How Jesse Williams stayed strong after cancer ended NFL career

For aspirational athletes, Jesse Williams' body should be required reading.

Some of his tattoos are motivational. Some reflect his cultural heritage as an indigenous Australian. But most are related to his family and remembrances of moments in his historic journey from Australia to America and the National Football League.

A few on his head and face: "Fear Is A Liar," and "Wolf Orion" (the name of his 2-year-old son). Down his right forearm is the calligraphic "Family." On his chest are the likenesses of his mother, Sonia, and father, Arthur, and above them is a word he uses frequently: "Grateful."

The font size of some of the early tats must have increased as he developed to where at one point he was bench-pressing 600 pounds while weighing 340 pounds.

As a starting defensive tackle on two national championship teams at Alabama and a member of the Super Bowl XLVIII-winning Seattle Seahawks, Williams could have been Australia's unofficial ambassador to the United States, making three visits to the White House in four years.

Along the way, the obvious story angles -- his strength and his ink and his origin -- were recycled.

But after the surgical removal of a cancerous kidney in 2015 led to the end to his NFL career, Williams returned to Australia. And now a deeper story arises, one of inner strength and the messages told by his scars.

These are the things, at age 27, he brought home to Brisbane, where he's been operating a training facility.

Grace Power can tell you about it. At 22, she's training with Williams and is the first indigenous athlete to make the Australian national women's American football club.

"None of us indigenous kids had ever heard about American football being played by Australians, but here was this Brisbane boy going to the States and doing so well in college and then going on to the NFL," she said.

"To me, it made dreams seem possible. If he can do that, I can do that as well. He's really an inspiration to all of us."

FEAR MAY BE a liar, but pain tells truths you shouldn't ignore.

Jesse Williams was urinating blood. He thought it was from having taken a hit in his side. He noted it but pretty much went about his business.

It was the spring of 2015, and his mind was occupied by the important things he wanted to prove to the Seahawks. After starting 26 games in two seasons at Alabama, Williams had been drafted in the fifth round by the Seahawks in 2013 (the first indigenous Australian to get drafted). But knee injuries landed him on the injured reserve list his first two seasons.

He'd fought back, rehabbed and prepped for his third season.

Then came the blood. And the pain, so intense one afternoon that he collapsed on the kitchen floor of his home. On the verge of passing out, he texted teammate Jordan Hill, a defensive tackle who lived a few doors down from his Renton, Washington, home.

"I was going into a bit of shock, struggling to breathe, going blue in the face because I couldn't get enough air," Williams said. "[Hill] raced me to the hospital in Bellevue. He ran in there and grabbed a wheelchair and threw me on it. He pretty much saved the day."

Williams was only 24 and had never been unhealthy, but suddenly he was diagnosed with papillary renal cell carcinoma type 2, at stage 3. "The surgeon told me it was just sort of a 'bad-luck cancer,' something really aggressive that comes out of nowhere," Williams said.

Williams' father was at his side on May 28, 2015, at the University of Washington Medical Center before Jesse was taken into the operating theater. "I held his hand and said that everything would be good, but he could tell I was getting upset," Arthur Williams said, surprised that his son seemed far less concerned than he was. "He said, 'Look, Dad, I can't give in to fear ... that would change who I am.'" Williams then employed a philosophy he learned from Alabama coach Nick Saban, who preached the merits of a "24-hour rule." It grants nothing more than a one-day period for coping with life's sundry disappointments -- up to and including cancer.

"The world isn't going to stop for me," Williams said. "Everybody's got pressure and problems. I know I'm going the right way when I stand up to face adversity. I think it's just testing me."

On June 11, he posted on Instagram: "2 weeks post Papillary Type 2 Renal Carcinoma Stage Three Surgery! Cleared for light workouts!"

Even more surprising, 7½ weeks after the surgery, Williams was back on the field with the Seahawks for training camp and the 2015 preseason.

NEITHER ARTHUR NOR Sonia Williams are taller than 5-foot-8. Arthur weighs in at about 175 pounds. But they were astonished by their baby, Jesse, who weighed in at 10 pounds at birth and by age 11 was the height and weight of his father.

Sonia was a national-caliber youth basketball player. Born on Thursday Island, off the northern tip of Queensland, she is ethnically a Torres Strait Islander -- the ethnicity of indigenous people from the northern Australian islands between the mainland and Papua New Guinea.

Jesse initially utilized his athleticism in track and basketball, and at 15 he decided to try out for a local club competing in American football. His size and agility eventually landed him a scholarship to Arizona Western, a community college in Yuma. In two seasons there he developed into one of the top junior-college prospects in America. He chose Alabama as his next stop for obvious competitive reasons.

"It was a tough route from the start, with some adversity because we were walking an uncharted path," Williams said. "A lot of people didn't believe I could do it. I never went out there to prove anybody else wrong, but to prove that we were right."

