TAMPA — Two weeks after former NFL star Mike Williams arrived at St. Joseph’s Hospital and a week before he died there, the grandmother and the mother of his daughter contacted Tampa Police.
They said they heard someone had brought him Percocet, a prescription opioid painkiller, the day Williams went into cardiac arrest, according to records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
Police declined to provide a copy of the statement, citing an active criminal investigation. But the Times reviewed photographs of the statement from its author, Traci King, grandmother to Williams’ 8-year-old daughter.
“The nature of the crime is under review,” the police department said in an email to the Times.
Three of Williams’ close friends have since shared similar concerns with the Times: That during his stay in the hospital, around the corner from the stadium where he once dazzled roaring crowds as a receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Williams was supplied with drugs by visitors.
Williams’ cause of death is “pending further study,” Chris Wilkerson, spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office, said in a statement Monday. An initial case summary could not be released because of “an open active criminal investigation,” Wilkerson added.
“I don’t have any information to release and cannot even confirm if this person was in the hospital due to patient privacy laws,” a spokesperson for St. Joseph’s said.
Williams’ loved ones say they fear that unprescribed drug use could have complicated his recovery from the injury, which brought him to the hospital by ambulance and left him partially paralyzed in late August. Williams died Sept. 12. He was 36.
“People are walking around free, and Mike is dead,” his longtime friend David “Phūj” Thornton said. “It is sad if people (who visited Williams) at his bedside didn’t have his best interests.”
An injury at work
Williams was working for Brandon-based Exodus Electric Corp. at the time of his injury, said Tierney Lyle, the mother of his daughter. When the Times called Exodus Electric Monday, the man who answered the phone confirmed Williams worked there, but declined to provide further details.
Lyle said she believes he was struck in the head Aug. 18. How and why remain unclear.
The day after Williams’ death, the federal government opened a safety inspection case into the electrical services company, records show. There is no mention of Williams in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s online summary of the case. The location of the incident under inspection is listed as: 3625 W. Gandy Blvd #611, a Target in South Tampa.
A spokesperson for the administration said Monday that they were unable to discuss details of an open investigation, including the nature and date of the incident that prompted the case.
Williams thought he had walked away from the August incident with just a headache, Lyle and two of Williams’ friends, Andrew Dixon and Tyshawn Edwards, told the Times. Williams was looking forward to quality time with his daughter, who just turned 8, that weekend.
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Severe headaches and blurring vision mounted, they said.
Williams drove with his daughter to a local CVS to buy her candy but, unable to walk, he had to remain in the car, Lyle said.
Two days later, Williams’ girlfriend Veronica Ramos dialed 911. Williams’ friends told the Times that by that point, he’d lost feeling below his waist. Ramos declined to comment, asking to be able to mourn in peace.
“Hello,” Williams says in a breathy tone on a recording of the 911 call obtained by the Times. Much of the conversation has been redacted by the Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office, though Williams can be heard wailing: “Oh, my God, ma’am, please, please.”
The dispatcher says help is en route. Ten minutes after the call began, a Hillsborough Fire Rescue engine pulled up to the single-family home where Williams and Ramos lived, tucked into a quiet, leafy street in Riverview.
First responders took Williams 16 miles northwest to St. Joseph’s, records show.
Williams spent the days that followed in the intensive care unit, diagnosed with brain lesions and undergoing spinal surgery, said Lyle and other friends who visited him in the hospital.
A long road to recovery
Results from a spinal fluid test revealed a staph infection, for which Williams was placed on antibiotics, said Lyle, 32.
Out of intensive care, Williams was put into a transitional care unit, facing paralysis from the waist down, Lyle said, with the prospect of eight hours of therapy daily for months to come. Doctors said the former Bucs receiver would have to learn to walk again.
A fourth-round pick out of Syracuse in 2010, Williams burst onto the Tampa Bay scene with 65 receptions and 964 receiving yards as a rookie, leading the team with 11 touchdowns.
