To a standing ovation from the crowd, Williams entered the game with about 15 minutes left in the first half. In two stints — one in the first half and one in the second half — Williams played five minutes and showed a glimpse of her potential when she scored six points, and recorded one rebound, one block and one steal.
“(It’s) such a huge weight off,” Williams said about playing in her first game in two years. “All I’m thinking right now is I’m so thankful. God is so good to me just that I can get out there and I’m safe. He kept me safe in that game.
“Standing up, and I was too scared to look at the crowd, but I heard them and hearing everybody behind me was just such an incredible feeling and I was trying not to cry.”
During this year’s Midnight Madness event, head coach Suzy Merchant rode out onto the court in a camouflage Hummer and dressed in camo as a tribute to Williams. Merchant said she truly exemplified the warrior concept.
“When you look at Maddie, she’s helped us more than we’ve helped her,” Merchant said. “I don’t know if there’s a stronger, more courageous, more spiritually-faithful person out there on this campus that represents any student-athlete more than Madison does as a character person.”
It’s been a long path — mentally and physically — and Williams knows the statistics and odds of coming back from three serious knee injuries, but she believes God has a different plan and isn’t done quite yet.
Williams wasn’t even in East Lansing for more than two months before she tore the ACL in her right knee in the team’s Green and White game on Oct. 31, 2010.
A year later, Williams was back on the court playing with her team. She appeared in three regular season games, but in her third game against IPFW, Williams went down with an injury again, this time it was her left knee.
The next year, it was the same story. Williams partially tore the ligament in her left knee and now is in her fourth year at MSU.
The ACL is one of four major ligaments in the knee. It is a band-like structure that connects the femur, or thigh bone, to the tibia, or shin bone.
Tim Wakeham, the director of strength and conditioning for Olympic sports, said in a previous interview that one in 10 women collegiate athletes will sustain an ACL injury.
Williams’ mother, Nanette Casida, recalls being in the doctor’s office and said she could see her daughter tore everything. She said it was “gut-wrenching” having to see her go through the injury, and that has had in-depth conversations with her about it.
“I said to her, ‘Basketball does not define who you are. This is a phenomenal opportunity to play for Michigan State, but if your decision is not to play, it’s OK. If you’re done after this because it’s too horrific or too difficult, it doesn’t matter. We support that, and we’ll support whatever you decide,’” Casida said. “You wish you could go through that type of pain for your child and make them not have to go through it, but obviously you can not do that. It’s been really hard. She’s surprised me.”
After a strong high school career, Williams entered the MSU women’s basketball program with fanfare.
The injuries have thus far robbed Williams of the opportunity to build on her promising high school career. She sees her teammates, and how they’ve grown and expanded their games in the last three years. Williams hasn’t had that opportunity.
“The most difficult part for me is realizing that I’ll never or might not necessarily reach the potential that I could’ve been at,” Williams said. “So I look at my fellow (teammates) and how they’re going to really have a full four years to reach and work and grow as athletes. I really won’t have that much time, I won’t necessarily reach what I could’ve been if I wouldn’t (have) gotten hurt.”
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When Williams entered college, she viewed basketball not as a long-term priority, but as a means to an end. Growing up, she was more interested in school. She loved academics, and was not necessarily a gym rat, like so many other athletes are as they grow up.
Not being able to immediately live up to expectations has changed the way Williams approaches the game.
With time to catch up on and the feeling that she has to prove herself, her hunger for the game today is perhaps greater than it’s been in the past.
“She came in so highly recognized, was this alleged big deal, and she feels she’s disappointed everyone,” Casida said. “I think that she’s focused and driven, and her attitude and love towards game has changed. I think she respects it and doesn’t take it for granted.”
Saturday was the first of many steps Williams will take as she continues her climb. Even in the five minutes she played, the team felt her impact.
“You can obviously see why I’ve been so frustrated not having Madison Williams for the last three years,” Merchant said. “She’s very, very effective.”
The late start hasn’t deterred Williams’ dreams of what she can accomplish with this program. Her goal entering in as a freshman — becoming an All-American — remains the same.
She hopes to make a historical mark before her remaining years of eligibility run out. For now, she’s taking it one game at a time.
“Realistically this year, I have to pull myself back and really, my goal is to play in one Big Ten game and be healthy the whole season — maybe not dominate like I want to or I could have — but really just stay healthy the entire year,” Williams said.
Williams’ perseverance through three ACL tears has won her more than a few fans. The students, coaching staff, training staff, teammates and media also have offered support.
She’s also won the support of ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who complimented her “toughness and perseverance” on Twitter on Saturday night. It wasn’t the first time Bilas tweeted words of support to Williams.
“He’s tweeted her before and has been supportive,” Casida said. “People are talking about it, which is great. People just love her. She’s an underdog at this point, so it’s natural.”
Her college journey has been more difficult than most. This season certainly will present its hurdles. But considering she’s already made it over three large ones, it’s unlikely she’ll throw in the towel anytime soon.
“So many people would not have done what she’s doing, but there are so many really neat stories out in college athletics, too,” said Merchant. “Her fighting spirit is what college athletics is all about.”
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