ROSCOE VILLAGE — As the seniors on Lane Tech's football team, flanked by their parents, paraded onto the field for their last home game Friday night, it was the player who wasn't in the stadium that was on everyone's mind.
Drew Williams is still hospitalized and in a coma after collapsing on the sidelines during a game last week, though good news came late Friday afternoon that he'd been taken off his respirator and is now breathing on his own.
Taking Williams' place during the pre-game ceremony honoring the seniors on the team: His younger brother Bryce, himself a standout on Lane Tech's sophomore gridiron squad, with parents Jodi and Chris Williams holding each of his hands.
The Williams family received sustained cheers from the packed Lane Tech crowd as they hugged a lineup of their son's senior teammates. Bryce, with his brother's No. 3 jersey draped over his back, joined the team's captains for the coin toss.
"He's been really strong," friends said of Bryce.
Drew, 17, suffered what his family called "severe head trauma" during an Oct. 4 game between Lane Tech and Dunbar Vocational Career Academy at Gately Stadium in Pullman. Williams has been at Advocate Christ Medical Center ever since.
Members of the sophomore squad, waiting in line before Friday's game to enter the stadium, said "practice hasn't been the same" since Williams' injury.
Asked whether Williams' collapse after suffering "head trauma" during a game had any of them rethinking their decision to play football, the teens said quite the opposite.
"It makes us want to play more," said Konrad Rula. "Drew loved this sport and played with passion."
Earlier on Friday, approximately 200 Lane Tech students gathered before the start of school to pray for Williams.
"The only thing that I knew that we could do is pray," said Victor Gonzalez, the 17-year-old senior who organized Friday's prayer.
"We are Lane Tech family," Gonzalez said. "We are one city, and we are one school, and we are here to support Drew Williams because when he falls, we are here to lift him up."
Although a page devoted to Williams on the social networking site CaringBridge.com has been shut down, a fundraising site to help the family cope with medical bills is still active at GoFundMe.com.
More than $33,000 had been donated as of press time. The public address announcer made several appeals during Friday night's game, pointing attendees to the site.
Members of Lane Tech's football booster club were selling "Drew in our hearts" t-shirts and wristbands that said, "Drew Let's Eat." "Let's eat" was Williams' rallying cry to his teammates before taking the field.
On Friday, players had a new chant: "One, two, three, Drew!"
In a statement issued Friday morning, the family said: "This is a difficult period for our family, but we want to express our gratitude to Drew's teachers, coaches, teammates, friends and classmates for their prayers and support."
Thanking the general public as well, the family added, "At this time, our son's recovery is of utmost priority, and, as a family, we need to be focused on his well-being. For that reason, we are asking for privacy. We may have more to say later when this time of healing is over."
Contributing: Erica Demarest