Tyonna Williams hit the cold, hard asphalt with tears streaming down her face.
The senior guard had, hours beforehand, prepared to take on Kent State with the rest of the women’s basketball team in a road matchup on Dec. 6, 2012.
Williams and her teammates had just won two consecutive games, but she said she couldn’t focus on the task at hand that day.
“All day I just felt like not in the mood,” Williams said. “I just wasn’t there and I’m always there on game days.”
When tipoff arrived, nothing changed.
From start to finish, Williams was not herself, and struggled in what would be the third loss of her sophomore season.
Following the game, Williams boarded the team bus and saw multiple missed calls from her mother on her cell phone.
She stepped off the bus for a moment to return the call, because she knew what she was about to hear. Her mom soon told her that Williams’ best friend and grandfather, Matthew Simmons, died from complications with a stroke he suffered during Williams’ senior year of high school.
Fallen to the ground, tears rolled down her face as she was consoled by the coaching staff.
“I felt like someone had literally shot me in my chest,” Williams said. “I was dead on the inside.”
The pain she felt was like no other, as it was for someone who may have saved her life.
As a 5-year-old in Washington D.C., life was not easy. Going to bed hungry or thirsty wasn’t unusual for Williams and her two brothers, Brandon and Anthony.
It was also not unusual for them to knock on neighbors’ doors to ask for food.
Williams’ father was nowhere to be found, as he abandoned the family when she was a year old. Their mother, at times, was also absent. Her reason was different, as her addiction to crack-cocaine led her to leave her children unsupervised for days at a time, Williams said.
This led the family to a Washington D.C. homeless shelter – where Williams said everything changed.
One night, she fell asleep in her mother’s arms. When Williams woke up, she was alone.
Her mother was gone without a trace and now, Williams and her brothers had no one.
Following two weeks in foster care, Williams and her brothers needed a miracle.
That finally arrived in the form of Williams’ grandparents, Ella and Matthew Simmons, when they decided to take the children into their Fort Washington, Maryland home as their foster parents. With Williams’ older brother, Kevin Bunter, already under their care, Williams knew she had a fresh start.
“They gave us a chance at life and they saved my life,” Williams said. “Without them I would not be here talking to you.”
Eight years later in a Fort Washington courthouse, Williams jumped into her grandfather’s arms after a judge allowed Williams’ grandparents to become the children’s legal guardian.
“I’m forever in debt, especially to those two,” Williams said.
Now a senior, Williams inches closer to the day when she can repay that debt.
Her grandparents, who used their life savings to support Williams, gave her the opportunity she never had. But since her grandfather’s passing, Williams has been repaying her grandmother in a different way.
“She literally tells me, ‘I don’t know if I would still be on this earth if it wasn’t for you,’” Williams said. “‘If I didn’t have someone making me smile, I really don’t know if I would still be here.’”
Bunter said Ella Simmons was “the glue that kept our family together.” Simmons was the constant parental figure that filled the void in Williams’ life growing up.
“I see my grandmother’s open-heartedness and willingness to help out others,” Bunter said. “And because of that, my grandmother showed Tyonna the steps that you have to take to become successful … my grandmother showed my little sister how to become a lady, how to become a woman.”
Now a senior, Williams is nearing a college degree in spite of her tumultuous childhood.
“She is going to graduate here,” Temple coach Tonya Cardoza said. “It’s just a credit to her grandparents and her. Just because there are obstacles, [that] doesn’t mean it is going to stop you from getting where you want to go.”
When she graduates, Williams said she wants to help kids like her – whether it’d be as a basketball coach, police officer or homicide detective.
“I want to give back through my testimony,” Williams said. “I want to give back through being there for kids that grew up like I did, who didn’t have someone like I did … there is so much I want to do in life.”
Describing Williams as a “born leader,” Bunter said it comes as no surprise that Williams has the desire to give back.
“She was like, ‘I have to save people,’” Bunter said. “It’s just not about talking about it – I have to be about it now.”
Yet, she has already begun to make her impact both on and off the hardwood.
As the lone senior on a young team, Williams has been the mentor and leader whom her younger teammates need.
“She makes sure everyone is good at all times … she is just a real big sister figure that I’m glad that I have as a freshman,” guard Tanaya Atkinson said.
Williams, who is on pace to be the first from her family to graduate college, inspired her brother to get into law enforcement. Bunter, a veteran, now wants to help give back, just like his younger sister.
“That’s only because of my sister’s drive to go to college,” he said of his career. “I was like, ‘That was impressive. I can’t let her out-do me.’”
Michael Guise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Michael_Guise