The doubts would come late at night, the way the worst of them always do. They would sneak in between the pain and the loneliness, and they would find the man with the damaged leg and cut deep into his soul. It was then, lying in the darkness, that Carnell Williams would question his future. It was then, alone with his thoughts, that the tears would come. How do you measure a man's journey? In months? In miles? In moments? Do you weigh it by the pain he has endured or the self-doubt he conquered or the sweat that he shed along the way? Do you start with the bottom and follow him back to the top? Or, perhaps, do you watch as he leans over and studies the 7-inch scar that jags across the flesh on top of his right knee? In the case of the man they call Cadillac, it is there in that surgical souvenir in the shape of a football's laces that you get a small glimpse of how far Williams has come. Look, and you can see the weeks when he could not move his leg, the months when he could not walk, the skepticism that he saw on the faces of his friends. It is the growth chart of a man trying to make it back to where he was. "It's kind of ugly, isn't it?'' Williams said of the scar, grinning.
"When I look at it, I think of all of the hard work I've put into trying to make it back. It puts a smile on my face. I've been through a lot, but there are good times ahead. I really believe that.''
Time was it was easy to wonder whether Williams' time in the NFL was finished. His injury was so devastating, so painful, it was impossible not to ask if it might be career-ending.
It happened in the fourth game of last season. Williams burst through the line on a play called 96 Stretch, and 18 yards downfield, he thought he had a chance to cut back underneath Carolina safety Chris Harris. Instead, his right knee exploded, and he crumpled to the ground in agony.
"As soon as it happened, I knew I was done,'' he said. "The pain … the agony … I never felt anything like that. I knew my season was over.
"My kneecap was up by my thigh. It was extreme pain.''
Even worse was the diagnosis. Williams had ripped his patellar tendon, which helps hold the kneecap in place. It is an injury that ended careers such as that of former Dolphin Hall of Famer Dwight Stephenson and former Bucs running back Charlie Garner.
It happened 381 days ago and 576.5 miles from here, and for the Bucs, it was 1,476 plays ago. And yet, as Williams talks, it seems as fresh as if it had happened last week. He has seen film of the play only twice, but for a long time, he could see what happened every time he closed his eyes.
"It was one of those situations where you start second-guessing yourself,'' Williams said. "You think, 'What if I had just run out of bounds? Why didn't I do this? Why didn't I do that?' But you know, that's what makes me me. I'm not a guy who runs out of bounds when he thinks he has a chance to score.''
For six weeks afterward, Williams could not move his leg without lifting it with his hands. He could not stand on crutches because the pain in his leg would become too intense. He did not walk for two months. Just before Christmas, he needed a second surgery to clean up the scar tissue. He did not jog until February. He did not run hard until April. He did not lose his limp until August.
Most of the time, Williams will tell you, he had faith that he would make it back. But not always. Sometimes, doubt would skitter across his mind like a bug across a kitchen floor.
"I'm human,'' he said. "To be honest with you, yeah, the doubts were there. There were nights when I would just wonder if I would ever be able to play this game that I love so much again.
"The first four months were really tough. There was all this speculation that I wouldn't be able to make it back. I'm sure the Bucs wondered. When I came back in December, I had lost my thigh. It wasn't as big around as my arm. My knee wouldn't bend past 95 percent. I'm not going to lie. There were definitely some doubts.
"If you would see me, I wouldn't show it. But I was really going through it. At night, when I was by myself was the worst time. Yeah, I would cry. Sometimes, I would ask, 'Lord, why me?' My mom helped me through the process. She was there every day, all day.''
For weeks, Williams wasn't able to get up and make it to the kitchen or the bathroom without help. He needed assistance to bathe. He lay in bed so long that pus-filled bumps appeared on his back.
On those nights that Williams would weep from misery and misfortune, his mother would hear him from outside of his room. She did not come in.
"That was between him and God,'' she said. "That's something you don't interrupt.
"People will never know how far he's come. Look, football is a wonderful career, but it isn't something you can play forever. I would pray that he would just be able to walk again. Once he could walk and he didn't need a stick, that was the comeback.''
Williams wanted more, however. He remembers well-meaning people approaching him to say, "Hey, man, sorry to hear about your career-ending injury.'' Part of Williams wanted to insist that it wasn't career-ending. Instead, he would politely mumble his thanks.
"Inside, it was eating me up,'' he said.
No, he said, he did not feel like a part of his team.
No, he said, he did not feel like an athlete.
No, he said, he did not feel whole as a person.
This is the part that no one sees. There are no cheers for running up and down three flights of escalators in an empty stadium, and there are no incentive clauses for pulling a sled when your knee throbs with pain. For an athlete, rehabbing is a lonely run through drudgery.
And yet, most days, Williams would find himself at One Buc Place searching for new ways to sweat. He wanted to make it back, and he wanted to make it back this season.
"He has come to work every day like he is fighting for his life,'' said running backs coach Richard Bisaccia. "I know he's made some money. Maybe someone else would have just said, 'No, I don't want to go through all of this.' "
Williams has been there early in the mornings, and he has been there late in the evenings. He has been there on weekends. He has pushed a small sled while on all fours, and he has pushed a golf cart, and he has run sprints, and he has done jumping drills, and he has run with weights on his legs.
"The thing that kept me going is that this is what I love to do,'' he said. "That and the doubters. Everyone was saying it couldn't be done. I'm sure there are still doubters who say I'll never be the same back. I thrive on stuff like that.''
"Even with the doubts, deep down, I knew that I wasn't done playing football. I was determined not to be remembered for this injury.''
Instead, perhaps he will be remembered for his comeback. It likely will not happen in today's game against Minnesota, when he's expected to be on the inactive list. When it does come, perhaps it will not be enough to remind you of the back who gained 2,184 yards in 32 games for the Bucs.
Still, he is an NFL player again. His journey is almost complete.
"I won't be back until I play between the white lines,'' Williams said. "Just making it back won't be enough for me. I won't be happy until I dominate. That's how I feel.
"It really feels like I haven't played football for so long,'' he said. "For years. I know it's only been 13 or 14 months, but it feels like forever.''
He is stronger now, he says. He has been scarred, and he has been hardened. He has learned things about life, and he has learned things about himself.
A few more steps, and his journey will be complete.
A few more steps, and he will be Cadillac once more.
1C | Sunday, November 16, 2008 * * * *