It’s sunny out, but Cody Williams is lying on a bed in Northridge Hospital Medical Center’s rehabilitation unit instead of enjoying his summer with friends. He moves slowly, deliberately, as a therapist helps him stretch one side of his body, then the other.
He shouldn’t be here. If Williams had his way, he would be outside on a field running on the grass, playing the game he loves.
But right now, he’s still learning to stand on his own feet again. Presently, opening and closing his hands require a little extra effort. It’s been more than 10 months since he’s even walked on dry land.
None of this, though, seems to be bothering the Santa Monica High School senior-to-be, who, at the moment, is making a facial expression that belies his situation — he is smiling.
“I thought I wasn’t going to move at all,” Williams said softly. “The stories I heard … I just thought I wouldn’t be able to move anything. I got really lucky that it wasn’t that bad.”
The smile grows wider.
Williams has regained movement in both arms. His hands and fingers are growing stronger by the day, and he can already get around on his own in a wheelchair. He’s now able to stand for 15 minutes using a stationary walker. He can even play the Wii or text message friends on his BlackBerry.
“It takes a little more effort, a lot more effort with some things, but he can do it. He makes it work,” his mother, Stacy Williams, said.
“He’s defying all the odds. He is a warrior, this kid.”
Cody Williams certainly had to battle to get to this point. It all started on the night of Sept. 11, 2009. With time winding down in the fourth quarter of the Samohi football team’s season opener, the Vikings were facing a 2-point conversion attempt by Leuzinger. No one in attendance remembers exactly what unfolded — least of all Williams — but when the play cleared, the then-junior linebacker was lying on his back, unable to move.
Fellow Samohi linebacker Luke Zelon walked over to help up his fallen teammate, thinking that Williams would spring to his feet. But when Zelon got there, it became clear something was wrong.
“I was like, ‘Cody, Cody, are you all right?’ He was just staring and blinking. It was like he was staring right through me.”
Williams had suffered a fracture of the C5 vertebrae in his neck, the product of an awkward collision — what Samohi head coach Travis Clark called a “fluke situation” — with a Leuzinger running back.
“I just saw Cody go back,” Stacy Williams recalled. “I thought, ‘He’s stunned, he’ll get up.’ … He didn’t get up.”
Paramedics rushed Cody Williams to the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center, where Dr. Langston Holly, a neurological surgeon, had just finished an all-day operation on another patient. Coincidentally, Holly himself had played against Leuzinger in the 1985 California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Finals as a defensive lineman for Harvard High School.
“It really was a personal thing for me,” Holly said, describing the instant connection he felt with Williams.
By midnight, Holly and his team of surgeons had set to work removing the fractured vertebrae and replacing the segment with a titanium plate secured with rods and pins. Eight hours later, Williams was out of surgery.
Although the procedure was deemed successful, months of extensive therapy lay ahead, an intimidating prospect even for a varsity football player. Fortunately for Williams, he encountered a positive sign early on, as he started to regain sensation in both hands the day after the surgery.
Over the next few weeks at the UCLA Medical Center, Williams began performing exercises to build up strength in his arms and hands. A bout of pneumonia, brought on by a bacterial infection, pestered him for most of this time, but he made progress when he moved off a breathing tube after less than two weeks. He celebrated with a well-deserved In-N-Out burger.
It was also during this period that Williams entertained visits from the likes of Pete Carroll, USC’s head football coach at the time, and received a signed football from Billy Bob Thornton and the cast of “Friday Night Lights.” Friends, family and teammates also made their way to his hospital room to spend time by his bedside. The list of well-wishers only expanded when Samohi student Shugoofa Zarifi created a Facebook group entitled “We Love You Cody Williams,” with more than 700 users joining the page within the first few days.
“I’m so appreciative of all the support. I don’t know what I’d do without it,” Stacy Williams said. “The football community has really been there for us.”
And then there were the cards. Enough cards — from fellow football players, classmates, parents, celebrities, even people who had never met Cody Williams but had heard of his injury — to cover the walls of his room at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the facility he moved to in October to continue his rehabilitation process.
But despite all the support, Williams was encountering plenty of bumps on the road to recovery. For one, attempting to sit up on the edge of his bed for the first time proved especially difficult.
“He just fell right over,” Stacy Williams said. “That was devastating. I couldn’t even go in and watch. It was heartbreaking.”
She also hated to see her son miss the sport he had grown up playing.
“You have this amazing top athlete playing varsity as a sophomore, and his whole life was football,” she said. “Everything he wanted in his life was football, football, football, and that’s all we did since he was 8. And suddenly, it’s gone.”
It was becoming clear to Stacy Williams that Children’s Hospital wasn’t the ideal place for him to continue his rehabilitation. Cody Williams still had limited movement in his left arm and struggled to hold objects in his hand. The recovery process was simply not moving as quickly as it should.
“They didn’t know what to do with him. … They were great people, but they didn’t know what to do with Cody,” Stacy Williams said.
She soon found a replacement. After Cody Williams received his discharge and returned home for the first time in more than three months on Dec. 18, she brought him, upon the recommendation of the therapists at Children’s Hospital, to the Center for Rehabilitation Medicine at Northridge Hospital.
