Rawleigh Williams spent roughly a year and a half in Hog garb. During his 20 active games, he amassed 1,860 yards from scrimmage, racked up eight 100-yard rushing outings, amassed 13 total touchdowns, and even accounted for a 14th by tossing a nifty little one-yarder on a fourth-down gimmick play in a win at Mississippi State last fall.
That game in Starkville was the one that validated the coaching staff’s building confidence in the soft-spoken Dallas area product’s return from a harrowing neck injury in the four-overtime marathon win against Auburn a year earlier. He darted 72 yards for an easy six on the second snap and had nearly rolled up 200 yards by halftime. It was the banner showing in a surprising sophomore year full of them, one that seemed so unlikely after a couple of Tigers laid him out near the sideline in mid-October 2015.
With the Red-White scrimmage shelved this spring due to downpours in the area, Williams took an innocent-looking hit in the indoor, light-hitting drills and went prone again. The practice facility was hushed, but even if there had been 40,000-plus in the stands on a sunny day at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, the sickening quiet would have prevailed there, too. It isn’t just that Williams was down again, mostly motionless, but that it had such a seemingly innocuous way about it. He took a pop, went down, didn’t get up, and the entire coaching staff and Williams’ mother hastily made their way toward him.
You knew it was over then, even if you didn’t want to accept it. Williams was extraordinarily durable during his All-SEC campaign of 2016, averaging just shy of 20 carries per outing and never logging less than 12 in a game despite all the well-founded concerns about his health and the presence of true freshman sensation Devwah Whaley threatening Williams’ sudden status as bellcow. He took some decent licks over the 13-game slate and never looked worse for the wear. It was easy to feel that false assurance that he was going to not only fully bounce back from that first scare, but that the whole achingly uncomfortable scene couldn’t and wouldn’t ever repeat itself.
Then you remember that neck injuries are another animal altogether. Madre Hill wrecked his knees so badly that he missed two whole years before reemerging as a vital backfield cog on the 1998 team, even if he ended up sharing carries with Chrys Chukwuma. In early 2000, Cedric Cobbs’ shoulder took a season-ending blow against Alabama, and he spent the next two years battling ailments and disciplinary issues before closing out his checkered career in style with a 1,000-yard 2003 season. Darren McFadden and Peyton Hillis withstood all manner of contact in the mid-2000s, missed some totes here and there, but always ended up back on the field when it mattered. Jonathan Williams’ foot robbed him of his entire final campaign but he got drafted and finds himself healthy and ready to compete for carries in Buffalo this fall.
Those guys were never, to be fair, in the kind of danger that Williams always entertained every time he touched the ball after that fateful hit against Auburn. Knee and leg issues be damned, Hill and Cobbs weren’t going to face the risk of paralysis when they went back onto the field.
That makes Williams’ effective retirement by way of a well-penned personal note, posted today at arkansasrazorbacks.com, even more poignant. A 20-year-old man with professional aspirations had to put that dream to rest today, publicly and painfully, for an entire state and region to digest. He’s going to spend this fall watching Whaley and others carry the ball in his stead.
For as tragic as that may initially strike you, consider this: that same 20-year-old faced his mortality, athletically and otherwise, and met it with aplomb and dignity. There have been people twice his age or greater who actively, aggressively dumbed down the Arkansas Legislature since Williams stepped foot on the Fayetteville campus by firing off incendiary Tweets, pontificating and grandstanding on YouTube, pawning off orphaned kids to be sexually assaulted, or committing outright criminal fraud.
Today is not a day to lament a young football star’s premature exit from the sport. It’s a day to celebrate a man showing perspective, humility, and grace in a state that often seems bereft of it.
Thank you, Mr. Williams.