Ryan Williams was sitting in the University of Phoenix Stadium suite of coach Ken Whisenhunt for the first regular-season game of the year against Carolina being “anti-social” even as Whisenhunt’s wife Alice kept checking on him.
“I knew it had to be hard for him as a player to watch,” Alice Whisenhunt said. “He is the greatest guy. He is so polite, but he wouldn’t eat, so I knew something was up.”
It was reality that was bothering the rookie running back, just a few weeks after tearing his patella tendon and ending his first season before it even began.
“I tried so hard not to cry that day,” Williams recalled. “It was tough not to have tears come from my eyes when Miss Alice was talking to me, trying to make sure I was OK.”
The mental hurdle for a major injury is often more difficult than the physical. That Williams found out after some self-described “soul searching.” But he’s in a different place now, coming into the Cards’ Tempe facility every morning, anxious to re-start his career on the field.
He almost eagerly offers up his surgically repaired right knee for a photo, talking about how he probably will add a football-related tattoo to his already-tatted body to cover up the scar. He shakes his head how he has “absolutely no quad” muscle and sounds excited he will begin jogging soon.
Barring a setback, Williams will be ready for training camp. He could in theory be ready in time for some of the organized team activities, but both the training staff and coaches likely won’t let that happen beyond some individual drills. No reason to push it until Flagstaff.
“No injury is going to stop me, unless one of my legs is (cut) off somewhere and I only have one leg,” Williams said. “I am too self-motivated to be the best player I can be. I want my career to last 10 to 14 years. Ten is the least for me. I won’t stop. I want my career to be here … but if something happens where it isn’t, all 31 other teams will have to stand in front of me and tell me no for me not to be a football player and even then, I’d probably have to hear it again. That’s how much football means to me.”
That’s the message Williams has put out there over and over since getting hurt. He’s been told the tendon should come back stronger than before – not a rare occurrence in such cases -- and Williams has no doubts he will be the same back who impressed the Cardinals before he got hurt.
“Next year is going to be a good year,” Williams said. “I want to be a fan favorite, I want to be the ‘X’ factor, and because the coaches expect some much from me and they support me so much. It’s a great feeling to have the coaches behind you, and when they think highly of you, you don’t want to make them think otherwise.”
The thoughts are exactly what Ken Whisenhunt wants to hear. Williams remembers the play on which he got hurt vividly, seeing a patch of nothing but green for a few seconds on a counter play, having a defender jump on his back, and feeling a pinch.
Trainer Chad Cook yelled at him to stay down, and Williams didn’t have control of his leg below the knee. He knew it was bad, but he didn’t want to cry until he asked how long he’d be out. On the field, they let him know – nine to 12 months. “That’s when I cried,” Williams said.
Rehabbing a season-ending injury can be lonely – players on injured reserve can’t be out at practice – but Williams made sure he attended meetings and got some of the interaction with teammates and coaches that Ken Whisenhunt hoped he would.
“I believe your mental outlook in coming back is critical to your rehab, and his outlook has been fantastic,” Whisenhunt said. “He is driven. He’s what you want in a player, and that’s a chip on his shoulder.”
The chip is there, but it’s a different kind of chip. There seem to be fewer doubters of the Virginia Tech product than fans encouraging his return and awaiting his arrival. Williams knows this. Active on Twitter (his handle the Walter Payton-inspired @lilsweetness34), Williams loves to interact with his supporters.
Months removed from his injury, Williams’ brief anti-social period is long over. Everything he says is about what he plans to accomplish and his success. Expectations from everyone seem to have grown in his year away – Williams has gone from a seemingly out-of-the-blue second-round pick to, for some, the second coming of Payton and Barry Sanders combined.
Williams won’t be that. But he doesn’t mind a high bar to clear. It’s better than the alternative.
“It adds gas to my fire,” Williams said. “How much I love football, it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. I only had one plan in life, and that was to play football. No plan B, no plan C. For people to support me as much even when I am down? It makes me feel 10 times better, so I can be that player.”