TAMPA, Fla. — "What does this little white lady want with me?"
The thought raced through Mike Williams' 16-year-old mind as he sat in a sterile meeting room at an alternative school, summoned there one afternoon during a recess from hopelessness.
His clothes were in his 1983 Honda Civic. He slept wherever he could find a friend and a couch. His attitude was in your face.
His great-aunt and guardian told friends she could no longer care for the 6-foot-5 athlete. The system appeared on the verge of giving up on him.
And now somebody wanted to see him?
A clack-clack-clack of heels filled the room with what Mike Williams still calls the most surprising moment of his life.
A 5-foot-2 moment, to be exact. A tiny woman with the soft face of a girl, the deep stare of an adult and a voice that pushed like a lineman.
Her name was Kathy McCurdy. He knew her. His great-aunt used to be the nanny to her children. He used to hang out at the McCurdy house after school.
But he didn't really know her. She was a lawyer. Her husband was the chief executive of a medical group. They had three younger children.
They lived in a neighborhood with circular driveways and swimming pools. He was sitting in a school that employed an armed guard.
Williams was chuckling. McCurdy was not.
"I want you to come home with me," the little white lady said.
When Mike Williams takes the Rose Bowl field next week as one of the most skilled players for college football's No. 1-ranked team, his biggest cheerleader will be 5 feet 2.
People will think she is a former teacher or a school official.
But for more than three years she has been his shadow, standing over him during homework that didn't make sense, waiting for him on the couch after dates that went too late, tucking him into a bunk bed that didn't quite fit.
She cried when he went across country to college. She still brings home his dirty laundry after visits there.
It's that little white lady, Kathy McCurdy.
"My mom," Williams says.
Sitting next to her will be a guy who was once mistaken for Williams' bodyguard.
But for more than three years he has been Williams' counselor, taking him for long walks when advice was needed, scolding him when rules were ignored, e-mailing him with praise and support.
It's that chief executive, Jack McCurdy.
"My dad," Williams says.
Cheering around them will be three kids who are often confused for Mike Williams' fans.
But for more than three years, they have been his friends, sharing their rooms and traditions with him, being elbowed during Easter egg hunts, being outraced during Christmas tree searches, making sacrifices that never felt like sacrifices, perhaps because they received as much as they had been given.
It's those three younger children: Chris, Ryan and Ali McCurdy.
"My brothers and sisters," Williams says.
Watching it all from above, well, somebody has been watching from above, right?
Somebody had to be following a star or lighting a candle to make this happen, no?
In the late summer of 2000, a family brings a young man into its house simply because he needs them. There are no adoption papers. There's no fame, only struggling potential; no fortune, only an old car filled with clothes.
Nearly four years later, this young man has become their son, their brother, their spark, their leader.
He takes his little sister shopping and gleefully battles one little brother in PlayStation. He gives the other little brother the ball and gloves from his first touchdown, in a glass frame.
He writes thank-you notes to his mother, takes long walks with his father, and, oh, still has enough time to mold himself into one of the best college football players in America.
"An incredible story with some incredible people," said Mike Phillips, his basketball coach at Plant High.
One moment, Mike Williams is in a stereotypical tale of inner-city failure.
The next moment, he is in a Christmas card.
Every year, the McCurdys send out one featuring their children.
This year it's set on a beach, by a lifeguard stand, with little Ali, serious Ryan and gracious Chris ... and Mike Williams standing among them, about two feet taller, about 10 shades darker, looking right at home.
He will be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy next season, but you will see no poses out of him.
He will be the leading entertainer on the most entertaining team in football, but you will see no Sharpies, no cell phones, no dances, barely even a smile.
"You know, he's really quiet in the huddle," USC quarterback Matt Leinart said. "I've never even heard him ask for the ball."
This is because Mike Williams has learned, it's not about the ball.
"The adversity I've faced far exceeds anything I'll see on a football field," Williams said. "Nothing will ever be harder than what I've been through."
Yeah, but what about the hype and ...
"Football doesn't last," he interrupted. "Family does."
Williams figures he has two families, and during every game he honors them on his wrist bands.