'A True Tiger'...One Young Fan's Extraordinary Journey to Clemson
It wasn't so long ago Amari Williams didn't want to go to sleep for fear he wouldn't wake up.
Had his parents told him before bed Wednesday night where he was going the next day, Amari might have had trouble sleeping again.
The 10-year-old Clemson fan walked into Vickery Hall on the university's campus Thursday morning and was greeted by a slew of football standouts, including All-Americans Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, who were all there to welcome him.
But it hardly came as a surprise to the astute Amari, who had gleaned the purpose of the trip from his father, Randal - who passed down his love of the Tigers - and family friends, the Walkers, during the course of the three-hour trek from Elgin, SC.
Like any Clemson fan would be, Amari was excited to meet his gridiron heroes.
They were just as thrilled to see him.
"I just want you to know, you inspire me," Boyd told the rising fifth-grader.
Amari is a young man of few words, but the feeling was clearly mutual.
"He's awesome," Amari said of Boyd.
He wasn't just speaking based on that brief exchange. This was his first time meeting Boyd and Watkins in person, but their friendship had been building for the past year.
Befriending two of college football's biggest stars was hardly the most extraordinary thing that had happened to Amari during that year.
Amari came down with pneumonia in February of 2012, and he spent a week in the hospital. He lost some weight over the next few months, but neither his parents nor doctors thought anything was out of the ordinary.
Then one June day, after a long afternoon of video games with a cousin, Amari came downstairs and complained to his parents that his feet were swollen. They guessed it was probably something as benign as a bug bite or twisted ankle, gave him a dose of medicine and sent him to bed.
After the swelling didn't go down overnight, the Williams went to a local doctor. The doctor detected something wrong with Amari's heart, but suspected it was probably an infection. Still, he was sent to Palmetto Richland Memorial Hospital in Columbia for further tests.
The Williams didn't stay long at Palmetto Richland. When the test results came back, Amari was told he needed to go immediately to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, where they were better equipped to deal with such a serious heart condition.
He would be there for the next six months.
The doctors at MUSC tried changing up Amari's medication, which helped some, but when he came off the drugs, he quickly worsened.
At that point doctors decided to implant the young man with a pacemaker, but soon after the surgery one of the device's leads - wires that send impulses to the heart - came out, and Amari returned to the hospital to have it replaced.
"They said it was going to be a simple surgery, but it was something that was almost life-ending, really, when they had to go back in and do it again," Randal said.
Still, Amari needed a new heart. Because he is bigger than the average 10-year-old, Amari was able to receive adult hearts, and doctors believed it would not take long to find one.
In the interim, he was hooked to a Berlin Heart, a ventricular assist device used to support a failing heart until another becomes available for transplantation.
"Being as intelligent as he is, he knew what the function of his heart was," his father said. "He got to the point at night where he didn't want to sleep because he was thinking he was going to die. We heard him saying that a couple times in his sleep - that he didn't want to die. Being his dad and it being all out of your hands, because there's nothing you can do, it's very frustrating."
Because of the Berlin Heart, Amari required a blood transfusion, and that procedure caused his blood to form antibodies that left him incompatible for 98 percent of the hearts that might have come available for transplant.
"That meant he wasn't able to receive any hearts," Randal said.
Jim McAlpine had just been told to leave an operating room at MUSC when he had a chance encounter.
He was interning as a medical student, and the anesthesiologist he was supposed to be studying under didn't have time to deal with him, so he sent McAlpine off to find another doctor to follow around.
"I'm walking away," McAlpine recalled, "and I see a pretty lady, and I said to myself, 'I don't know many pretty ladies, but I'm pretty sure I know that one.'"
The pretty lady was the daughter of Doug Walker.
Doug and his grandson were the Walkers who accompanied Amari and his father to Clemson this week.
In turn, Walker's daughters both babysat McAlpine as a child, and his youngest had him in her wedding. It was Walker's eldest daughter McAlpine recognized in the hallway that day, and he asked why she was there.
She was there to see Amari.
"I said, 'Let me go meet him,'" McAlpine recalled. "And I saw Clemson everywhere in Amari's hospital room, and I said, 'Man, we're going to be friends.'"
He lived up to his word. Whenever McAlpine would get a break from his studies, he would visit Amari and check on his progress, and a relationship grew from there.
Before going to medical school, McAlpine had been a student at Clemson, and during that time he worked as a tutor at Vickery Hall.
As he got to know Amari better, he began to tell friends from his days at Vickery Hall about Amari's plight and his love for Clemson.
One of those friends was Maria Herbst, a learning specialist. One of the students she works with is Tajh Boyd.
Boyd was in the midst of a season that saw him be named ACC Player of the Year, lead Clemson to its first 11-win season since its national championship season of 1981 and become the school's first-ever first-team All-American quarterback.
