In September, Cristian Williams sat on the couch in his head coach’s corner office overlooking the H.A. Chapman Stadium turf where Williams had spent hundreds of hours devoting himself to the sport he loved.
In a matter of minutes, everything changed.
Williams, a fourth-year junior, was coming off the best performance of his career, an 11-tackle outing at Texas. He thought he might have been summoned to Philip Montgomery’s office to discuss a new defensive scheme ahead of that week’s game.
“As soon as coach Monty sat down, I could see it in his eyes,” Williams said. “I just knew it right then — there was bad news coming.”
Montgomery took the responsibility of delivering a crushing blow, informing Williams that his playing career was seemingly over. Williams had been diagnosed with a fluid-filled cyst on his spinal column — likely there since birth — that could result in paralysis with a single hit.
“(Informing Williams) was just about the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a coach,” Montgomery said.
After that emotional meeting, Williams went home and started praying. Football had been a huge part of his life, since being introduced to the game at age 9 when his family moved to Dallas from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina.
“I had so many thoughts going through my head, but I knew I had to keep my faith,” Williams said. “I knew God was by my side.”
During the rest of a disappointing three-win season, Williams remained an important figure for the Hurricane, wearing a coach’s whistle and giving pointers to his teammates despite coping with personal heartbreak.
“I couldn’t let the energy die down,” he said. “I’m the energy bunny — that’s what they call me. Even though that happened to me, it happened to the whole team. I just had to keep positive energy going.”
In the meantime, Williams’ mother found a specialist in Dallas who felt confident he could operate on the cyst and potentially open the door for a return to football. Williams’ procedure was done in February, and afterward he started getting back in shape just in case.
With each MRI, the possibility became more of a reality. He was cleared by his personal doctor and then the team doctors, and the final hurdle was passing a team physical Wednesday night in advance of the first preseason practice Thursday morning.
“I want to keep Cristian safe and I want him to be healthy, not just now but for the future,” Montgomery said. “We’re going to be diligent about checking him and seeing how he reacts to things … and continue to monitor him, but Cristian wants to play and we’ll see how it works.”
Before returning to the football field, Williams was like a kid on Christmas Eve, too excited to go to bed.
“I couldn’t sleep at all,” he said. “I just couldn’t stop thinking about putting a helmet back on and that this was real.”
For Thursday’s practice, Williams’ teammates and coaches were equally thrilled to see him participating.
“It’s just a blessing,” linebacker Diamon Cannon said. “Having him back and having him able to go to war with us is big for us. We’re just glad that we have him back.”
Classified as a senior, Williams said he hopes to get last season back through a waiver from the NCAA, but he knows nothing is promised, one of the many lessons learned while sidelined last season.
“The thought that this can easily be taken away within a snap of a finger, I appreciate everything a lot more,” he said. “I can’t thank God enough.
“When I go out there to practice, even if I’m tired, I just remember I wasn’t doing this last year and this was all taken away. I can’t take anything for granted now.”