Caesar Williams was simply following his practice routine.
The University of Wisconsin cornerback had just picked off Northwestern quarterback Andrew Marty in the end zone, ending a 19-play drive in the first quarter last Saturday and waking the Badgers from a sleepwalking start. He ran the ball out of the end zone despite traffic in front of him, something he always does in practice, too.
He took his helmet off in the celebration after the play, resulting in a penalty that pushed the Badgers back to their own 5-yard line on the ensuing drive. The offense drove 95 yards for a touchdown, letting Williams off the hook.
“I told him, if we don’t score, he might be in trouble,” said senior cornerback Faion Hicks, one of Williams’ closest friends on the team.
Williams can be forgiven for being a little overexcited. The play — which he read perfectly after knowing from film study Northwestern tries back-shoulder throws often in the red zone — was his first interception at home in his six-year career. Williams will play his final game at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday when No. 19 UW (7-3, 5-2 Big Ten Conference) takes on Nebraska (3-7, 1-6).
Williams is happy to be where he is — both at UW and just being here at all.
A rare disease in his childhood threatened to end Williams’ life before he had the chance to play tackle football. Williams said this week that being faced with that kind of challenge so early in life shaped how he approaches his goals.
“That was probably one of the hardest things I had to go through in life,” Williams said. “So anytime I do have an obstacle, I just think about that time and know that I’m going to get through whatever I’m going through now because I accomplished that survival.”
Williams has gone from being a kid who couldn’t stay out of the hospital for long to one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten. He has the fifth-highest PFF grade among conference corners and has recorded interceptions in back-to-back games.
The three-year starter will be one of the seniors honored in pregame, a day that was seconds away from never happening for Williams.
“I’m that mom that runs up and down the field and is loud,” said Tracy Adamson, Williams’ mother.
“I have this whistle that I do with all my boys. Till this day, in Camp Randall with 80,000 people, I can whistle and Caesar knows exactly where I am. I have it on video. It’s just amazing. I’ve done it with all my kids. His journey … I’m just so happy. Not only proud, but just happy for him that he’s able to overcome his illnesses and he didn’t let anything stop him.”
‘I almost died, didn’t I?’
Although she was a medical assistant at Baylor University Hospitals at the time, Adamson had never heard of Kawasaki disease. But Williams showed all of the classic symptoms at the age of 5, with an extremely high fever, a rash and a swollen tongue.
Adamson rushed him to Children’s Health Dallas and started what became a month-long stay. Kawasaki disease causes swelling in the medium-sized arteries throughout the body and is typically seen in young boys under 5, according to the Mayo Clinic. There only are about 20,000 cases of the disease per year in the U.S. and Williams’ diagnosis was even rarer because he’s Black; Kawasaki disease is most often seen in those of Asian or Pacific Islander descents.
Williams’ heart was enlarged and his internal organs were failing when he was admitted to the hospital. To have a chance of survival, Kawasaki disease must be treated within a week with an infusion of gamma globulin, a product of donated blood that contains antibodies to fight the disease. Williams was on Day 6 of having symptoms when he arrived at the hospital.
He nearly died that night, Adamson said. She was whisked away by hospital staff as monitor alarms blared and a swarm of doctors entered Williams’ room. A cardiologist on staff was able to diagnose him and get treatment started. But after the first round of gamma globulin infusions, Williams wasn’t improving much. That’s when doctors told Adamson to call in loved ones and be prepared to say goodbye.
“It was just a scary time,” said Herbert Williams, Caesar’s father. “Not knowing what exactly it was and what causes it and where it comes from. … Life is just really fragile and hangs on by thread. You never know.”
After a second round of treatment, Williams’ organs started to heal, but he was still running a fever. Adamson remembers him being over 104 degrees for nearly a week. A third infusion seemed to clear the last of the disease from his system.
Williams said there were a number of painful moments with shots, IVs and other procedures as doctors treated him.
Perhaps because of his age at the time or the positive lens that Williams brings to his life, he mostly remembers the happy moments that came out of his time in this hospital. He recalls the cards his classmates sent him during his stay, which Adamson still has, and the party they threw when he returned. He remembers the visit from members of the Dallas Cowboys and their cheerleaders, and the family that came to see him as he came back from the brink.
“Caesar always smiles,” Adamson said. “This kid always smiles. We went for official visits, I think coach (Ted) Gilmore was there and he’s like, ‘He always smiles.’ And so they asked him why. He said because God gave him another chance.”
His bout with Kawasaki disease wasn’t the last time Williams had to be hospitalized as a kid. He’s dealt with severe asthma and allergies his entire life, and his asthma attacks required hospital visits on almost a monthly basis until he was in junior high school. Williams remembers his grade-school class throwing him another party when he made it a month without a hospital stay.
