TAMPA — Carlton Williams hadn't yet played a single snap at USF, hadn't suffered the slightest injury when assistant Rich Rachel saw the freshman safety at practice in 2004 and told him he was "tough as a pine knot."
At the time, it was pure geography. Rachel knew Williams was a rare out-of-state Bull, hailing from just north of the border in Valdosta, Ga., which Rachel associated with pine trees.
But four years and 40 starts later, the comparison is a hearty one. Williams has endured countless injuries — currently his hip and shoulder — and played through them all without missing a game, embodying the toughness that USF wants from its entire defense.
"He's a warrior," defensive end George Selvie said. "He was laid out in that FIU game and nobody expected him to get back in the game. It shows a lot of heart, determination, the love he has for his team to just go back out there, sacrifice his body just to play for us and help us win."
Williams, 6 feet 4 and 210 pounds, literally needs both hands to rattle off his medical history. His first year on campus, Williams, who graduates in December with a degree in interdisciplinary social studies, had surgery on one thumb, then tore ligaments in the other. Last season, he knocked himself out with a hard hit, collapsing on the field only to return moments later.
"I love this game of football, and I love my teammates," he said. "It's not me trying to be tough, it's more me wanting to be there for my team."
He ranks his current hip pointer — he had to be helped off the field at Florida International, and again when he re-injured it at N.C. State, returning to action in both games — as his second-worst injury, behind the concussion last year at Connecticut.
"I kind of just didn't tell them I was feeling bad, but I was seeing double of everything," Williams said. "The next day, I had a real bad headache, but like I said, I love my teammates."
Playing through injuries is one challenge, but Williams rarely sits out a practice, something that has earned him high praise from USF coach Jim Leavitt.
"He's tough. He hasn't missed a thing, when most people probably would have," Leavitt said. "He's been a tremendous leader as far as that goes. I admire him for his mental toughness."
Because of his durability, Williams has a chance to leave USF with the most career starts in school history. A bowl game would be his 47th career start, two more than the current record.
Rachel's most vivid memory of Williams came before last year's landmark upset at Auburn. Williams gathered USF's defensive backs before the game and laid it out for them, stern without swearing: If they weren't ready to hit everything that moved, if they weren't going to sacrifice themselves, they shouldn't step on the field. They heard him that day.
Williams' toughness started back at Valdosta High, where his friend and teammate, USF senior tight end Cedric Hill, found out firsthand.
"In high school, he broke his arm on my helmet trying to tackle me, and I broke my finger in his face mask," Hill said. "We always had the attitude that if I go out there and play with an injury, I will. He's not going to let an injury hold him down. He's going to battle to the end, whether he's got one limb, two limbs, whatever."
How serious is Williams' selflessness? His inspiration on the field is former teammate Javan Camon, who died after a violent collision in an indoor football league game in Daytona Beach last year.
But the best illustration of Williams' toughness is his arms, where he has the words "FINISH STRONG" tattooed, following the Bulls' team mantra last season. His left arm pays tribute to his mother, Darlene, who died of cancer when he was 14. He was raised by his grandparents, but in February, he lost his grandfather, Robert Williams, also to cancer, at age 70.
"That was my heart, my backbone," he said. "My granddaddy, he loved football, loved this team, and every week, he made sure he was down here to support us."
His grandmother, Margaret, will attend Saturday's homecoming game against Syracuse, her first time seeing her grandson play this year. Who better to lead USF back from adversity than a veteran player who battles through it every game?
"Life, in general, whatever you want, you've got to go get it," Williams said. "Nobody's going to feel sorry for you if you're down. You get up and do what you have to do."