It is impossible to know which member of the Williams family was the most panicked just after 3 p.m. on Jan. 30.
The older brother quickly escaped after the Chevrolet Tahoe hit a stone wall, flipped and came to rest in a tree along Limestone Road. The younger brother was trapped in the passenger seat.
The mother was on the scene within five minutes, but couldn’t see her youngest son and had to endure a 45-minute wait as emergency crews pulled him from the wreckage. The father was in London, an eight-hour flight away, watching the seconds tick by while waiting for updates from his wife.
But the panic, the shock, the surgeries and the rehabilitation are over now.
Matt Williams has a plate and seven screws in his pelvis, and a rod in his right femur. Yet, on Aug. 15 he was on the field for the first day of football practice at St. Mark’s High School.
The junior is one of the Spartans’ most versatile players, gaining yards as a runner, passer and receiver while also punting and playing defensive back. He will be only 4½ miles from the accident scene tonight when St. Mark’s plays host to archrival Salesianum. But Matt has traveled a long, difficult road to make it to this point.
Michael Williams was a senior at St. Mark’s last January. His younger brother, Matt, was a sophomore. Both were popular, year-round athletes, playing football in the fall, basketball in the winter and lacrosse in the spring. Two nights before the accident, the brothers had each scored four points in St. Mark’s 49-39 basketball loss to St. Elizabeth.
Michael was driving home from school on Jan. 30 with Matt. They were less than a mile from home, traveling north on Limestone Road, when a southbound Ford Explorer attempted to turn across the northbound lanes onto Mendenhall Mill Road. The two SUVs collided.
“I remember seeing the car, and then just black,” Matt said. “Then I woke up, saw my brother, saw people getting me out. That’s about it.”
Michael had suffered a serious concussion, abrasions and bruises. He was transported to Christiana Hospital, where he would remain overnight.
A family friend recognized the Tahoe and called the brothers’ mother, Jane Williams. When she arrived, she didn’t see the vehicle. Then someone told her it wasn’t on the road.
It was in a tree.
“I never saw [Matt]. I saw Michael,” Jane said. “Michael was on a stretcher, and they were transporting him into the ambulance. I got to speak to him briefly, but he was so worried about his brother.”
Matt’s situation was more dire.
“It took them 45 minutes to get him out of the car,” Jane said. “They had to use the jaws of life and all of that. It was scary.
“He was covered up with sheets because they were breaking the glass out of the car. I couldn’t see him.”
A helicopter had landed on Limestone Road to transport Matt. But his 6-foot-4 frame was too long to fit in the helicopter, so an ambulance rushed him to Christiana Hospital instead.
When Jane arrived at the emergency room, Matt’s coaches from St. Mark’s already were comforting him. His pelvis was broken in five places. The femur in his right leg was broken, along with cracked ribs, a cracked vertebrae, a dislocated elbow and a punctured lung. His bladder also would require surgery.
The brothers’ father, Mark, works as a consultant for Computer Sciences Corporation. He was in London, on his way to dinner with a client, when Jane called a few minutes after 8 p.m. London time.
“It was a horrible feeling,” Mark said. “She said, ‘The boys were in an accident, and they’re hurt really bad.'”
Mark was amazed by his wife’s composure.
“For her to go there by herself and see all the paramedics, see the helicopter landing,” he said. “They’re trying to get my son out of the car and it takes 45 minutes. She must have been … I couldn’t imagine it. She’s a tough lady for not losing it right there.”
Mark couldn’t find an immediate flight. He spent the night on the phone in his hotel, receiving updates from his wife.
“I didn’t get back to the airport until 8 p.m., and I got a cab straight to the hospital. It was the hardest 18 hours of my life,” he said.
The operation on the femur already had been done, but doctors had yet to operate on Matt’s pelvis because of the amount of blood he had lost.
“I’m not sure he remembers when I first got there,” Mark said. “But he was in good spirits. He’s a tough kid.
“It was just hard to see my youngest son in that position, in the hospital with all the tubes all around him.”
Long road back
Mark knew there would be many difficult moments ahead, but he was optimistic.