In the market for a gap-plugging, run-stopping defensive tackle, the Seahawks, after trading two picks to move up up 28 spots, selected Williams early in the fifth round of the 2013 draft.

"When he first got here, he definitely stood out because he was a very, very big, strong guy," said Bobby Wagner, Seattle's All-Pro middle linebacker. "But he was also moving really fast for a guy his size. You could see the potential. Then he started having the knee surgeries."

Pro athletes come back from knee injuries all the time. It comes with the territory.

"But battling back from cancer, that showed you his resiliency," Wagner said. "To come back from that speaks to the kind of courage he has, and his mental strength. He was back so fast it shocked me."

Chris Carlisle, the Seahawks' head of strength and conditioning, saw the way Williams approached his recovery from cancer surgery "just like he attacked everything else in his life -- with great commitment and great optimism."

Carlisle spent some quiet moments counseling Williams because of a grim kinship. Carlisle had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 2000, while on the University of Tennessee staff, but kept coaching through his regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.

"The thing I told him was that you beat it by not letting it beat you," Carlisle said. "That was pretty much the attitude he'd lived with all his life. For Jesse to fight back through that, after the other injuries, that was the kind of determination that made him special."

After his first postsurgery training camp practice, Williams lit up his media session with that optimism. "Cancer is universal. ... Everyone knows someone [who's had it]," he said. "So I'm trying to turn this into a positive. Come back, do what I can, and help as many people as I can along the way."

As the preseason wore on, Williams began tiring even as he walked up the stairs to meetings in the team's headquarters. There was little choice but to place him on the non-football injury list for the 2015 season.

"Looking back on it, I don't know how smart it was pushing my body so hard, but at the time it meant everything for me to come back and be a part of that team," Williams said. "I wouldn't change anything; I'm very committed to the things I want to do."

In the spring of 2016, the Seahawks waived him. He hadn't played in a single regular-season NFL game, but he made such an impression that he'd been voted winner of the team's Ed Block Courage Award for 2015.

WILLIAMS REALIZED he couldn't do much about what was happening inside his body "at the molecular or cellular level," but he could control his mindset. So he chose to view cancer as an opportunity.

He came home to Australia missing a kidney but with even more resolve -- and a mind filled with ideas of how to make a difference in others' lives.

"It would be unjust if I didn't use the obstacles I faced as lessons I could share," he said. "Cancer took almost everything that I wanted from me and put me in situations I never wanted to be in, but I had to learn from it and grow from it."

He trimmed 25 pounds, and goes in for regular health evaluations. He says he feels fine, and most days he opens the training and conditioning facility in Brisbane at 4 a.m.

It's grown so well he's expanding into a larger facility where he can more adequately propagate the kind of training that he learned in America.

"I would never have the opportunity to create a huge facility if I hadn't had to face the adversity I have and come out on top," he said. "I think I'll be more successful in reaching people. I speak with more conviction in my voice when I talk about adversity because I've had so much of it. It has more weight when I talk to people."

His goal is to help more Australians follow the path he took toward American athletics, particularly earning college scholarships and enjoying the life-changing experiences those can bring. His work is mentorship as much as coaching, he said, stressing the value of education. He stands as the example, having received his degree in human sciences from Alabama.

"University isn't a popular thing here for middle or low socio-economic people, and there's an abundance of athletic kids, Islanders and indigenous kids who have skills but need opportunities," Williams said. "I really push for that because I probably wouldn't have gone to university here, but I was lucky enough to go to American purely because of the athletic ability."

Ron Tiavaasue, a 19-year-old football player from South Auckland, New Zealand, moved to Brisbane to train with Williams. He's been offered a scholarship to play running back at Snow College (Utah) and came to Williams for the best preparation possible.

"He mentors me on what I should be ready for and what I needed to expect -- aside from the game and the physical training," Tiavaasue said.

Tiavaasue had seen Williams on television and heard his nickname, "Tha Monstar," and was intimidated by that persona. But he found Williams to be a humble and articulate teacher.

"He challenges you physically and mentally," Tiavaasue said. "He's a great guy -- the most inspirational person I've ever met in my life."

Williams is something of a cult figure in Australia, having made his way from near the bottom of the earth all the way to the height of the NFL. But he's particularly embraced by indigenous Australians.

"I have a huge amount of effectiveness with indigenous youth because I was pretty much what they are," he said. "They can see that. If I give back to them, hopefully that makes a difference for them."

Grace Power, perhaps the perfectly named football player, said her connection to Williams was immediate because of their shared indigenous heritage.

"He's such an inspiration in the way he worked so hard to get where he is now," Power said. "His story inspires others to make personal sacrifices, to understand how hard you have to work to get what you want. You know it's true because he's done it."

And because it's as plain as the words on his face.