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Catch of a Lifetime

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

On one, he writes “W.T.” for the West Tampa neighborhood where he was a child.

On the other, he writes “S.T.” for the South Tampa neighborhood where he became a man.

Williams doesn’t like to talk much about W.T., where his great-aunt Gertrude Lawson raised him from age 2 after his birth mother began battling drugs. He is still close to Lawson, whom he considers his first family. He visits her often, and she attends some of his games.

He wants to start this story with the families who helped him in S.T.: the Azzarellis, the McKowns and, ultimately, the McCurdys.

It was Kathy McCurdy who ran into Lawson at the YMCA during the summer of 2000.

The elderly lady saw her former employer and began crying.

“Mike had been suspended from school again, I didn’t know what to do with him, I was scared,” Lawson said. “I was worried he would become one of those downer kids in the neighborhood.”

The suspensions were for a variety of disciplinary issues that eventually added up.

McCurdy promised to visit him at school the next day.

When you ask her why, she responds as Michael Jordan responded when asked about dunks.

The great ones don’t think about what they are doing, they just do it.

“I really never thought about why,” she said. “I really can’t tell you, other than, he needed us.”

Part of it, it turned out, was that McCurdy wanted to pay back Lawson for raising her children. But another part of it was just a mom being a mom.

“It was an incredible sacrifice of love and commitment to Gertrude,” said family friend Dr. Denise Federer. “But it was also just the generosity of a remarkable human being.”

Twenty four hours later, Williams was sitting in the McCurdys’ four-bedroom, three-bath house with three other children under the age of 15.

Because they had not quite planned for this, they gave him the bottom bunk in a room with 11-year-old Ryan.

Because they wanted to make him feel like part of the family, they treated him like everyone else.

First thing, the evening tuck.

“It was pretty annoying at first, this little lady coming in to say good night,” Williams recalled with a grin. “But she wanted that last little bit of time with her kids.”

Then, the curfew.

Giving the freewheeling Williams even a 12:30 a.m. limit was like putting a boot on a sports car.

“You have to realize, I never had anybody telling me what time to come home before,” he said. “It was very hard.”

But soon he realized that whenever he came home, Kathy would be lying on the futon waiting for him. And if he didn’t come home close to curfew, she would drive around looking for him.

And the one night he didn’t come home at all, she was staring him down the next morning.

He threatened to go back to his great-aunt’s house. Kathy literally stood in his way.

“I told him, she raised my kids, and he would not do this to her,” she recalled. “I told him, we were going to get through this thing together.”

Nobody had ever said those things to him before. Every place he ever left in his life, nobody had ever tried to stop him.

“This was real,” he said.

For him, and them.

“We were swimming where we had never swum before,” Jack said.

So Williams decided to stay, even as he was being hit with another sort of family rule.

School, not sports, would be the main focus of his life.

“I’d get home and Kathy would sit over me, literally sit there, while I finished my homework,” Williams said. “That was something new.”

Once, when he challenged a team rule, Jack told him he should quit if he couldn’t be part of the team.

“Having him in our house had nothing to do with sports,” Jack said. “This was about the rest of his life. He could have quit everything for all we cared, as long as he worked hard at growing up and maturing.”

And he did, surviving his studies and playing hard and even going to Catholic church with the family at 9 a.m. on Sundays, despite not being Catholic.

“He became one of them, in every way, no different than the other children,” Federer said. “The love there is genuine.”

Not coincidentally, he also began excelling in sports to the point that USC began recruiting him for football after also watching basketball tapes.

“There’s almost a basketball sense about him,” said Pete Carroll, the USC football coach. “Some of the stuff he did, we could project him as an outstanding wide receiver.”

They also appreciated the family dynamic, which may have clinched it, because other schools did not.

“We thought, yeah, this is an interesting family,” Carroll said. “We started asking questions, and any discomfort was diffused right away.”

