Shortly before kickoff in the Carolina Panthers’ 1 p.m. game Sunday against the Denver Broncos, the big video boards at opposite ends of Bank of America Stadium will tell the story of Staff Sgt. Brian Williams and his explosive-sniffing dog, Carly.
On patrol with Carly in southern Afghanistan in April, Williams was severely injured by an improvised explosive device while clearing an IED-manufacturing plant.
He lost his left leg above the knee, suffered injuries to all four limbs, had multiple soft tissue wounds and lost four teeth. Carly was unhurt.
Williams, a member of the Air Force’s 87th Security Forces Squadron, has been recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., since arriving there April 29.
He was in his sixth deployment – four in the Middle East and two in Afghanistan – when he was injured.
After the video and one minute before kickoff, Williams – a Panthers fan since 1995 and with no ties to North Carolina – will bang the Panthers’ Keep Pounding Drum five times.
He will be asked to pause and lead the stadium cheers, then hit the drum a sixth time.
Five and one make 51, a way of honoring late Panthers great Sam Mills.
On Salute to Service Sunday, the Panthers are honoring Williams and his dog for their service.
Williams has received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Air Force Combat Action award for his sacrifice.
To hear Williams tell it, Sunday will be an honor, too.
“To me, it’s a defining moment,” Williams says. “I didn’t plan on getting hurt and (the Panthers) showed their support. I didn’t ask them to. It’s pretty humbling.”
Panthers fan from the start
Williams calls himself an Army brat. He bounced around as a child, living in Europe when his parents were stationed there more than 20 years ago.
Until he was 11 years old, Williams didn’t know much about football other than what he knew from video games. To him, it was “a game where a brown ball was passed around.”
When his parents left the service and settled near Phoenix, Williams was drawn to football.
Classmates wore sweatshirts representing the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins.
The Arizona Cardinals, his new hometown team, weren’t particularly popular back then, and Williams wanted something different.
When the NFL added the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995, Williams adopted the Panthers, in part because he liked the mascot.
“I could follow it from the jump,” Williams said. “To me, that was more interesting than jumping on some bandwagon.”
The Panthers weren’t on television often in Arizona, but Williams watched when he could and made the Panthers his team in video games.
“I find it weird, but it worked,” says Greg Barber, who befriended Williams when both were in Arizona in a junior ROTC program in high school and hosted him at his current home in Greensboro this weekend. In Arizona I’d see him in Panthers gear and think, ‘What’s with this guy?’”
Whatever it takes
When Williams joined the Air Force, he asked to be stationed in North Carolina so he could be close to the Panthers. He spent about 18 months stationed at Pope Air Force Base, now part of Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville.
Then Williams was reassigned to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, where the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles dominate the market.
He arranged it so his last four deployments came during spring and summer, allowing him to be stateside for football season.
He would go to a nearby Hooters or use a DirecTV application on a friend’s iPad to watch the Panthers.
He volunteered to work extra shifts so he could be free when the Panthers were playing.
“I have enough Panthers memorabilia to be legit, though I have no real ties there,” Williams says. “I did the best I could.”
Williams once even had a credit card that featured the team’s logo and was part of a program that earned points.
He intended to convert his points into Panthers tickets when he got enough, but the program ended before he could.
He understood the Panthers weren’t responsible for the program’s termination, but he sent the team a letter expressing his frustration, expecting nothing in return.
The team wrote back and offered him tickets to a game.
“People don’t do that, but they did it for me,” Williams says. “That was pretty damn cool.
“I told people my team cares.”
Panthers fan in Afghanistan
Williams deployed to Afghanistan in February, working with his dog, Carly. He hung a Panthers pennant in his living quarters.
“Anything that reminds you of home or of a happy place calms you down,” Williams says.
Searching for IEDs on April 25 near Kandahar, Williams watched Carly go up a flight of stairs. He called his dog, but Carly didn’t come to him, so he went to find him.
“Anywhere the dog has gone should be clear for you to follow,” Williams says. “But as I went up the steps, it went off.”
Williams was lucky to survive. He was supporting members of the 82nd Airborne, based at Fort Bragg, when the explosion happened and credits them for saving his life.
Four days later, Williams was stateside, facing multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation.
Hoping to cheer him up, Williams said, friends wrote the Panthers, telling his story. “If people know one thing about me,” Williams says, “they know I love watching them play.”
During his rehabilitation this year, a box of Panthers clothing and memorabilia arrived from the team. Included was an autographed helmet.
Also included: a letter from head coach Ron Rivera. Rivera, the son of a U.S. Army officer, has a deep respect and admiration for the military.
“It was heartfelt,” Williams says. “I wrote them a thank-you note and (included) a photo of me when I started walking again.”
A special Sunday
Rivera plans to meet Williams Sunday and will have his team watch his story on the big screens before kickoff.
When the Panthers invited Williams to be their guest, they also invited Carly.
Carly works with another handler now, but arrangements were made for Williams and the dog to be together at Bank of America Stadium.
They’ve been reunited a couple of times during Williams’ rehabilitation, and they will be together again for the football game.
“I respect the organization that much more that they’re doing this for him,” says Barber, Williams’ friend. “Here’s something he loves so much and he served his country and made the sacrifice, what they’re doing for him, it means a lot to me. And to him.”
Williams has no plans to leave the Air Force, or the Panthers.
“I’ve been in recovery this whole time, working to get back to work,” Williams says.
“To have an organization reach out for Veterans Day, I may have shed a few tears.”
Green: 704-358-5119; Twitter: @rongreenjr