Come August, feeling good, involved with football, and tempted, Rawleigh Williams must remember seven simple words in his emotional and articulate good-bye to the game.
“I want to be able to walk,” he said.
Competitors crave competition. Doing so is in their DNA. And, Williams is a competitor.
Brett Favre retired twice, padding NFL-leading stats on his second go-around. Michael Jordan came out of retirement to collect three more NBA championships.
Michael Phelps earned five more Olympic gold medals when he returned to the pool.
Others had varying degrees of success when they resumed participation in their sport.
For Williams, a comeback is not an option. If moved to reconsider, he need only think about the happenings of April 29:
—Lying on the turf inside Walker Pavilion, saying, “I can’t move.”
—His mother on the field, nearby and crying.
—Being lifted onto a stretcher and into an ambulance for a trip to the hospital.
The scariest part is that his numbness was not the result of hard contact; he went down after a pirouette of sorts with defensive end McTelvin Agim.
Walking away from football — the operative phrase in Williams’ case — isn’t going to be easy for the 20-year-old who led the SEC in rushing as a sophomore.
Instead of being divorced from the game, he’s supposed to have a role in the Razorback program. Details are sketchy, but head coach Bret Bielema said Williams would help out on the field with running backs and with recruiting.
Although immediate and appropriate, Bielema’s move might make coping even more difficult for Williams in the short term.
If he’s at practice, he’s going to watch Devwah Whaley or Maleek Williams or Chase Hayden miss a cut and know that he would have done it right. Or, he’s going to see one of his successors lose a fumble and remember that he only lost one in 245 carries last year.
Every day he is at the athletic complex, he will cross paths with former teammates — guys he dressed next to, went to battle with in Fayetteville and Starkville and Auburn and Arlington, guys he celebrated with, consoled and encouraged through wins and losses. And, he’s going to know the game plan for the upcoming opponent and what his role would have been if …
In essence, he will still be part of a family, but will remain on the periphery during group outings. Others will do the practice grind and enjoy the games and he will be a spectator.
Healing Williams’ hurting will take time.———
Aware this may seem crass, but Williams’ clear-thinking decision to quit football makes it easy for Arkansas’ coaches in an odd sort of way. Whaley, who gained 602 yards last year on 110 carries, is more explosive than Williams and the natural choice to replace him as the starter. Behind Whaley, Maleek Williams, who enrolled in January, and Hayden, an incoming freshman, should compete for the No. 2 spot. With Rawleigh Williams healthy and four running backs, coaches might have been tempted to redshirt one of the freshmen or make a position move. Now, there is no need. Both freshmen had a healthy list of scholarship offers and Williams provides a different look for Arkansas at six-foot, 230 pounds.
In Tuscaloosa, where running backs wait their turn, Alabama has had enormous success with a pecking order. When Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore in 2009 with 1,658 yards on 271 attempts, Trent Richardson had 145 carries for 751 yards. In 2014, the year before Derrick Henry won the Heisman, T.J. Yeldon led the team with 194 attempts and Henry was second with 172. A year ago, Damien Harris made 1,037 yards on 146 attempts and Bo Scarbrough netted 812 on 125. This fall, they will share with 6-foot-3, 225-pound Najee Harris. Like the third man behind Whaley and No. 2 at Arkansas, Bama’s latest phenom will get some opportunities.
Harry King is sports columnist for GateHouse Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org