TAMPA — You look back today, and you realize all that was lost in a single moment.
It was three days after Christmas, and the Buccaneers had a final shot at making the playoffs. They were leading the Raiders 24-21, and the offense was on the move in the fourth quarter. Breaking loose into open field, Cadillac Williams scooted into Oakland territory on a 28-yard gain. And when he went down, a franchise went with him.
That was the moment Williams tore the patellar tendon in his left knee. For all practical purposes, it was also the final moment of Tampa Bay's season and, as it turned out, the end of an era. When Williams fell prone with his second major knee injury in 15 months, it was as if a team's final breath had been squeezed from its soul. And ownership seemed to agree.
Five plays later, the Bucs were trailing. Nine minutes later, they had lost the game. Three weeks later Jon Gruden would be fired and, four weeks after that, Derrick Brooks would be released.
"Just wasn't a good moment," Williams said Sunday, sitting in a leather chair in a meeting room at One Buc Place.
More than seven months have passed and Williams is still incredulous. The NFL may be a league of violence, and running back is the most destructive position on the field, but how does one man suffer two major knee injuries in a span of 63 carries? Emmitt Smith had more than 4,400 carries in his career without blowing a knee. Walter Payton had more than 3,800.
Yet there was Williams on the ground and shouting for all to hear. It wasn't pain he felt, although that would come later. It wasn't regret and it wasn't sadness. What Williams felt was something more akin to rage.
"When it happened, I was so p----d. My mind was running everywhere. I thought, 'Wow. Again? On the other knee?' " Williams said. "I didn't even know we lost the game until the players started coming in. Every player came in the room to check on me. They were all worried about me, and I'm like, 'We lost the game?' "
"With all that I've been through, all that's happened, I have to say I have a chip on my shoulder. I hear the naysayers. I hear everything. Man, it drives me."
You wouldn't know it to see him. Neither the injuries, nor the anger. Another surgery and another offseason later, Williams is back on the field in Bucs training camp, and he's flashing the same endearing smile you first saw when he was a rookie in 2005.
At 27, he's not much of a kid anymore. And it has been a few years since he has been a phenom. If a depth chart were drawn up today, he would likely be behind Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham at running back. And with Pro Bowl return specialist Clifton Smith all but guaranteed a roster spot, it makes for an awfully crowded backfield.
Especially for a running back with surgical scars on both of his knees.
But if coach Raheem Morris had any questions about Williams' desire or health, they were answered with a shoulder bump in the hallway outside of his office sometime in early June when Williams broached the subject of the Physically Unable to Perform list.
"I bumped his shoulder and I told him, 'Coach, look, I'm not doing PUP this year,' " Williams said. "He got this unsure look and says, 'Well I'm not the doctor, but okay.' I said, 'No, listen, I'm not doing PUP.' "
History is only somewhat reassuring for Williams. Not all injuries are created equal, and medical technology is more advanced, but backs with injuries to both knees have no guarantees. Gale Sayers returned from a right knee injury but retired two years later after a left knee injury. Same for Jamal Anderson. And, in somewhat different circumstances, Terrell Davis.
On the other hand, Terry Allen tore the ACLs in both of his knees and came back to have three 1,000-yard seasons in the 1990s. Frank Gore had two ACL injuries at the University of Miami and is now a star with the 49ers.
"I'm going to go with Cadillac right now," Morris said. "I'm betting on Cadillac."
Williams allows that he may not be the same player physically as he was in 2005, but he says he is still a better running back. That experience has taught him lessons on the field, and adversity has taught him much more in life.
"I have changed. It makes you sit down and reflect on life and see how blessed you are to play this game," Williams said. "I know a lot of guys — and I was one myself early on — take a lot of things for granted. I came storming into this league, I had a bright career ahead of me, I was blowing up. And then it all just went pffffft.
"Now I think, man, there's got to be some kind of daylight at the end of this tunnel. And that's why I'm on this journey; to get to that daylight."
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.