.”