RALEIGH — In the church parking lot outside the funeral Sunday, the number of disabled license plates battled the personalized Carolina Hurricanes tags to a draw, and Hurricanes stickers and hydraulic wheelchair lifts were everywhere.
Cameron Gray Williams had died Thursday, after crafting a too-short life at an unusual intersection of disability and sport, apparently from complications related to muscular dystrophy.
Williams, 15, a former state and local ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, spoke to civic groups and did media interviews across the state to raise awareness about the disease and money to fight it. His Cameron's Crusaders support team of family and friends was prominent at fundraising walks, with their Carolina blue flags.
The illness takes your muscles, and eventually even some of the most basic motor skills. Still, Cameron enjoyed using his dwindling muscles for sports, competing as a forward on the Carolina Fury electric wheelchair hockey team.
And, said speaker after speaker Sunday, Cameron also found endless joy in watching the athletes who do some of the most extraordinary things humans can do with muscles. He loved watching football, basketball and particularly the balletics of pro hockey.
A diehard Carolina Hurricanes fan, he always was eager to see the next game on television or in person. His casket, front and center Sunday for the service at Christ Sanctified Holy Church, was short, but there was room on top for a sweater from his beloved Carolina Hurricanes, and his Fury team jersey.
Charlotte Bobcats NBA player Matt Carroll met Cameron through the Muscular Dystrophy Association several years ago. He told the crowd Sunday that just seeing Cameron's smile always cheered him up, and that the boy's work with the association made him ahero.
"Kids look up to pro athletes, (but) you don't hear many stories about pro athletes looking up to kids," he said. "That became the case with Cameron."
Strength of spirit
The number of lives Cameron touched would be hard to calculate.
Christ Sanctified Holy Church is big. The mourners filled it. Then more came, filling the seats of an overflow room where the service was piped in on television.
Then more came, and they had to stand, more than 50 of them, lining the walls of the overflow room.
In the crowd were several teammates from his electric wheelchair hockey team, wearing their jerseys. Some of them spoke, as did his physical therapist, friends and the mom of another kid in a wheelchair, who said she knew what it took for the Williams family to give Cameron such a wonderful life.
Don Barnes, one of the church's ministers, told the crowd Cameron's parents were perfectly suited to give him the best life possible. His mom, Christy, was detail oriented and could efficiently ride herd on his complex medical records.
His father Jay, meanwhile, is good with physical things. So as Cameron's body got weaker over the years, Jay could handle it.
About three years ago, Cameron saw a video about a triathlete. His dad was doing a little jogging around the neighborhood then, and Cameron asked whether it was possible for the two of them to compete in a triathlon.
His father replied that perhaps they should start more modestly. He began running while pushing Cameron in a special wheelchair, jogging around the block. Then they started doing short road races.
Last fall, they entered a marathon in Florida. And finished it, all 26.2 miles.
Barnes read parts of a poem Cameron had written about the physical sensations he felt as his dad pushed him, thrilled to be as close as possible to running himself.
He wrote about the smell of fresh-cut grass as they rushed through neighborhoods, the feel of his shoes resting on the chair, the wind rushing at his face.
For Cameron, sports wasn't about winning at all. After games, others might mope, or rejoice about the result, said Shawn Hessee of Raleigh, a teammate on the Fury who has cerebral palsy. But Cameron was already looking past it, always thinking with hunger about the future.
"We get focused on trivia in life so much that we forget to enjoy the journey," Hessee said. "Cameron knew how to enjoy that journey."