“They didn’t tell us at first how long the recovery would be,” he said. “So we took it one step at a time. He’s alive. He had his seatbelt on. He’s got no brain injury. That’s good. He’s talking. That’s good.”
Ask Matt about his time in the hospital, and he says he was in Christiana Hospital for 10 days, then A.I. duPont Hospital for Children for a week. Actually, his parents said, he was at Christiana for 3½ weeks, then another 1½ weeks focused on rehab at A.I. duPont.
“There was so much that he doesn’t even know happened to him,” Jane said.
His spirit was lifted by many, but he knew he wanted to get back in the games.
“The toughest part was probably missing basketball season, having to watch while everyone else ran around and played,” Matt said. “I had to sit and watch. But I got a lot of help from the school — lot of fellow students, teachers, coaches, everybody.”
He even received some unexpected visitors. At the suggestion of the Rev. Chris Beretta, principal and assistant basketball coach at Salesianum, the Sallies basketball team stopped by Christiana Hospital on the way to a Feb. 7 game at Smyrna.
“He mentioned it to me, that it might be something that could help Matt and also be good for our guys in terms of appreciating what you’ve got,” Sals head coach Brendan Haley said of Beretta. “It was a really good visit.”
The Williams family was amazed by the gesture.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Mark said. “It meant the world to Matthew.”
On Feb. 15, Matt was allowed to leave the hospital for three hours to attend the Salesianum at St. Mark’s basketball game in a wheelchair.
“When we went out for warmups, everybody went by where he was positioned and shook his hand,” Haley said. “It was pretty amazing to see him, after what we were hearing initially.”
When Matt was released from A.I. duPont in March, he had moved on to a walker. He began 16 more weeks of rehab at ATI Physical Therapy under the watchful eye of Paul Schweizer, who also serves as an assistant football coach at St. Mark’s.
“Where it starts is with the surgeon,” Schweizer said, crediting Dr. Doug Palma. “It’s like Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall. If they’re not put back together well, the therapy isn’t the issue. The surgeon did a tremendous job putting Matty back together.”
Matt attacked his rehab with the ferocity that served him well in athletics.
“He never complained one time,” Schweizer said. “I had to put the young man into some discomfort to get his range of motion back.”
He advanced from a walker to crutches, then began walking on his own.
“Probably the leg press was the toughest thing,” Matt said. “It was weird being really weak, just trying to get the strength back.”
Matt continued to progress, and was able to attend the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., in early July. The surgeon cleared him for full participation in football practice.
“I made them put it in writing so I could show his coaches,” Jane said with a laugh. “I knew they wouldn’t believe it.”
The football field brought a new set of challenges. After learning how to walk again, Matt had to learn how to play football again. Schweizer monitored his activities, but credits veteran assistant coach Bill Harman for refining Matt’s skills.
“He spent hours with this young man to get him back to where he’s at,” Schweizer said.
‘Inspiration to everyone’
The Spartans are 4-2 going into tonight’s game against Salesianum, and Matt has contributed all over the field. He has rushed 16 times for 120 yards, completed 5 of 9 passes for 60 yards and a touchdown, and caught five passes for 39 yards. Matt has also punted 13 times for a 30-yard average and made 12 tackles as a defensive back.
“Matty has certainly been an inspiration to everyone,” St. Mark’s head coach John Wilson said. “To see him and to reflect back on where he was and what he had to do to get here is an amazing story.
“For him to be with us, it’s a gift. We’re thankful he’s out here. I think he appreciates it, and he realizes that football is something that can be taken away from you quickly.”
Matt celebrated his 17th birthday on Monday, and his parents watch him closely, too.
“I’m a nervous wreck,” Jane said of watching Matt play football.
Matt feels he is close to 100 percent, but still struggles with one of the most important requirements for a defensive back.
“Turning my hips, it’s just harder to do. I haven’t gotten back to fully opening my hips really easily,” Matt said.
Everything is better than it was. And his father knows it could have been worse.
“It’s really amazing. The boys are lucky,” Mark said.