In the midst of his first NFL game, huffing, puffing and ramming through tacklers, Karlos Williams was stopped by an official.
“You need to take off the wristbands,” this man in stripes said.
Sure enough, the Buffalo Bills’ rookie running back had two gray bands around one wrist and one around the other. The official spotted them and – true to No Fun League form – needed to speak up. But there would be no debate during this 27-14 Bills win over Indianapolis. None. Williams didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t take them off,” he told the official. “I can’t take them off.’ ”
Williams never worried about getting fined. Didn’t care, really.
This fifth-round pick out of Florida State is the one who made Fred Jackson and Bryce Brown expendable, the one who essentially had fans crying one week and cheering the next. And he’s also the Bills’ starter this Sunday if LeSean McCoy’s hamstring issue lingers.
Figuring what drives him to be this 6-foot-1, 230-pound ATV of a running back is easy: Take one look at the wristbands.
They read “TEAM KASE” and Williams never takes them off because right here is his constant reminder to press on.
One look at the bands and he thinks of Kase Powell, the little boy he befriended who died from brain cancer at age 4 in March 2014.
“You can fight a hot day in camp,” Williams said. “You can fight a minor surgery. You can fight pain. You can fight all of that when you see a kid go through chemo, go through treatments and still keep an up-tempo spirit about life. Every time I felt bad, every time I was sore, I look at my wrist and ask, ‘Would Kase want me to quit?’ No. Would Kase want me to give up? No.
“There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think about him and what he meant to me.”
Williams first met the Powell family at a tailgate party outside Doak Campbell Stadium when he was still in Ridge Community High School in Davenport, Fla. A recruit at the time, he made an instant connection with 1-year-old twin brothers, Kase and Knox Powell. He was blown away by how full of life Kase was, how it didn’t seem like he had cancer at all.
Spirits? Through the roof. That smile? Permanent.
All despite the fact that Kase had a brain tumor that was pressing against his pituitary gland, thus stunting his growth. Kase Powell endured a constant stream of hospital visits. And Amy Powell, Kase’s mother, kept Karlos in the loop at all times. Via text or phone call, she’d let him know if the cancer was growing, stable, shrinking or growing again. Some people with this tumor lived short lives, others lived normal lives.
Through it all, Kase didn’t flinch. He’d visit the Florida State football team for lunch outside or walk with them to the bus. His blue eyes lit up the room.
“He knew what was going on,” Williams said. “He was very aware of what he was going through himself. He kept himself in good spirits and that’s amazing to grasp exactly what’s going on in your life.”
Then, one morning, the boy’s father noticed a different look in Kase’s eyes. The cancer had taken a turn south. Kase was rushed to the emergency room at 5 a.m. – the family all gave him one final kiss goodbye – and he died at 5:48 a.m.
The first person Amy Powell texted with the news was Karlos. On the spot, he immediately ducked into his own son’s bedroom, took one look at Karlos Jr. sleeping and started crying.
“I realized I’m a parent and what if that was my child?” he said. “How would I feel making that phone call to someone who was close to my family that was a friend of my son? It kind of hits home.”
To this day, Williams has a picture of the Powell twins sitting on his lap. More than 800 people showed up for Kase’s 45-minute memorial service.
Williams has three children of his own in Karlos Jr., Kylie and Kobi. The experience with Kase molded him as a father. Made him more “aware” of everything. Williams can even can differentiate what he calls the “three cries” – a diaper cry is “a deep, deep stomach cry,” a hunger cry is a scream and an I-need-attention cry is more of a coo.
As a player, this all shaped him, too.
When Williams made the position switch from safety to running back at Florida State and he struggled reading a defense, he thought of Kase. When the NFL playbook had his mind spinning in Buffalo, he spent an extra two hours every night studying. And when Williams suffered an undisclosed medical condition in his midsection during training camp – right when he was earning the No. 2 job – he thought of Kase again.
What’s minor surgery compared to a 4-year-old battling cancer?
“Fight, fight,” he said. “Team Kase. Fight back. Every time. You get tired, fight back. There’s nothing a person can’t achieve when their mind is pushing for it. Even though the cancer was attacking him, he wanted to get better. He kept fighting. He didn’t want to give up.
“It keeps you moving, it keeps you moving.”
It’s easy for any player to get hurt and slide into “cruise control,” Williams said.
Kase Powell forever eliminated his own cruise control.
Of course, this is not the story most people associate with Williams from Tallahassee. Last October, a pregnant ex-girlfriend accused him of domestic assault and later told police she didn’t want to press charges. The case was dropped; the damage publicly was done.
Sitting inside his locker this day, Williams repeats that he’s comfortable with the man he is.
“People know that mistakes are made, situations are viewed differently by different people,” Williams said. “People see it as one way, people see it as another way. I know who I am and I can show people who I am. There’s no reason to sit there and explain myself – ‘this is what happened, that’s what happened.’ I want to prove to people I’m not who you think I am or I’m exactly the person you think I am.”
Running backs coach Anthony Lynn knew about Karlos’ relationship with Kase. He gets the motivation behind it. He also sees room for Williams in this offense.
“He can make plays after contact,” Lynn said. “He can wear a defense down. And he can be a great complement to a guy like LeSean, who’s quick and speedy. He mixes it up with some power.”
So, now, the two lockers next to Williams are empty. The more general manager Doug Whaley saw of Williams, the more it made sense to let Jackson and Brown go. Williams calls Jackson “a great mentor.” When the rookie was out, the nine-year veteran made sure he was dialed in every day. There’s no dancing, no second-guessing dulling down Williams’ game. He takes one cut and goes.
The result was an unforgettable introduction to the 70,319 in attendance, a rip-roaring 26-yard touchdown run on his first carry.
Bands, on. Perspective, clear.
At his apartment, Williams actually has a full bag of wristbands – they tend to wear out and rip considering he never takes them off. Kase’s mother is mailing more to Buffalo, too.
Soon after his smashing NFL debut, Williams heard from Amy Powell.
“If they need anything, they can always call me,” Williams said. “They’re family.”
Because part of Kase Powell will always live through him.
“If a kid that young can be mentally tough, why can’t I?”