He had plenty going on in his own life, of course, but was immediately struck by Amari's story when Herbst and McAlpine began to share it with him.
"He didn't know whether he was going to live or if he was going to pass away," Boyd said. "That age is such a critical age, and I remember Jim saying, 'He's a really big Clemson fan. He would love to talk to you and Sammy and Andre Ellington.' So one day we got on Skype with him and talked to him and just kind of lifted his spirits.
"We had sent him a couple pictures - little funny pictures and things of that nature - just to lift his spirits and put a smile on his face."
When November came, Boyd and the Tigers were nearing the end of the season, and Amari was still waiting on a heart.
He had undergone an Apheresis treatment to cleanse some of the antibodies from his blood and make him compatible with a larger number of possible donors.
"The doctors didn't think it was going to take that long for him to receive a heart," Randal said. "Because of his size, he could receive a heart from an adult. But because of his body having the antibodies, it was way longer than they thought it would be."
Doug Walker had also bonded with Amari during his time in the hospital, though the families had been close for years. Walker's daughter - the one McAlpine ran into in the hospital - was a cheerleader at Camden High with Amari's mother, Camisha, and later Walker's wife mentored Camisha in her career as a speech therapist.
But because of a shared love of Clemson, where Walker went to school, he vowed to take Amari to visit the campus when he got out of the hospital.
The more blood transfusions Amari required, however, Walker knew his chances of being able to keep that promise were declining at a rapid rate.
"His blood was deteriorating such that, he couldn't get a heart," Walker said. "When a heart would become available, he couldn't get it. He was on his last transfusion. He had a 10-day window, basically."
Finally, the Williams got the call they had been waiting for.
Not only had a heart become available, but the heart donor also had the same rare antibody in his blood that prevented Amari from receiving so many other hearts.
"The doctor was amazed by that," Randal said. "It was so much of a miracle that the one rare antibody his body had, the individual he received the heart from had that same rare antibody."
On Nov. 5, McAlpine got a phone call that Amari was about to go into surgery to get his new heart.
"When I went in the next morning to see him, he was drugged up and had all these lines in," McAlpine said. "I said, 'Hey, Amari,' and he raised his hand and waved - and I lost it."
McAlpine sent Herbst an email right after that to let her know the good news, and it just so happened she was working with Boyd and Watkins on schoolwork when the message reached her.
Boyd couldn't help but beam with pride that his friend had survived his ordeal.
"When you think things are tough, there's always somebody that has it worse," Boyd said. "And he had one of the worst things that can happen, and for him to be that age and be able to endure it is awesome."
That's why, when Amari walked into Vickery Hall, Boyd said he was an inspiration.
The only fault Boyd could find in Amari was that when he showed up to Clemson on Thursday, he was wearing a jersey bearing the No. 2 - which is Watkins' number.
"We've got to get him a No. 10 jersey," Boyd joked. "He walked in, and I said, 'Come on, man, No. 2?' Somebody's got to throw Sammy the ball.' I'm just proud of him and glad that he pulled through. Hopefully he'll be able to get back here for a game."
Amari arrived Thursday in full Tiger regalia, from his orange shoes to his backpack.
Steve Duzan and the Vickery Hall staff set up a full day for him beyond getting to see his pals Boyd and Watkins. Amari got the opportunity to meet the men's basketball team, who all signed his backpack, before departing Vickery Hall and heading for the athletic side of campus, where he toured the WestZone and Indoor Practice Facility.
He met a host of other Clemson football players and also got to see former Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, who was on campus to tape a radio show. When lunchtime came, Amari wanted mac and cheese, so the group went to the Esso Club.
"For me, he's a true Tiger," Boyd said. "He's always going to find a way. He's never going to give up, which for me, being that age and being in a situation like that, not knowing whether you're going to live or not - how strong do you have to be? So it was just an extraordinary situation, and I'm just proud of him."
These days, Amari is healthy with no restrictions. He even played baseball over the summer and admits that is actually the sport he likes to play best, despite his new friendships at Clemson.
Amari was able to keep up with his schoolwork while in the hospital through home-schooling and is set to begin the fifth grade at Camden Elementary, which his father said has been extremely supportive in helping his son keep up at school.
Now, Amari is mostly concerned with getting back to being 10 years old.
"He's just a good kid," Randal said. "He's been on a long journey. He lost his whole summer last year, and that affected him quite a bit. Things he wasn't able to do during this time he's been sick, he wants to go back and do it now because last year he didn't feel good. He spent six months in the hospital, and basically all last year was a bad year for him. I know you can't make up for time, but we're just trying to do as much as we can to make up for that time we did miss."
And making up for lost time is something Amari's new friends at Clemson couldn't have been happier to help him start doing.