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Tampa Bay Storm's Chandler Williams leaves behind a legacy of love

MIAMI

On the final play of his life, Chandler Williams reached the end zone. • That came as no surprise to anyone who knew the Storm receiver, who was an electric player on the field and a magnetic personality off it. • But after Williams suddenly, and mysteriously, died Jan. 5 at age 27 of cardiac arrest during a flag football game near his hometown of Miami, it wasn't the touchdowns his family and friends remembered the most. • It was how Williams touched peoples' lives. He was friends to acquaintances, family to friends, an inspiration to those around him.

That was evident by the nearly 800 people who laughed, cried and sang during Williams' funeral ("home-going celebration") Saturday afternoon at the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church.

There were former teammates and coaches from Florida International University and the Storm as well as neighbors from the Larchmont area, where he grew up.

And there were the loves of his life: fiancee Vanitia Harrigan and their almost 2-year-old daughter, Tori Summer-Rose, who sat in the front row wearing her black-and-white polka dot dress wrapped in a pink bow. During the service, Tori pointed up at the slide show of her daddy, who called himself "Mr. Mom."

"He lived for that girl," Williams' mother, Karen Dawson, said. "He had everything he wanted. I can't believe he's gone."

Williams died playing his favorite game, collapsing on the sideline during a 6-on-6 flag football tournament at the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach.

When good friend and former FIU teammate Julius Eppinger first saw Williams on the ground on the sideline, he thought he was just tired. It was their second game of the night, and Williams had just intercepted a pass before halftime, returning it for a touchdown.

Eppinger told Williams to get up, joking he looked lazy. But when Williams didn't respond, Eppinger got scared. He put a finger over Williams' nose — he wasn't breathing. He checked his wrist for a pulse — nothing. Eppinger screamed for someone to call fire and rescue.

An off-duty nurse who was watching the game helped perform CPR while another person did chest compressions. They anxiously waited for para­medics, who Eppinger said arrived 20 minutes later. In the meantime, Eppinger used Williams' cell phone to deliver the news to Dawson, who was at work.

"It's Chan," Eppinger said. "He's not breathing."

Dawson beat the ambulance to Aventura Hospital by a few minutes, peppering those at the emergency room entrance. Doctors soon pulled Dawson into a room, turned off the television and delivered the news: Her son was gone.

"I'm like, 'No, you can't tell me that. That's my baby,' " Dawson said. " 'He's only 27.' "

Eppinger couldn't believe it.

"It was traumatizing," he said. "Just seeing my best friend die in front of my face. Sometimes, I find myself thinking, 'Did I do enough?' "

The cause of death remains a mystery. Doctors are awaiting toxicology reports. Dawson said her son never had a heart condition or medical issue, other than asthma as a teenager, and had no trouble passing physicals of the four NFL teams he played for as well as the Arena League's Storm.

The only solace Dawson could take was Williams' last act was on a football field.

"That is what keeps me going because I know he passed away playing his passion," she said. "He wasn't murdered. He wasn't beaten. He wasn't killed in an accident. He served his purpose: to show so much love. That's all he had to give.

"He's leaving a legacy. He's leaving memories. That's something that nobody can take from me … ever."

•••

Williams dared to dream big. While he would swap NFL trading cards with friends in elementary school, he'd believe his picture would one day be on one of them.

With his father, Chandler Williams II, and Dawson splitting up when he was young, Williams wanted to help lift his mother, who worked as a manager at a Winn-Dixie to support her five kids, to a better life.

"He'd say, 'Momma, I'm going to make it happen for you one day. Just wait,' " Dawson said.

Williams' dazzling days as a dual-threat quarterback at Miami High sparked a scholarship to play receiver for the new program at Florida International.

"He was just 17 years old and going to redshirt," said Pete Pelegrin, who covered FIU for the Miami Herald from 2002-10 and now works for the school. "But he'd always seek me out at practice and say, 'You better watch out for No. 1. No. 1 is going to be making plays.' "

Those words proved prophetic.

Williams is the second-leading receiver in program history. He trails only T.Y. Hilton, who made the NFL all-rookie team this season for the Colts.

Drafted by the Vikings in the seventh round in 2007, Williams bounced around practice squads for the Chiefs, Falcons and Dolphins. He never played in a regular-season NFL game, but it didn't take away from the joy he displayed.

"He lived his dream," Dawson said.

