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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Cadillac Williams says he is recovered from knee injuries

TAMPA

He could not stand still. He could not keep quiet.

It was moments before his return from exile, and already, the electricity had taken over Cadillac Williams. He stood, more or less, in a tunnel at Raymond James Stadium, and a thousand fireflies swirled in his chest.

He could not wait. He could not stop smiling. He was about to play in a meaningless game, and to Williams, nothing ever mattered more.

Williams stood in the corridor, listening to the noise, feeling the adrenaline surge. He told his teammates that if he made a big play, he feared that he might spike the ball in the middle of the field or heave it into the stands from sheer excitement.

One by one, he watched the other Bucs run toward the field. He thought about the bad times, about the pain and the tears and the matched scars on his kneecaps. He thought about the game and how the dark moments make the good ones sweeter.

Finally, his name was announced, and Williams sprinted onto the field. He had been introduced last, as if he were an afterthought, as if he wanted to savor every second on the long run toward his home.

Now ask yourself: Does anyone in the NFL appreciate the game as much as Cadillac?

"No," Williams said. "I can't see how anyone could. I don't see how anyone could feel like this."

•••

Once, the game came to Williams as easily as an inheritance. He was stronger than most, faster than most, better than most. There was nothing about football that ever looked like a struggle to Cadillac.

But that was then, a thousand doubts ago, before he fell off the mountain, before he climbed back up, before he fell off again. Before he ripped up one patellar tendon and then the other.

"The last couple of years have humbled me," said Williams, 27. "It's made me appreciate every time I step onto the field, because I know how quickly it can be taken away from me."

In some ways, his injuries also have made it easier for others to appreciate Williams. In his younger days, he was the back with the fancy nickname and the high draft position, and every conversation seemed to be about production and perception.

These days, however, Williams' resiliency seems to have formed a deeper bond with his fans. Williams has become the back who will not stop running, the player who loves the game too much to limp away. For fans who may have had some bumps in their own road, it is an admirable trait for an athlete to carry.

"I am in love with the game of football," Williams said. "It's an unbelievable game. You can take away all the fame and all the money, and I'd still want to play this game."

Did you see his energy? Did you see his joy? Williams gained 54 yards on eight carries against the Dolphins, and just like that, you could see the doubts start to lift. People were no longer wondering if Williams could make this team. They were wondering if he could be the starting running back.

Two days after his return, Williams sits in a red desk chair in the middle of a hallway at One Buc Place. The afterglow is still on his face.

"This was big for me," Williams said. "It was one of the best feelings in my life. It felt better than the day I was drafted into the NFL. It felt better than setting the record (for yardage in his first three games), better than being rookie of the year, better than having my shoes in the Hall of Fame. This is one of the best feelings ever, man."

Contrast those feelings to December. Six games after returning from a devastating injury to his left patellar tendon, Williams injured his right. The injury was not as severe as his first, but one injury stacked on another left Williams with doubts of his own.

"I'll be honest," Williams said. "I started questioning myself. I wondered if maybe this game wasn't for me. I wondered if I should just hang it up. I had some dark moments. Once you injure both knees, you don't know if you're ever going to have the same juice you had before. But that only lasted a few hours. You know how crazy thoughts run through your head. Then I thought, 'What's wrong with you?' "

What was wrong was the familiarity of it all. Williams had just returned from injuring his left patellar, an injury so severe it left him bedridden for two months, unable to bathe himself, weeping in his room at night.

Compared to that, his second injury was a breeze.

"This time, the patellar just came off of the knee," Williams said. "The first time, it was like someone pointed a shotgun at my patellar and fired and my knee exploded."

Though Williams had a less severe injury, it was easy for some to look at him as damaged goods. He understands. He even says he would have understood if the Bucs had given up and released him.

"You don't know what it means that this organization stuck by me," Williams said. "I couldn't expect the Bucs to keep waiting on me."

Now, the waiting is over. Williams says he is whole again. Still, it will take some time before his fans can watch him go down in a pile without cringing.

"I just want closure from this game," Williams said. "I am not going to be one of those backs whose career is defined by his injury. I don't want people to say, 'Cadillac used to be a great back, but his knees did him in.' "

How good can Williams be? Better than ever, he says.

"I'm as fast as ever, as quick as ever, as strong as ever," Williams said. "The goals I came in with in 2005? I'm still chasing them. Everything that was possible then is possible now."

A thousand yards?

"Yes," he said, and he did not blink.

Twelve hundred yards?

Williams laughs softly.

"If I stay healthy," he said, "I'm going to have my best year in the NFL. I really believe that."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Cadillac Williams says he is recovered from knee injuries 08/31/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 1, 2009 7:40am]

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