Panthers RB has taken lead in the NFL on raising cancer awareness
Moments before the kickoff of Sunday's Panthers-Redskins game, fans at Bank of America Stadium will be introduced to a group of women who are breast cancer survivors, including the mother of Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams.
Then Williams will address the crowd in a taped message shown on the stadium's video screens.
"To the survivors, to those of you battling the disease, and to the families, your courage inspires me. Today, I run for you," Williams says on the message, which the Observer viewed in advance.
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"To my mom, I know you're on the field today. I want you to know you are my rock and my boulder, and I love you."
When Williams speaks on the video about his mother, Sandra Hill, he does so with a smile on his face and his fist placed over his heart.
Hill was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and underwent a double mastectomy. Now she's in remission.
However, three of her sisters - DeAngelo's aunts - died from breast cancer.
The issue is so personal to Williams that he's taking a leading role in the NFL's "A Crucial Catch" campaign during October. Its mission is to encourage women over 40 to get annual mammograms.
To raise awareness, the league is allowing select players to wear pink cleats - an idea authored by Williams - for up to two games this month. Other players can wear pink gloves and wristbands, while coaches and other sideline personnel wear team caps with pink bills.
It's a dramatic infusion of a traditionally feminine color in one of the world's most masculine sports, but Williams loves the idea.
"Real men wear pink," he said. "Hopefully, I can get me a T-shirt made that says that."
Williams has undertaken other efforts on behalf of breast cancer prevention and awareness. He created a foundation to support the cause and last Saturday led a group of more than 500 supporters called "Williams Warriors" who participated in the Koman Race for the Cure in Charlotte, raising about $30,000.
"It means a lot to me," he said.
Williams said his mother didn't initially tell him she had been diagnosed with breast cancer until after her surgery five years ago because she didn't want him to worry. However, he said she made sure the operation happened during the offseason of his college career at Memphis so neither of them would be focused on football.
Williams said his mom was thrilled to see NFL players wearing pink last weekend, when the Panthers had a bye. Among the players she was able to watch play in pink cleats was Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre during his dazzling Monday night performance against his former team, Green Bay.
Williams said he loved Favre's pink and black shoes.
The cleats Williams will wear Sunday are a glossy pink and white on top with a silver bottom. Other Panthers players expected to wear the shoes are wide receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith, running back Jonathan Stewart and linebacker Jon Beason.
Williams first mentioned the idea of players around the league wearing pink cleats to Panthers director of community relations Riley Fileds in mid-July. Fields made a formal request to the league, and it was later approved.
"There's nothing stronger than wearing the thing keeps you going in the National Football League, and that's your cleats," said Williams. "If you don't have a firm foot in the ground, then you're going to slip.
"It represents a great cause. A lot of us have been touched by it on and off the field, whether it be players, coaches, fans alike. We're going to represent to the fullest come Sunday."
Williams said he's already seen the "go pink" movement cause NFL players to bond in a new way. It wasn't until recently, he said, that he learned Muhammad's mother and mother-in-law also were breast cancer survivors.
Fields said Williams displayed a "kindred spirit" with the members of "Williams Warriors" team during last weekend's race, many of whom had been personally affected by the disease.
"They know that I know what they've been through," said Williams.
"They understand I genuinely care."
The 0-3 Panthers will be seeking their first win of the season Sunday and hoping to get Williams his first 100-yard rushing performance of the year.
Williams said he'll also be motivated to score a touchdown so he can bring home one of the special footballs the NFL is using this month.
"The pink ribbon on the ball is pretty sweet," he said.