RSL: Ill wife sharpens player's focus

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HERRIMAN - Marcia Williams wanted everything to be normal. She wanted to pretend nothing had changed. Wanted to live her life with her family the same way she always had, even though she knew it would never be the same.

Which pretty much explains her husband.

Only hours after his wife learned she had a rare form of leukemia four months ago, veteran midfielder Andy Williams took the soccer field for Real Salt Lake, just as always. And he has steadfastly continued taking it ever since, somehow leading the team on its historic playoff run while at the same time helping his wife and two daughters cope with a potentially fatal disease.

"Absolutely special," is how coach Jason Kreis has described it.

Yet while Williams figures to play an important role again for RSL in its first playoff game today against Chivas USA at Rio Tinto Stadium, his wife has hardly been assured of a happy ending. She's still awaiting chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant, still hoping to raise enough money to pay for it - doctors acknowledged the bill could top $1 million - and still trying to get used to everybody paying her so much attention.

"It has just been overwhelming," she said, wiping away a tear.

While RSL has surged to the first playoff appearance in its history, the family's emotional saga has become an inextricable part of the team, a behind-the-scenes drama to match its on-field pursuit of the postseason.

Players have held and attended fundraisers such as a golf tournament and a casino night. Team employees have helped family friends organize Soccer Unites Utah, an organization designed to raise money and awareness, and colleagues around Major League Soccer have donated jerseys and other memorabilia to auction off.

Owner Dave Checketts pledged $10,000 to the effort, too, while players from the Judge Memorial and Juan Diego high school girls' soccer teams recently gave up a regular-season game to hold a charity exhibition.

Even the rival Colorado Rapids hosted a fundraising party at a Denver pub last month.

"In another city, he probably wouldn't get as much attention and support," goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "But Salt Lake City is one of those cities where everybody is willing to help, and come together."

The Williamses never expected that.

In fact, Marcia Williams feared her husband might lose his job if the team learned she had leukemia, "that they were going to be like, 'Well, you won't be able to focus.' " she said. Instead, Kreis and the rest of the team instantly embraced them.

"Whatever you need," the team told them. "We're there."

That helped immeasurably.

By nature private and reserved, Marcia Williams at first didn't want to tell anybody about her disease. But she has found that she needs the support of her family and friends, particularly when she has "down days" and grows distraught.

"I call them and I just bawl it out," she said.

Doctors initially thought there was no way Marcia could have leukemia, but were proved wrong when she insisted on being tested.

"When I first heard it, in the doctor's office, I honestly thought I was dreaming," she said. "And I did ask him that a few times. . . . I looked at my husband and I said, 'Andy, am I dreaming? This is not going on, right? It's not real.' And he was like, 'It's real. We're here.' "

Marcia would have run screaming from the room if not for her 5-year-old daughter, Alexia, whom she did not want to upset. Even now, though 14-year-old Shai-Ann understands the situation, Alexia "just knows mommy's sick and eventually, she might have to go to hospital," Andy Williams said.

The biggest challenge - aside from paying the bills - remains finding a bone-marrow donor who matches Marcia's rare tissue type, something that would drastically increase her chances of survival. Without one yet, Marcia is unsure when she might begin chemotherapy or have a transplant.

Meanwhile, she and her husband continue to pray for her health every night, just as Andy continues to impress his teammates with his ability to remain focused on the field while providing emotional stability at home. Though he said "it has been tough" dealing with his wife's illness, he has scarcely betrayed to outsiders any hint of what his family has been going through.

"Incredibly, we haven't really witnessed a lot of change - which in itself is about the highest compliment I can give him," RSL teammate Chris Wingert said. "If you didn't know or you just came onto the team recently and hadn't heard, you probably wouldn't even notice anything is going on. . . . He has been awesome."

His wife could scarcely disagree.

Marcia Williams said she's immensely proud of her husband, who has carried on for both her and RSL despite thinking at first that he would not be able to do so. She recalled him crying in the doctor's office upon learning the news, as she strained to hold back her own tears for the sake of her daughter.

"And I remember thinking, 'I'm going to beat this,' " she said.

How you

can help

Fans and friends can make donations, learn about fundraisers, read a poignant letter from Marcia Williams or become bone-marrow donors by visiting www.Soccer