His final year with the team was marked with trouble. In 2014, his younger brother reportedly stabbed him in the thigh at the palatial Lutz home he was renting in a gated community. There were other 911 calls, too, as well as threats of eviction and misdemeanor trespassing charges.
After four seasons with the Bucs, he was traded to his hometown Buffalo Bills. He finished his NFL career spending part of 2016 with the Chiefs in the offseason.
Friends and family told the Times they recognized Williams’ road to health would be long, but that it felt possible. Williams would smile and was able to talk on the phone. They knew him as a fighter, someone who poured every ounce of his being into everything he did.
“He was on his way to recovery,” Lyle said.
Then late Sept. 1, two weeks after the work incident, she learned he’d gone into cardiac arrest. An MRI, Lyle said, revealed he had no brain activity.
Lyle said Williams’ doctor explained he’d gone into respiratory arrest and then cardiac arrest due to low oxygen levels.
The next day, Lyle and her mother say they received a call from Edwards, Williams’ close friend. He’d heard someone had brought pills to St. Joseph’s, which Williams had consumed on top of the prescribed pain medication administered by hospital staff.
Edwards, 33, told the Times he did not witness any drug distribution firsthand but said that at one point during his hospital stay, Williams’ asked him: “Can you bring me some Percocet?”
Stunned, Edwards says, he hung up the phone. But someone else, he believes, fulfilled the request.
A star, struggling
Edwards, also from Buffalo, looked up to Williams as a big brother figure.
Introduced by a mutual friend, they clicked instantly. Williams was determined and generous, treating people to gifts and nights out even after his football career and the multimillion-dollar paychecks were over, Edwards said.
He believed Williams was going through a “tough patch,” and had begun leaning on kratom for relief and energy. An herbal substance that can produce opioidlike effects, kratom’s popularity has boomed in recent years. It remains widely available, despite lawsuits and warnings from health authorities.
Edwards suspects someone brought Williams kratom too, delivering it in a soft drink bottle. Two of Williams’ other friends, Thornton and Andrew Dixon, shared similar suspicions with the Times. None say they saw a bottle firsthand and kratom is not mentioned in King’s police statement.
Williams sometimes grew irritable during his hospital stay, friends who visited him told the Times. He also repeated he was in grave pain, voicing dissatisfaction with the hospital’s response.
“Man, I’m having a hard time,” Dixon recalls Williams telling him on the phone one day. “Man, they not doing nothing for me.”
A firefighter with Tampa Fire Rescue, Dixon was on shift one night, bringing a patient to St. Joseph’s. While his lieutenant completed paperwork, he visited the ICU to see Williams again. His skin appeared drained of color, his eyes sunken in their sockets, Dixon said.
“I know that look all too well,” he later told the Times. “I see it all the time in my line of work.”
He leaned over Williams’ bedside, kissed his forehead and whispered into his ear that he loved him.
An incorrect report
Two weeks after Williams arrived at St. Joseph’s, a Spectrum TV station in his hometown of Buffalo erroneously reported Williams had died. The news was picked up by media outlets nationwide, including the Times.
Lyle awoke to these reports, devastated and then perplexed when she learned he was still on life support.
In a room on the hospital’s third floor, she found Williams motionless but alive, connected to a web of tubes that kept breathing for him. She says she saw him slightly stir when he heard his daughter Mya’s voice, blinking and crying but unable to move.
“He knew we were there,” she said later.
The next afternoon, Lyle said, he was taken off the ventilator. That day, Thornton, the longtime friend, visited again. Williams was “a cerebral person,” Thornton said. He recalled a night when Williams worked out Thornton’s signature card trick while the rest of the crowd was stumped.
“Figure out a way to come out of this,” Thornton whispered into Williams’ ear at the hospital. “Just like you figured out my card trick.”
Williams continued breathing on his own for five days before he died.
His friends and family planned a candlelight vigil for him and a balloon release, to be held by the stadium where crowds once cheered his name.
Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report.