He still has his heart checked when he does physicals, as the long-term effects of Kawasaki disease aren’t well-researched. Through all his health struggles, Williams never stopped being an active, enthusiastic kid. The steroids he took to treat his asthma kept him up at night and he’d ride a toy truck around the hospital halls. He’d order bacon to his room at 2 a.m. When he was home, he’d play in the yard and outside with his friends.
“I treated him with the medications, I stayed on top of it,” Adamson said. “I let him be a kid. I did not shelter him, I did not put him in a bubble.”
A career crescendo
Williams will play in his 46th game and make his 29th start against Nebraska. He’s one of six players on the roster taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted to players who went through the 2020 season.
He’s playing the best football of his career, already with a career-high three interceptions this season, all of which have come in the past four weeks. He’s recorded 22 tackles and eight passes defended.
Williams said he was trying so hard to make plays and make coming back to college for an extra year count that he was trying to do other players’ jobs on the field on top of his own early in the season.
“I was stressing, trying to do too much, trying to create a turnover and not just letting things come to me,” Williams said. “Once I started doing my job and just taking care of my side of the field, that’s when things started to come my way. And not only come my way but come in bunches.”
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard believes it took Williams time throughout his career to truly use his physical gifts — a 6-foot, 188-pound frame with long arms — to his advantage. The technicalities of his position have been hammered home by cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat, who’s in his first year with the program.
“I think right now you’re seeing it all come together for him to just trust in who he is, what his technique (is), how his eyes work, where that leads him,” Leonhard said.
Training for football is a year-round activity for Williams and his few months a year at home are marked by getting back together with his trainers and a number of pro and college defensive backs to prepare for the next season.
“I’ve really been impressed by the dedication and all of the effort throughout life that he’s put in for getting his goal (in football) accomplished,” Herbert Williams said. “You just really want them to enjoy the time that they’re here. And if that’s where you get your enjoyment, then do it and do it wholeheartedly.”
Caesar Williams isn’t sure how the emotions of Senior Day will hit him. He’s tried to maintain a mentality of every game being his last, but he knows certain moments — like his last run through the tunnel and his last “Jump Around” at Camp Randall Stadium — will be special.
“I see it as a graduation fee,” he said. “Hopefully you do enough to where it’s not your last football game.”
He wants to make a run at the NFL after this season, attempting to overcome long odds once again. He’s made plenty of memories at UW on the field, such as his pick-six this season at Rutgers or his back-to-back pass breakups in the end zone against Minnesota in 2019. He’s got ones off the field he’ll cherish, like buying a rose on the street in New York for his mom before the 2018 Pinstripe Bowl.
He’s got three guaranteed games left of his college career, hoping to add more moments to that list.
Wisconsin vs. Nebraska football: 3 keys to victory, why Nebraska should gamble and predictions
WHO HAS THE EDGE
When the Badgers have the ball
Freshman running back Braelon Allen showed he was ready for lead-back responsibilities last week with his 173-yard, three-touchdown performance against Northwestern. The Wildcats’ defense was one of the worst in the country at stopping the run, but Allen has a stiffer test coming against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers rank 39th in the FBS and seventh in the Big Ten allowing 132.5 yards rushing per game.
Nebraska will be playing its first game of the season without linebacker JoJo Domann, who’s out for the season with a hand injury. Domann was third on the team in tackles with 72 and had nine tackles for loss, including three sacks. He also had two picks and two forced fumbles. Linebackers Luke Reimer (96 tackles), Nick Henrich (87 tackles) and Garrett Nelson (45 tackles, 10½ for loss) will be tasked with slowing down Allen.
UW quarterback Graham Mertz and the passing game have found a rhythm in the past three weeks, adding balance to the offense and improving the team’s ability to convert third downs. UW has converted 46.2% of third downs the past three games and 28.4% the rest of the season. If Mertz can continue moving the chains and avoiding turnovers, UW’s offense should be in good shape against Nebraska’s pass defense, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten (230.6 yards per game allowed).
When Nebraska has the ball
Nebraska’s offense starts and stops with quarterback Adrian Martinez. When he’s good, the Cornhuskers are tough to stop because he can challenge the defense deep with his arm while also taking advantage of space underneath by scrambling. Martinez is Nebraska’s leading rusher (50.2 yards per game) and passer (251.2 ypg) this season.
However, when he’s bad, it often means turnovers and big plays the other way. Martinez has thrown eight interceptions and has lost three of his seven fumbles this season. Martinez has had success against UW before, averaging 375 total yards of offense and 2.5 total touchdowns in two matchups.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said the 2019 game against Nebraska opened his eyes to some adjustments the Badgers needed on defense, and he said he believes the group is better-equipped to contain Martinez this season.
Samori Toure, a transfer from Montana, leads Nebraska in every receiving category (33 catches, 718 yards, four TDs). UW was also in pursuit of Toure on the transfer market. Running back has been a weak spot, with Rahmir Johnson leading that group with 495 yards on 112 carries. Tight end Austin Allen (29 catches, 404 yards, two TDs) is a difficult matchup on size alone — the junior is 6 foot 9 and 255 pounds.
