But in a corner of the room, in an area near the showers that is partially removed from the daily clamor of professional football, you can typically find cornerback Cary Williams sitting by himself, tapping away on his white iPhone. He's a happy person, but he doesn't smile a lot. It's taken him years to feel comfortable talking about himself. He isn't shy, but he doesn't open up to many people. The scars of his childhood healed a long time ago, but the memory of how he got them still occasionally lingers.
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Because it's the most important story Cary Williams can ever tell.
'They're not existing anymore'
Liberty City — the Miami neighborhood where Williams was born and raised — is about as far removed from the glitz and glamour of South Beach as you can possible get. It's reputation as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the entire United States is well earned. Violent crime was the backdrop for much of Williams' childhood. Poverty and drugs were almost impossible to escape. People would argue in the streets, someone would get killed, a funeral would be held, and a few days later, the cycle would repeat itself. Gunshots were sprinkled throughout the soundtrack of Williams' childhood.
"People would get shot a lot," Williams said. "A lot of my teammates growing up, they're not existing anymore. They're dead."
Williams' father, Cary Williams Sr., was determined to do whatever it would take to keep his two sons alive, to keep them from joining a gang, but the burden was enormous. Both father and son agree on this much, even to this day. Williams' mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when her two sons were very young, and Williams estimates he and his younger brother Ronald lived with her for no more than 10 months throughout their lives. They would visit her every time she checked into a mental hospital, always hoping and praying that this time, someone would help her get better. Those prayers were never answered.
"Every time she'd have one of her spells, she'd go into the mental asylum," Williams said. "That was the majority of my life. We'd go to different mental asylums and see her when she wasn't in the best condition. I felt like I didn't have a mother to a degree, because we didn't have a mother-son relationship. I loved her, but we were never able to sit down and have a real conversation, a heart-to-heart. It hurts me every single day when I think about it."
Cary Williams Sr. will admit, right up front, that he struggled to keep his head above water as a single father. He was confused, overwhelmed, and occasionally angry. He was too proud, he says now, to ask for help. At some point, he told himself the most important thing he could do for his sons was keep them away from drugs, and keep them alive. He had been a high school track star growing up in Dade County in the 1970s, and Cary and his brother never tired of hearing the neighborhood urban legend about the day their father outran a car in a street race. Sports, Williams Sr. believed, provided the only chance he had.
"I wasn't a perfect parent, but I always put my sons first," Williams said. "Cary was such a competitive kid, even when he was 5-years old. I always had him play with kids older than him because you could just look at him and see he had that fire burning inside him."
Sports were structured. Sports were simple. Williams and his brother were enrolled in the local football league at an early age, and he has distinct memories of pretending to be Ray Lewis during a game with his friends. The economic realities of Williams' life were far more complicated. They frequently had to move because they fell behind on rent. At one point, Williams remembers his father having to ride a bike everywhere because he no longer had a car. He and Ronald were expected to make their own dinners because there was never a time in Williams' childhood that he can recall when his father wasn't working at least two jobs. He worked as a security guard for various hotels, and, for a time, at the Miami Herald newspaper. There were plenty of nights when Williams Sr. would beg his bosses at the hotel's front desk to let his two boys sleep in an empty room while he worked, because otherwise, he'd have to leave them alone at home.
"He always kept us in the latest sports gear, and we'd shop at thrift stores for clothes," Williams said. "He would say 'Nothing is going to be given to us, so you can't take anything for granted.' That helped me in sports and it helped me in life. He was a good guy, and he wasn't stupid. It just so happened that it was too hard for him to do those things for us."
Hurt, but saved
Williams can't remember exactly when his father started abusing him and his brother. The passage of time has sanded down the rough edges of his memories. His father had always been a stern disciplinarian, someone who struggled to control his temper. But at some point, roughly around the time Williams was 9 years old and Ronald was 7, the hitting started to get worse. Williams, a A-student who was enrolled in several gifted programs, started to lash out. He felt like he didn't have anyone he could talk to. His grades plummeted, and he no longer wanted to play sports. One night, he and his brother decided they were going to run away. They spent the night sleeping in a park on one of the coldest nights of the year in Florida.
"My dad wasn't a bad person," Williams said. "He just handled things the wrong way."
It might have continued, but a middle school counselor noticed a series of bruises and cuts on 10-year-old Ronald Williams' body. He was taken to the hospital to be examined, and one of the cuts was so deep you could see the white part of the muscle. When the hospital examined Cary Williams, there was blood soaking through his clothes from a cut on his leg.
Williams isn't sure what would have happened if his cousin, Calvin Golson, hadn't been clued into the situation by someone in the Florida Department of Children and Families. Golson was 25 at he time, and he had never been particularly close with Cary and Ronald because of the age difference. But he was an ordained minister, and he had a job as a social worker. He felt like God had called upon him to offer Cary and Ronald safe harbor. He immediately petitioned a judge to grant him full custody.
"The decision was never tough," Golson said. "I tried not to cry when I saw how beat up they were. They were keeping it hidden. ... Those kids were being beaten to death."