Ailing mother, newborn daughter motivating OSU’s Larry Williams to make most of 'third chance'
STILLWATER — As the black Dodge Journey carried a surprise toward Pamela Williams, the Fourth of July heat beat down on her, her wheelchair and the rest of Wilmington, North Carolina.
She hoped to go indoors, but her elder daughter asked her to stay on the porch. Alycia was the only one at the family cookout who knew what was coming.
Oklahoma State offensive lineman Larry Williams hadn't been home since December, and much had changed. After two injury-ravaged seasons as a Cowboy, a new NCAA rule approved in April allowed him a sixth year of eligibility. He and his girlfriend, Ashley Stephens, had a daughter, Ava, a little more than a month later.
With the Cowboys given an extended break for the holiday, Larry and Ashley felt they had to take advantage of it. They wanted Pamela to meet her first granddaughter before it was too late.
Pamela is suffering from kidney and liver failure. She's dealt with arthritis, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which makes breathing difficult. Her heart has only 10 percent of its function.
At 61, she has outlived doctors' expectations by three years.
“I don't know how long I have to live,” Pamela said. “I've reached this point where only God can make me better."
Completing the 18-hour drive, Larry pulled into the driveway about 10 minutes before the fireworks started.
“Normally, everybody runs up and loves Larry,” Alycia said, “but we all skipped him and went straight to Ava."
That let Larry make his way to the porch and the woman who has given him his strength. Pamela cried, and when she eventually held her granddaughter, she cried more because she didn't think she would ever get the chance.
In his ailing mother and newborn daughter, Larry has all the motivation he needs to make the most of his final college season. With OSU's offensive line struggling, he will face his biggest challenge yet when Boise State comes to town Saturday.
"He has no purpose to stop,” his sister Leigh said. “He has every reason to just keep grinding."
Larry sprinted shirtless through the Sherman E. Smith Training Center with his future in limbo and on the line, the tattoo on his chest bared for all to see.
“Only The Strong Survive”
Larry worked out for NFL scouts during OSU's Pro Day in March as a precaution. He missed all but the first three games of 2017 because of a broken ankle and endured an offseason of questions, awaiting the ruling on an NCAA rule that would give a student-athlete who played in four or fewer games in one season, rather than the previous two, a sixth year. Larry appeared in five games in 2016, an ankle injury limiting him then, as well.
“He's got those little ankles,” Pamela said. “That's about the smallest thing about him."
Ashley's pregnancy added to the stress. The couple didn't know whether Ashley, a former Central Oklahoma basketball player, would be moving to Stillwater for Larry's final season or possibly following him as he pursued his NFL dream.
On April 18, a month after Pro Day and a week before the NFL Draft, the rule change went through. A week later, Larry was granted an extra year and deemed eligible for the 2018 season.
Making it to OSU after a 2015 dismissal from East Carolina and a season at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas provided his second football life. The rule change was another, and he intends to capitalize.
“It was kind of almost like a third chance,” he said. “It gave me a little spurt of energy, added a little bit more to my 'Why?,' why I do things."
As an offensive lineman, Larry instinctively protects. It's a trait his family believes will make him a good father.
But the joy of the first holding Ava Grace Williams almost overwhelmed him.
“The doctor thought he was gonna pass out,” Ashley said.
With a family history of ovarian cysts, Ashley believed it was impossible for her to have children, calling Ava's June 12 birth “a miracle.”
Larry's thankful, too. His favorite part of every day is going back to their one-bedroom apartment after practice and spending time with Ava.
“She sleeps a lot, and she eats a lot,” he said. “Just like me.”
During his trip home, family noticed their father-daughter bond. They saw how her eyes followed him, how she always perked up when he spoke, how she woke up from naps at the sound of him approaching.
“She's gonna be a daddy's girl,” said his brother, Lincoln. “Every time she cried, he picked her up and she stopped instantly."
Ashley works mornings at a day care in Edmond, so that's Larry's time with Ava. But balancing football and fatherhood has its challenges.
He spends his afternoons away from home, practicing, studying film or at OSU's academic center. The end-of-the-day return home is a relief. He often texts Ashley ahead of time asking if Ava's awake so he can immediately play with her once he's back.
“He's always just wanting to be around her,” Ashley said. “When he's not, he misses her and he feels like part of him isn't with him."
He feels the same way about the family back in Wilmington.
Four days was the plan. Soak in the holiday break, drive back to Stillwater and get started on what Larry believed would be the season he finally played in all of the Cowboys' games.
But seeing Pamela's condition and knowing he couldn't come home again until after the season, Larry asked OSU coach Mike Gundy and offensive line coach Josh Henson for more time. They granted it.
For two weeks, Larry spent every second he could with his siblings, reminiscing about their childhood. Pamela got plenty of time with Ava.
"What a lovebug,” Pamela said. “I call her my little buttercup.”
When Larry is in Stillwater, his siblings try to keep talk of their mom's health to a minimum. But he saw it firsthand for two weeks. How his mom could hardly walk. How she could barely stand. How four stairs meant he had to carry her.
Larry saw this woman raise triplets, mostly by herself; his father, also named Larry, separated from Pamela when the triplets were 13 but remains in touch with his four children.
Larry can think of no greater example of strength than his mother.
“She's fighting,” Larry said. “Every time I talk to my mom, she's like, 'You don't need to give up. You need to fight, just like I'm fighting for you.'
“It just makes me wanna be the same way, be as strong as my mom was. Just make her proud in everything I do."
Each of Pamela's children has a nickname. Larry's size and strength — he was 7 pounds at birth — prompted “Bear.”
"When he came out, he looked like he was in there lifting weights," his father said.
Pamela always made sure to shout the nickname from the stands of Larry's games. It was her way of letting him know she was there.
She hasn't been able to do that since he's been away. Pamela wanted to be by Larry's side for his ankle surgeries and Ava's birth, but with her heart condition, it's too dangerous to fly. The family has discussed a road trip to see Larry play, but some of Pamela's medications would require them to take frequent stops.
"All she wanted to do first was see Ava,” Alycia said. “And now, all she wants to do is get to a football game.”
Larry wants her there, too, with the Cowboys' Nov. 11 senior day game circled in his mind. He recognizes part of getting his family to Oklahoma falls on his ability to remain healthy.
"I joke around sometimes and say, 'Let's make it to the sixth game this season. It'll be a record,'” he said. “But it's serious to me, too. I wanna have a full season.”
He wants to give his mom every opportunity to see him play. She watches OSU's games from home, but any of them could be her last.
“He'll cry, but he'll cry where people don't see it,” Ashley said. “He'll be strong for everybody.”
Just like Pamela raised him to be.
NO. 24 OSU VS. NO. 17 BOISE STATE
•When: 2:30 p.m., Saturday
•Where: Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater
•TV: ESPN (Cox 29/HD 720, Dish 140, DirecTV 206, U-verse 602/HD 1602)
•Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1