TAMPA — When Cadillac Williams takes the field Monday night in Charlotte, N.C., it will be another mile marker in his long road back from the mist that enshrouded his career last year.
The place carries memories of pain and emotion, but now signifies hope and renewal.
This is where a dream might have ended, the site Williams suffered his devastating right knee injury against the Panthers on Sept. 30, 2007, and watched his NFL future instantly fade.
Back then, the question was whether the young Bucs tailback and 2005 NFL offensive rookie of the year might ever play football again.
Few could have imagined what the question has evolved into now: Is Williams ready to take on an expanded role in the rushing game and add much-needed support in Tampa Bay's run for the NFC South title?
"To be honest with you, I'm really excited," Williams, 26, said this week. "As we all know, that's where the big tragedy happened. So me personally, I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be fun."
It certainly would have been hard to imagine a more dramatic scenario for his return to Bank of America Stadium. The Bucs are tied with the Panthers for the division lead at 9-3. Their feature back, Earnest Graham — the man who took over for Williams and excelled beyond all expectations — was lost last month with a knee injury of his own. And with a Monday Night Football audience watching, Williams could wind up sharing more of the spotlight and rushing load with ever-elusive 12-year veteran Warrick Dunn, running well in his starting role.
"I think this place can kind of put to rest all the whisperers and doubters, and get everybody back on the bandwagon," he added. "What better place to do it than Carolina? It's going to be a great football game."
Williams' confidence has grown markedly in the past two weeks. He made his official return to action Nov. 23 in Detroit, carrying 16 times for 27 yards but more important learning that his rebuilt knee could take a pounding again.
Last week he electrified the home crowd with an 8-yard touchdown burst against the Saints in a 23-20 win, rekindling memories of his 2005 rookie season when he gained 1,178 yards on 290 carries as the No. 5 overall pick out of Auburn. He ran with authority against the Saints, carrying four times for 20 yards.
"Looking back on it, we should have given him the ball a little bit more than we did Sunday," coach Jon Gruden said. "We're going to have to give him some more opportunities in the final month of the season. I think (Sunday) was another step for him. His confidence is growing and (scoring) was good for him. But we need to give him the ball more."
It's a stark contrast to his last game against Carolina, when he was running the ball with roughly three minutes left in the first half.
"I broke outside the safety (Cliff Harris)," Williams said. "… I'm toward the sideline and looking back to make a cut to score, and when I planted my right leg, it kind of just gave out and that's when he hit me at the top."
Nobody had to tell him it was bad: "I knew I was done. … The plane ride home is where I really felt all the knee pain. When I first did it, it was more emotional, me getting hurt. Once reality set in — okay, I got hurt and tore my knee up — that's when the (real) pain started coming."
Panthers coach John Fox remembers it well. "It was an ugly injury," he said. "I don't care if you see it playing somebody else, or you're playing it yourself, you don't want to ever see a player get hurt because it's a very long road … and only a tough-minded guy can do it. It's not just physically; it's mentally. So I think it's remarkable what he's done."
Williams said he's ready for the next step in the journey.
"I'm looking forward to getting involved with this offense to help this team reach its destination," he said. "I feel like with the God-given ability I have, I can. It's all on the coaches. I'm just sitting back, waiting my turn and just hoping for the best."