The Badgers have been creating turnovers at a high rate during their win streak. Their 17 takeaways are the most of any Power Five team over that six-game span.
Nebraska’s field-goal kicking has been a consistent weakness this season, and coach Scott Frost said Monday there wasn’t much he could do to ensure his kickers are ready psychologically to perform. Connor Culp (6 of 12) and Chase Contreraz (2 of 4) are a combined 6 for 11 on field goals under 40 yards.
The Cornhuskers, like the Badgers, haven’t produced much in the return games.
UW’s Andy Vujnovich is fifth in the Big Ten with an average punt of 45.4 yards and 11 of his 42 punts this year have gone for 50-plus this season.
Edge: Slightly Wisconsin
UW’s six-game winning streak is tied for second-longest under coach Paul Chryst. He is 5-0 against Nebraska since becoming UW’s coach, with the average score in those games being 32.4-20.
Mertz has thrown for more than 210 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in his career.
Frost is 0-5 at Nebraska the week following an open date, with one of those losses coming to UW in 2019. The Cornhuskers are on a four-game losing streak; the program has had a losing streak of at least four games in three of the four years Frost has coached.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BADGERS
1. Continue spreading around the ball: Graham Mertz completed passes to nine receivers last week against Northwestern, a welcomed sign of his improvement and the passing game’s step forward in recent weeks. Mertz said this week that he’s seen receivers win routes quicker and be “more violent” in their route running. That could be helpful against a Cornhuskers passing defense that was shredded two weeks ago against Ohio State and lost its best player, linebacker JoJo Domann, after he had surgery on his left hand.
2. Contain Martinez’s rushing: Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez is a true dual-threat player and he’s 273 yards away from the program’s record for total offense. UW will have to do its best to keep him from scrambling and extending plays, something it struggled to do in Lincoln in 2019. UW needs to make Martinez one-dimensional, whether it’s using outside linebackers Nick Herbig and Noah Burks as contain players more than pass-rushers or an inside linebacker/safety as a spy.
3. Give no help: UW’s offense and special teams have turned the tide on the mistakes that plagued them early this season, with turnovers almost always leading to points for the opposition. That needs to continue against a desperate Nebraska team that, despite its record, can move the ball and take advantage of momentum swings. UW’s ball carriers have to be aware that the Cornhuskers (five fumbles forced, 10 interceptions) will be looking for chances to create takeaways as road underdogs.
THREE KEYS FOR THE CORNHUSKERS
1. Throw caution to the wind: The Cornhuskers are in what could be an advantageous position if they choose to approach it that way at Camp Randall. Nebraska has nothing to lose against a Badgers team with some big goals in front of it. After firing almost his entire offensive staff last week, Scott Frost and the Cornhuskers should go for broke and try trick plays and anything else they can cook up to score on UW’s defense. One could argue that Nebraska is playing for pride and its culture under Frost, but what kind of culture does it set to continue doing things that haven’t worked throughout a 3-7 season?
2. Overload blitzes: Nebraska has blitzed on just more than 30% of opponents’ drop backs this season, and it uses defensive line stunts often in its attempts to get after quarterbacks. UW’s offensive line has done a much better job keeping quarterback Graham Mertz clean in the pocket, not allowing a sack of Mertz in the past three weeks. Nebraska should test the offensive line's and running backs’ blocking and Mertz’s timing and accuracy with overload blitzes, bringing more defenders to a gap than UW can block.
3. Don’t kick field goals: Place-kicking has been a mess for the Cornhuskers this season, a killer for a team that’s proven to be able to hang in games but fall just short. Nebraska is 8 of 16 on field goals overall this season and 6 of 11 on field goals attempted in the red zone — a red-zone field goal means a maximum distance of 37 yards on the attempt, and the Cornhuskers are making just more than half of those. This ties into the idea of going for broke. If Nebraska reaches the red zone on UW’s defense, it should go for the touchdown every time.
Series: UW leads 10-4
First meeting: UW won 18-0
Last meeting: UW won 37-21 in 2019
UW's longest winning streak: Seven games (2012 to present)
UW's longest losing streak: Three games (1965 to 1973)
There’s too much happening within the Nebraska program between coach firings and losing key players to expect the Cornhuskers to be sharp Saturday. The UW defense is having conversations about being one of the best in program history and has been able to lock in against a variety of offenses this season. Nebraska’s varied scheme could cause some problems, but it’s hard to imagine the Badgers not finding solutions quickly. As long as Braelon Allen stays healthy and effective at tailback, the Badgers have an identity to work off of and the offense can create balance against a Nebraska defense that’s been beaten up by injuries.
Badgers 24, Nebraska 10
The Huskers come to Camp Randall this weekend. Who do you like?— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) November 17, 2021