Florida wanted him to be a safety. Florida State never even showed up to recruit him. USC wanted him not only as a wide receiver, but as part of another family.

And so for one of the few times in the state’s history, a great Florida player got away.

“Those other teams down there, they must be saying, ‘Wow, we let this guy go?’ ” Leinart said.

And leave he did, but his bed and his trophy table and his family photos stayed, along with a bit of his heart, visible in an excerpt from this Christmas letter to Kathy:

“To be a part of this family is and has been a great experience for me,” he wrote. “I love you very much.”

Not that they have ever needed anything from him.

“To see the good person he has become, that’s enough for us,” Jack said.

The spring after Williams’ freshman year, Kathy returned from helping him move into an apartment when Jack discovered her crying.

Mike had brought her to tears again.

“He’s so happy,” she said.

*

The McCurdys fly to nearly all of Mike Williams’ games, just as they attend the games of their other children.

But they don’t talk about the football Mike caught with one hand.

They talk about the one he gave away.

He was shopping with Ali recently when he noticed a little boy crying because his mother couldn’t afford to buy him a football. So Mike bought it, handed it to the boy and still hasn’t told his family about it.

“Everybody looks at us together and says, ‘That’s your brother?’ ” said Ali, 12. “And I say, yeah.”

They don’t talk about how he already has set the USC career touchdown reception record (30) after only two seasons, or how this fall he scored the most touchdowns (16) by a Trojan in 22 years.

They talk about how he talks with Ryan virtually every night, counseling him on everything from girls to grit.

“He looks out for me,” said Ryan, 15. “He tells everyone I was his high school roommate.”

And they don’t talk about how he will be a probable top-five NFL draft pick after next season.

They talk about how, on one occasion, he nearly emptied his bank account for an Allen Iverson jersey for Chris.

“Our house is a lot more fun with Mike around,” said Chris, 17. “I always wanted an older brother, and now I have one.”

The circle of life has indeed woven its magical ways around this new American family, the last becoming the first, the son becoming the father.

“Our children have become exponentially bigger and better people for this experience,” Jack McCurdy said.

So has everyone who has touched it, which wasn’t the point of Kathy McCurdy’s promise four years ago, but wondrous things happen when promises are kept.

“What does this little white lady want with me?”

Turns out, it was exactly what Mike Williams wanted for himself but didn’t know how to find.

Sometimes, you don’t have to follow that star. Sometimes, it comes to you, asking only that you open your eyes and see.

And so it happened that on an August day in 2000, Williams climbed in his 1983 Civic and drove to the McCurdy home. He threw his things on the bottom bunk. He put his toothbrush in the bathroom. He sat down for dinner. They held hands and prayed.

Oh, holy night.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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(Begin Text of Infobox)

Moving Up

Sophomore Mike Williams has 12 100-yard receiving games over two seasons. A look at his game-by-game statistics in the 2003 season:

*--* OPP REC YDS AVG TD LG Auburn 8 104 13.0 1 26 BYU 10 124 12.4 2 23 Hawaii 3 70 23.3 1 33 California 6 96 16.0 0 21 Arizona State 5 108 21.6 0 39 Stanford 7 129 18.4 3 40 Notre Dame 9 112 12.4 1 24 Washington 6 43 7.2 0 8 Wash. State 4 43 10.8 1 16 Arizona 11 157 14.3 3 26 UCLA 11 181 16.5 2 39 Oregon State 7 59 8.4 2 14 Totals 87 1,226 14.1 16 40

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USC’S ALL-TIME LEADING RECEIVERS

*--* No. YDS AVG TD 1. Kareem Kelly 204 3,104 15.22 15 2. Keary Colbert 201 2,815 14.00 17 3. Johnnie Morton 201 3,201 15.93 23 T4. Keyshawn Johnson 168 2,796 16.64 16 T4. Mike Williams 168 2,491 14.83 30 6. John Jackson 163 2,379 14.60 17 7. R.Jay Soward 161 2,672 16.60 23

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