The last time RB Cadillac Williams participated in a Wednesday practice was September 26, 2007
It feels like the end of a long and arduous journey, but Cadillac Williams calls it a beginning.
On Wednesday, one year and three weeks after he suffered a knee injury in Charlotte, Williams rejoined his Tampa Bay Buccaneer teammates on the practice field for the first time. Williams' injury was so severe that it not only ended his 2007 campaign after four games but also landed him on the Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform list to start the 2008 season.
Williams has spent the last 13 months working tirelessly to return from his mishap against the Carolina Panthers, and all of that effort is close to paying off in the best possible way. His return to practice is the first step towards restarting his promising NFL career, which is why Wednesday felt like a new start for the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year.
"This here is the beginning," said Williams. "The weeks will tell how I recover from practice and we'll see how it goes. It's not like I'm going to practice today and they're just going to throw me in on Sunday and hand me the ball. This is something we're going to carefully look at, but at the same time it's an exciting time for me."
Technically, Williams is still on the PUP list and no roster move was necessary to get him back to work. By letting him practice Wednesday, however, the Buccaneers started a 21-day clock ticking down to the point where a decision will need to be made. Before three weeks are up, the Bucs must decide whether to put Williams back on the 53-man roster or instead place him on injured reserve again.
Of course, Williams isn't even considering that second option. He said he feels close to being at full strength and hopes to use the coming weeks on the practice field to close that final gap.
"Like I was telling the trainers, I haven't been out there with different guys flying around and running at me," said Williams. "I'm still kind of excited to see how I react to that, making guys miss here and there.
"It really feels like my first day, like I'm at a starting point again, which I'm very excited about and looking forward to. It's going to be interesting."
Even if it takes Williams several weeks to get back into game action, his return has already energized his teammates. Though he has been isolated from the team's work during his rehab period, often running and cutting on one field while his teammates practiced on the next one, Williams has been around every day. The other Buccaneers have taken notice of how hard he has worked to overcome an injury that some referred to as potentially career-ending.
"It's awesome to see," said quarterback Jeff Garcia. "Cadillac Williams is a guy who's been through so much in his brief career, as far as injuries are concerned. He's a great player, great abilities. He's worked extremely hard to overcome the injury that he sustained last year. I think it's a great boost, a great lift for this team to see a guy like that come back, and that's not necessarily even knowing what capacity he'll have on the field with us. But him coming back and being out on the field, I think it's a boost for the running back position just energy level-wise. Those guys are doing a great job as it is and Rich Bisaccia is doing a great job coaching them. But to get a guy who has been their running mate for the last few years back on the field I think is a positive thing."
Wide receiver Michael Clayton is one of Williams' closer friends on the team, and both players have seen their fair share of adversity after an eye-opening rookie season. Clayton says Williams' reaction to that tough twist of fate last September has been impressive.
"We talk every day about the way to go about life, and just in case, we talk about [the fact] that you can get hurt at any time. To sustain an injury like that and to go through it mentally…everybody felt for him. But he did what he was supposed to do. He worked hard and he did extra work and got back into it. Just to see a guy rewarded for hard work feels good, and the whole team feels it."
Williams' hard work isn't over, and the tough road he has traveled hasn't quite reached its destination. But the ties to his team, to the game, that were severed along with his knee tendons last September have been repaired. His period of isolation is over, as of Wednesday, and it's time to take the next step. It feels like a first step.
"I tell a lot of people, you really just kind of feel useless," said Williams of his time in recovery. "The team's here and I'm doing my thing over there, so in a way you really don't feel like a part of the team, but then again you are. It's not a good feeling to have. I've been going to meetings but now I get to be on the practice field and watch guys fly around. That's the good part about it.
"It's been a long time, so just getting an opportunity to go out there and see how things go, I'm just excited right now."