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VOL. 46 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 18, 2022

Vols roll out the orange carpet, make ‘Dream’ come true

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Tate Williams waited more than a year to make his dream of attending a University of Tennessee football game into a reality. The 10-year-old refused to let anything stop him. Not even emergency brain surgery.

Tate, a Knoxville resident, has syringomyelia, intracranial hypertension and tethered cord syndrome, which creates issues with his spine and brain. Two weeks before Tennessee’s final home game of the season, Tate began experiencing headaches again.

His mother, Bethann Williams, asked the neurosurgeon if she could wait to perform the surgery until after Tate had the chance to celebrate his birthday and then see UT play. It was going to be his fifth brain or spinal surgery in the last three years.

But once his symptoms worsened, there was no choice but to operate.

Despite the sobering news, Tate never lost hope. The chance to watch the Vols in person provided him with extra motivation to recover.

He gained enough strength to be on the sideline at Neyland Stadium as No. 5 Tennessee kept its College Football Playoff hopes alive with a resounding win against Missouri.

It was one part of a magical few days that Tate will never forget.

“The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for him to keep fighting through this health stuff,” his mother says. “He was able to have a little bit of normalcy and joy mixed in. The entire thing was amazing.”

Tate’s UT experience was organized by Dream On 3, a national nonprofit that makes sports dreams a reality for children and young adults with life-altering medical conditions.

Tate, whose father died of cancer in 2017, was selected as a “Dream Recipient” by the University of Tennessee Collegiate Dream Team. The team members are all UT student volunteers who worked for several months to fundraise, plan and create awareness in the community in support of Tate.

Dream On 3 recently created a “Say I Can’t” campaign because many of the children it helps have been told what they can’t do most of their lives.

“Tate is the poster kid for that,” says Dream On 3 founder and CEO Brandon Lindsey. “It’s pretty cool to see him go through all he’s gone through with the mindset of ‘I’ll show you I can get there. Just watch me. I know I can.’”

A lifelong UT athletics fan, Tate’s VIP experience was filled with once-in-a-lifetime moments. Everything was kept secret until he arrived at each spot.

He had a chance to meet football players and coaches Thursday at practice and break down the huddle once it ended. Standout wide receiver Jalin Hyatt gave him a pair of signed gloves, and Tate played catch with other players.

He was given a tour of the facilities, including the locker room, where he found a personalized No. 7 UT jersey to wear to make him an honorary team member for the weekend.

Friday before the game, his classmates at Sequoyah Elementary led him on a parade through school with the UT cheerleaders and Smokey the mascot in attendance. He finished the day at the Lady Vols volleyball game, where he was recognized during the second set and given a signed volleyball.

On Saturday, Tate arrived at Neyland Stadium early and headed to the tailgate tents, where baseball player Christian Scott gave him a hat signed by the entire UT baseball team.

Then, Tate got to participate in the traditional Vol Walk. He was overcome with joy that the football players recognized him and gave him high fives as adoring fans roared with cheers along the route.

“He felt really special. You could see the expression of awe,” his mother says. “These athletes are like superheroes to kids. They really are. Just seeing him walk behind the players was incredibly special.”

Tate had the chance to observe warmups from the field before heading to a sky box to watch the game with his family, which includes his two older brothers Jackson and Gavin.

After the game, Tate still had one huge surprise waiting for him back at the hotel. He was standing near the elevator when legendary quarterback Peyton Manning emerged.

“His jaw just dropped,” his mother says. “Peyton reached down and looked him in the eye and knew Tate’s name, and they introduced themselves. They both had the same ball hat, and Peyton signed Tate’s for him.”

Bethann Williams says she felt a range of emotions throughout the weekend watching her son live his dream. It’s been a rough few years for the family – from Tate’s health issues to her husband dying from cancer at the age of 42.

“I have come to learn the importance of people around you,” Bethann says while fighting back tears. “Just knowing there is so much good in the world and so much kindness to help you get through the really, really hard stuff is so incredibly inspiring. I tell my kids none of us can go through this alone and I don’t want them to ever forget the love and support we have received and the people fighting along with us. It’s truly a blessing.”

As they made the short drive home, Tate was “bouncing in the car” from the excitement of the last few hours. He clutched all his new keepsakes and replayed the memories in his head. His chronic medical condition seemed worlds away, and his resilient spirit was ready to tackle whatever comes next.

His mother asked him what he took from the entire experience.

“His response was that he wants to be able to do this gift for other kids,” she says. “He appreciated every single piece that all those people did to make it happen for him. It was so incredibly special, and his goal is to work for Dream On 3 one day to make it happen for other kids.”

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