TAMPA — As players began to stretch and warm up for Tuesday's mandatory minicamp, just a football field separated Cadillac Williams from his teammates.
But with each full-speed sprint on his injured right knee, he is quickly closing that gap.
Williams, who tore a patellar tendon at Carolina in October, is making a remarkable recovery. His prognosis has gone from a possible career-threatening injury to possibly rejoining the club during the regular season.
"He ran great today," coach Jon Gruden said. "It's one of the most amazing comebacks that I've seen. He hasn't come back yet, but he's banging on the door. You'd be proud of him. Our fans would be proud of him.
"He's putting himself through an unbelievable workout routine. I've never seen anything like it. It rivals some of the great Rocky Balboa movies you see on TV. It's very important to him. God bless him and his work ethic. It's something that's really stimulated our whole coaching staff and football team as we've seen him take step by step in his return."
Williams, the 2005 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, knows he still has a long way to go. But his determination and work habits have carried him further faster than even he originally imagined.
"Early on, it was a tough time, especially with people speculating that I might not ever play again," Williams said Tuesday. "But at that time, I just kept grinding and I really can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I wouldn't say it's a miracle or things like that, because truth be told, I still have a long way to go. But I'm very surprised and satisfied with my progress right now."
Does he expect to play in the regular season?
"Oh, no doubt. Hands down," Williams said. "I'm playing this season."
According to Williams, the turning point came in March when he ventured to Raymond James Stadium with trainer Todd Toriscelli to walk the escalators inside the lounge area.
"I was walking them and I told them, 'I can run them,' " Williams said. "I ran them. I was surprised, they were surprised. I had the confidence that I could put that knee down, pushing off of it and from there it started taking off."
Physically, the knee held up fine. But it was an even bigger mental hurdle for Williams. Before long, he was jogging, then cutting, then catching footballs. The Bucs can take 80 players to Celebration on July 25, so Williams could receive an exemption by going on the active physically-unable-to-perform list. If he still can't participate by the start of the season, he would miss at least six weeks.
"If there's one great story to come out of here today it's Carnell Williams and it's the work ethic that he has right now," Gruden said. "I'll just say I'm really proud to see that."
Williams said the injury has made him realize how important every aspect of football is in his life. Beyond that, he's more sympathetic to those who are less fortunate.
"This has taught me how much I love the game of football. Watching from a distance and not (being) able to do things, it was tough. Also, it taught me how blessed people are just to walk, man. I couldn't walk. You take it for granted. Walking. Driving. Having the health and strength to move your legs, your limbs. Sleeping. It put things in perspective.
"The way I approach things now is totally different because I know that one play could be it."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.