While some consider the Arena Football League a step down, Williams embraced his niche in the fast man's league. Signed by the Storm before the 2012 season, he soon became its top player. He led the league in kickoff returns with a 23-yard average, taking three back for touchdowns. He also caught 83 passes (second on the team) for 996 yards (third) and 17 touchdowns (third) despite playing only 13 of 18 games.

"He was as quick as a hiccup," said friend Kevin Timothee, a former FIU teammate.

Storm coach Dave Ewart said Williams, at 5 feet 11, 176 pounds, was, "pound for pound," its toughest guy on the field and one of its best ambassadors off it.

"When you jump in a vehicle and watch the Storm play, you definitely come to see what Chandler was going to do next," said Storm teammate Deonte Bolden, a Lakewood High grad. "He was bigger than the league. He just had big-play potential every play. He played like he belonged somewhere else."

Williams gave the Canadian Football League a shot, leaving the Storm in June to sign with the Toronto Argonauts. But Williams was homesick, so he called Ewart and asked if the Storm wanted him back.

"I said, 'That's a dumb question. Of course,' " Ewart quipped.

So Williams asked for his release from Toronto in October and signed a three-year deal with the Storm, making him one of the league's highest-paid players. Just as important, he'd be just a few hours from his Lauderdale home, which was where his heart was.

•••

Williams and Vanitia were college sweethearts, having met at FIU while she was a journalism and broadcasting major.

Their courtship withstood his many football stops. And just as Williams kept defenders on their toes, he swept his fiancee off her feet with a surprising move.

While at a friend's wedding July 2, also his mother's birthday, Williams gave a toast to the newly­weds then popped the question to Vanitia.

"He stole the spotlight," she said, smiling.

Williams looked forward to settling down, especially with his brown-eyed girl, Tori, in the fold. He and his daughter were often inseparable, with the proud papa posting tons of pictures on Twitter, taking her to the zoo and building a space shuttle-looking tent in her bedroom for them to sleep under.

In the offseason, Williams stayed home and watched Tori from 8 in the morning to 5 at night while Harrigan worked as a sales assistant and web producer with WSVN-Ch. 7 in Miami.

Harrigan called Williams her superhero. He always told her, "I got you, babe!"

"We planned for a lifetime," Harrigan wrote in the funeral program. "Now I will live with a lifetime of memories."

His sister Shanika recalled how competitive Williams was in everything, from pumpkin-carving contests to performing Michael Jackson dance moves on Nintendo Wii with his 10-year-old nephew.

Dawson smiles when she thinks about how much Williams loved eating oxtail, how he joyfully jumped onto their porch instead of using the steps, and how quick he was to deliver a joke.

For example, one Christmas, Williams gave her a movie DVD, telling her she had to watch it. When Dawson opened it, cash dropped out, and everyone fell on the floor laughing.

"I'm like, 'You silly rabbit,' " she said. "He was just a character."

Williams enjoyed bowling and fishing, and though he was frugal with his money, he'd give his last dime to a friend in need.

"He loved life. He loved laughing," Shanika said. "And he loved making others happy."

•••

While Dawson struggles to find answers for why her son's life was cut short, she believes she found a spiritual sign that can help give her peace. On Monday, two days after Williams' death, Shanika spotted a beautiful butterfly outside his old bedroom window.

Later that day, Dawson was walking to her car in the driveway when she saw the same one — a mixture of burnt orange, brown and yellow — turn toward her. The butterfly stopped just over her, flapped its wings, then flew away.

Dawson and Harrigan have butterfly tattoos on the back of their right shoulders and believed someone was looking over them.

"I felt that it was my baby," Dawson said. "I felt that it's confirmation to me, saying, 'Mom, I'm okay.' I'm going to keep that story in me, keep his memories. I can move forward and keep his dream alive."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com

>>Fast facts

Memorial fund for Williams

A memorial fund has been started for the family of Chandler Williams. Contributions can be made via Paypal at chandlerwilliams

memorialfund@gmail.com or mailed to:

Chandler Williams Memorial Fund

John R. Owens, Banker Lopez Gassler P.A.

501 E Kennedy Blvd. Suite 1500

Tampa, FL 33602

Tampa Bay Storm's Chandler Williams leaves behind a legacy of love 01/12/13 [Last modified: Sunday, January 13, 2013 12:18am]

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