Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gizmo's family stalked by MS

Disease has killed almost 20 relatives

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SASKATOON -- Multiple sclerosis stalked, and eventually killed, most of Henry (Gizmo) Williams' large family.

He's the only one left -- "the last Mohican" as the Canadian Football Hall of Fame kick-returner/receiver wryly puts it.

Gizmo runs down the list, keeping time on fingers decorated by two Grey Cup rings.

"I watched my mom (who died of MS in 1969) go through it," Gizmo begins. "I watched four brothers go through it. Watched three sisters die with it. Watched four nieces die with it. Watched five nephews die with it. I'm the only one living in my family."

Williams was one of 10 siblings. He says seven died of MS, one "from drugs and alcohol"; another from a heart attack.

On the cusp of 49, Gizmo Williams stands alone -- and sometimes a little freaked out by what the disease might mean for his own children.

"My son yesterday was pouring some water, and shaking a little bit," says Williams, who is in Saskatoon today raising funds for the Cameco MS Neuroscience Research Centre.

"He scared me -- I was 'are you OK?' He said 'oh, I was just doing that.' But it's those little things. I'm watching for everything now."

Gizmo, meanwhile, refuses to be tested for MS. He doesn't want to know. None of his siblings with MS lived past 36, he says, so that's in his favour.

He's evaded the disease like the elusive kick returner he is -- perhaps he'll outrun it altogether. And if not... why concern himself with it now?

"They don't have a cure for it yet, so why worry about things you can't control?" Williams says. "I'm 49, nobody in my family lived over 36 with it, I'm the only one who's made it this far. If the doctors say I do got it, what am I going to do? Stop doing what I want to do? I don't want to go on medication. I don't believe in that stuff. I'm just living life like a normal person. And as far as I know right now, I'm healthy.

"The day they put on TV that they've got a cure for it, and they're 100 per cent sure, I will go and be the first one to take the test."

Williams says he seldom discussed his family's tragic history publicly during a standout Edmonton Eskimos' playing career that ran from 1986 to 2000.

He dealt with his own uncertainties, and the seemingly-endless string of family deaths, by charging harder into football.

For years, his wife thought he internalized everything too much. She'd tell him that, but he'd insist he was fine, that he'd already let it go. The night of Gizmo's Canadian Football Hall of Fame induction in 2006, he talked about his family's tragic history during his acceptance speech.

That, he says, is when his wife realized that he really was fine -- or, at least, as fine as he could be, given the circumstances.

"When I say I've let go of something, I'm done with it," Gizmo says. "But it's still there -- the way I look at it, it's like a bad scar on your body. It's always going to be there, but you don't worry about it until you see it. If I've got a scar on my arm from football, I don't see it until I take a shower or am looking in the mirror. I'll say 'oh, I remember this one here.' But it doesn't bother me until I hear about it again."

But that said, Williams tears up when asked whether he considers himself strong. A full minute goes by while he composes himself enough to speak again.

"I don't know if I'm strong, or if I'm too afraid to admit I'm scared," he says finally. "That's where I'm caught at. I deal with it in my own way. One time, a long time ago, a guy said 'you should go see a psychiatrist.' I said 'for what?' I don't need that.

"It's not that I'm strong; I'm caught between strong and afraid. I can't say I'm strong, and I can't say I'm afraid. It's just that I know I don't want to think about it. That's where I'm at."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2011 C6

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