As a star Quince Orchard High School running back from 2010-12, Ty Williams often seemed unstoppable. A typical Ty Williams run involved broken tackles, defenders bouncing off or getting stiff-armed, and Ty determinedly dragging one, two, three and more would-be tacklers, steadily, relentlessly moving forward, refusing to go down, while the Cougar faithful cheered him on.
Attendees at Georgetown University’s recent graduation ceremony got to witness Williams’ same fierce determination in action again, and to cheer Williams with that same kind of adulation. But this time with the cheers there were tears, for Williams was overcoming an opponent tougher than any tackler. He was fighting against the limitations of his own body, and as all in attendance could see, Williams was winning.
Williams suffered a broken neck in the opening game of Georgetown’s 2015 football season, where he was a starting linebacker. The injury left him with some feeling in his lower body but unable to move his legs. While doctors did not tell Williams that he would not walk again, neither did they tell him that he would.
Williams attacked his recovery with his characteristic determination, and for the past two-and-a-half years has been fighting to regain his ability to walk while continuing his education at Georgetown. For him the question was always “when” not “if” he would walk again. Though he knew that no one could say with certainty when that might happen, he had a goal in mind: He was going to walk across the stage for his graduation.
During twice-a-week therapy sessions at the Medstar National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in D.C. as well as workouts in his accessible, on-campus apartment at Georgetown and in the campus training facilities, Williams has been preparing his body to regain its mobility.
“Everything’s been a progression,” Williams said. His first steps came less than a year after the injury as he began to move his legs in an exoskeleton, a device designed to assist people who have suffered spinal-cord injuries or strokes in relearning to walk. Then during the past year he progressed to walking, with assistance, in a walker and leg braces.
With each new milestone, Williams tconfidence grew that he would achieve his graduation goal. “Once I got to the walker … progressing in that was how I could make sure that I could walk across (the stage) at graduation. … Honestly, I felt pretty confident that I was going to be able to do this at least three or four months ago because the progression with the walking has been going so well.”
So on graduation day—moved indoors to Georgetown’s McDonough Arena because of threatened rain—Williams’ classmates in the College of Arts and Sciences had their names called, walked across the stage and shook hands with Georgetown President John DeGioia. They went in alphabetical order, except for Williams.
Then the assistant dean conducting the ceremony announced that they had one more graduate left and called Williams’ name. With that Williams, who had moved onto the stage in his wheelchair, surprised his classmates and the audience as he stood up, teetered for a brief moment before righting himself, and began to walk across the stage in his walker and leg braces, assisted by his physical therapist, Katie Seward, and his girlfriend, Alexa Ritchie (a fellow QO alum). Cheers and shouts of encouragement thundered through the old arena with every step.
“I kind of blanked out,” Williams admitted. “I didn’t hear my name called. I heard the cheers. All I focused on was walking.” Not unlike, he acknowledged later, what he remembers going through his mind during his days as a running back.
Slowly but steadily Williams willed himself across the stage, one deliberate step after another, until he fell into an emotional hug in DeGioia’s arms, who warmly congratulated him.
“It was a deeply meaningful and special moment for our community,” DeGioia posted later on social media. “I wish to again offer Ty my very best wishes and warmest congratulations—you’ve enlivened our community through your strength, passion, and perseverance.”
Video of Williams remarkable graduation walk was shared on social media and broadcast on national network news and local television, including CBS, ABC, ESPN and Fox 5 DC.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” he said.
Williams will continue his education at Georgetown, pursuing a master’s in sports management. He will also continue to live in his specially equipped on-campus apartment and with his physical therapy regimen to get stronger and better at walking on his own.
“The next goal,” he said, “is to get to the point where I can walk without needing assistance. I am definitely getting closer to that.”
Ty Williams gained almost 1,400 yards and scored 16 touchdowns during his career as a QO running back. But not one of those yards meant as much to him and the people who care for him as those determined strides he took across the Georgetown stage to commemorate his college graduation, and not one of those scores was as valuable as his achieving a goal that many once thought was unlikely.
He remains unstoppable.