MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- For a city that serves up some of the zestiest food and music in America, the football in Memphis has always been surprisingly bland. It's a football town that traditionally outsources its passion -- getting more excited about the games to the east at the University of Tennessee, or to the south at Ole Miss, or to the west at Arkansas.
But a remarkable running back has made wayward Memphians look homeward, infusing Memphis Tigers football with a new energy. And the running back's even more remarkable mother has, in turn, lifted her son and every player in blue with her courage.
Sandra Hill had a double mastectomy on Oct. 18. Eight days later she had further surgery to remove blood clots. These two events alone would bring many women to their knees -- or at least lay them out in bed. But Thursday night Sandra was on her feet and at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, wearing a "Let's Go DeAngelo" sweatshirt and a broad smile.
She was there to see her son, DeAngelo Williams, play rival Louisville, and her face glowed with vitality. For a woman who had been on a brief and very recent detour through hell, she looked no worse for her travels. Quite frankly, she looked great.
"Hey," the 43-year-old Sandra said with a broad smile, "I'm a warrior."
Breast cancer has ravaged her family. Two sisters have died from it after long fights. A third was diagnosed three months ago and is, in Hill's words, "doing real bad."
When pre-cancerous cells were discovered in her breasts, her oncologist recommended radiation. Hill's response: Forget it. She demanded a double mastectomy and got it. A post-operative check of removed lymph nodes revealed no cancer.
"Cancer-free is something," she said. "Going from cancer to cancer-free, no chemo, no radiation, 20-30 years added to your life, that's something. ...
"I appreciate life more. I take nothing for granted. Nothing. I want to live. Every day is precious to me."
Few days were more precious than Thursday. Sandra lives to see her son run the football, which he does like no other back in Memphis history. A silly double mastectomy was not going to keep her away or keep her quiet.
"I wasn't surprised [she was at the game]," Williams said. "She has a big heart -- a big heart. She has the will power to do what she wants to do -- always has a smile on her face. That's where I get it from."
But even warriors must obey doctor's orders. To limit the risk of infection, Hill spent the game watching from a luxury box instead of her customary seat outside with the other Memphis parents. (She'd missed the Oct. 23 game at Cincinnati, but her family "tailgated at home" while she convalesced.)
"I was going to be here if I had to be wheeled in," Hill said. " ... I'm not tired. I can do everything but jump up and down. So I just hit on the window [of the luxury box]."
Hill lives in Wynne, Ark., but her second home is the Memphis football complex. She's one of the Tiger Moms, a group that mothers the players at every opportunity, and Williams reports that his mom has the phone numbers of several of the players -- and dials them often.
She called her son the morning of the game and, in his words, "asked me how I was feeling."
A visitor had to ask: Shouldn't that question be the other way around?
"She never gives me a chance to ask how she's feeling," he said. " ... Every time I talk to her, she cuts me off when I start bringing it up."
Putting others first apparently runs in the family. Whenever he is interviewed, Williams brings his offensive linemen with him and insists that they be asked questions first. The kid is first-team All-Attitude.
Before this game, Memphis players found Sandra Hill. They had already sent her a giant get-well card, signed by the entire team, and had helped turn her home into a greenhouse, brimming with flowers.
"Family's a big part of this program," Memphis coach Tommy West said. "A lot of people are involved -- not just the players, but the players' families. She's definitely a big part of this school's bond."
Before the game, Tigers quarterback Danny Wimprine hugged Hill and promised a victory. "The whole team said they were going to win the game as my get-well gift," she said.
What transpired was not a victory, but a signature night in the history of a program few people had ever cared about this much before.
A crowd of 52,384 -- largest home attendance ever to see a Memphis game against someone other than SEC big boys Tennessee or Ole Miss -- filed into the 39-year-old bowl. And then the crowd watched a 56-49 football game -- ultimately a Memphis loss to the No. 16-ranked Cardinals -- in the highest-scoring game in Tigers history. A national television audience saw Tigers football in an entirely new light.
And Sandra Hill's son ran the ball like an inspired man. The 5-foot-10, 217-pounder gained 200 yards, leaving the Louisville defense grasping at thin air and ESPN's commentators gasping for superlatives.
"I think he played like a pro tonight," Memphis coach Tommy West said.
That the junior might be after this season -- but he said he won't make that decision yet. If he goes pro early, Memphis fans could hardly begrudge the best running back they've ever had. He's already done enough to transform a drab program -- first by surprising many people by coming to school here, and then by running wild for nearly three seasons.
Williams broke a lot of hearts in Arkansas when he did not sign with the home-state Razorbacks -- and Hill reports that some fans are "still nasty" to her about it. He also turned down a number of other SEC schools. Memphis just felt right to him.
As a freshman he ran for 684 yards, despite missing a couple of games with injuries. Last year he went for 1,430 yards and 10 touchdowns, and was named the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year. He led the Tigers to a breakthrough 8-4 season and their first bowl bid in 32 years, and his work this season has been no less impressive.
But Williams knows to expect a Sunday-morning critique from Sandra. In fact, he often gets multiple Sunday calls from his mom, the football junkie.
"She's always talking about the NFL games," Williams said. "She'll say, 'You see that sack?' Eventually I'll have to turn my phone off or go to practice, and I'll have seven messages -- recaps of every game. It's the same with college games on Saturday."
Her recap of one of the most remarkable games in Memphis' sleepy football history should be a beauty. She probably wouldn't see it this way, but the highlight was simply the fact that Sandra Hill was there to enjoy it.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com.