In January, Williams began going to therapy at Northridge Hospital three times a week. Since that time, he has seen considerable improvement, especially in gaining back muscle in his upper body — he’s reclaimed nearly half of the 40 pounds he lost in the month following his injury — and recovering close to 100 percent use of both arms.
“It’s been kind of hectic, but it’s just worked out,” Cody Williams said. “I can feel my legs stronger and my upper body stronger, and I can sit up.”
Cody Williams started standing on his feet with the help of a stationary walker about three months ago and has steadily built up to standing for a full 15 minutes. He also regularly pedals on a stationary bike, although he still has limited sensation in his feet. His favorite exercise is going in the hospital’s therapeutic pool, where, buoyed by the water, he is able to take some steps — the only steps he’s taken since his injury — along the bottom.
Throughout the entire process, his mother and others close to Williams have observed a patient resilience uncommon for someone his age.
“When you’re a young person you’re used to being able to do any activity you like,” Holly said. “You’re used to being able to bounce right back. I think the challenge in this is a much longer term rehabilitation than anything the average teenager would go through. It takes a lot of patience and maturity to deal with this.”
Stacy Williams said she rarely, if ever, sees her son grumble or slack on his exercises. On days Cody Williams is not at Northridge Hospital, he does sit-ups and lifts wrist and ankle weights from home.
“I’ve never seen anyone work harder in my life,” she said. “He is an absolute warrior. He never misses [a therapy session], he never complains. He just does what he has to do. … His positive attitude is what got us through.
“Very rarely is he sad. His attitude is, ‘Why get sad and pissed? What’s that going to do for me?’”
Much of Williams’ progress can be attributed to the training he went through as a member of the Samohi football team. Hours spent in the gym and on the practice field have been paying off in a major way.
“Coach Clark had some crazy workouts,” said Zelon, who graduated in June and will head to Harvard University in the fall to continue his football career. “We used to come in at five, six in the morning in the offseason to practice. As much as that helped him physically, it definitely helped him more mentally.”
For his part, Williams is content to say in his typically soft-spoken way that he is merely very fortunate.
Asked what’s kept him going, he replied, “Just [seeing] how lucky I was and that I’m alive. And that it wasn’t worse.”
Meanwhile, Williams’ presence has been sorely missed by the rest of the team.
“He was a sensational player,” Clark said. “He just loved to play on our team. There’s no boundaries with Cody, he was friends with everyone. … He was a magnet, a glue, and everybody rallied around Cody because he was a great leader.
Zelon remembers Cody Williams as a teammate he could always rely upon. The two often played opposite each other in the Vikings’ defense.
“He wasn’t a real big talker, but he always handled his business. He did what he had to do on every play,” Zelon said. “I never had to worry about him missing his assignment.”
Holly and Gloria Almazan, Cody Williams’ therapist at Northridge Hospital, say that, while their patient is slightly ahead of schedule, a final prognosis for his recovery is at least a few months away because of the complex, unpredictable nature of his injury. For now, the focus remains on strengthening his muscles before he can worry about walking on his own power.
“That’s the challenge for a spinal cord injury because you never know what comes back,” explained Almazan, who said she hopes to have him start walking with a brace in the near future. “The critical period is that one-year window — whatever you can get, as much as you can build.”
Holly does add that he is encouraged by what he has seen from Williams thus far, pointing out that younger patients tend to recover much more quickly in general.
“He’s made a pretty significant recovery,” Holly said. “I think his positive attitude is one of his greatest attributes, and I think his relationship with his mother is extremely strong. He’s one of the most positive [patients] I’ve seen. There’s no doubt about that.”
Come September, or nearly a year after his injury, Williams is expected to be well enough to return for the start of school. He will need a wheelchair to get around, but he knows just being back in the halls of Samohi is a big step in the right direction.
“[I’m looking forward to] getting back to school and just getting back to my normal life,” he said. “Hanging out with my friends, just going out and helping other people out is what I want to do.”
Williams also plans on attending next season’s football season opener at Santa Monica College. The Vikings’ opponent for that game? Leuzinger, of course.
And so it is that on a Monday afternoon, Stacy Williams is speaking glowingly of the job the therapists at Northridge Hospital have done. She mentions how her son loves swimming in the therapeutic pool and receiving acupuncture treatment.
A primary concern of hers is that Cody Williams hasn’t been able to attend therapy as regularly as he did when he started at the beginning of the year. He has recently been going only once a week, as his two insurance providers are currently engaged in a dispute as to which one will continue coverage. While this has led to an increased reliance on the Cody Williams Recovery Fund, which was set up to help ease the costs of rehabilitation, she says she hopes to get her son back to two visits weekly.
“I want to keep him here because this is the best place,” Stacy Williams says, as she watches her son ready himself for another stint on the stationary walker.
Cody Williams, whose last visit to Northridge Hospital was more than a week ago, trembles slightly as Almazan and another therapist help him off the bed and onto his feet, supported by a leg brace and a stationary walker. Shoulders back and head held high, he keeps the position as long as he can. After a while, he has to sit back down, slightly out of breath. This time, he isn’t able to crack 10 minutes.
“It’s OK. You haven’t done this in a while,” Stacy Williams says, encouragingly.
Cody Williams nods slightly.
“I didn’t get dizzy at all,” he declares, smiling.