It was more courageous for Rawleigh Williams III to walk away than to keep playing
Rawleigh Williams III became one of my favorite football players Monday, and technically he’s not even a football player anymore.
Williams, the now former running back from Arkansas, announced his retirement from the game in a heartfelt letter posted at the school’s official website for athletics. Anybody who read it had to have been moved.
Originally a 3-star recruit from Dallas (Texas) Bishop Lynch High School for the class of 2015, Williams took over in the backfield last year for the departed Alex Collins — fresh off a 1,577-yard rushing performance — and somewhat unexpectedly finished third in the SEC in rushing with 1,360 yards for the Razorbacks.
But this is a collision sport if nothing else, and the sight of a motionless Williams on the turf a second time was once too many.
As a freshman right out of high school, Williams had his season cut short when he sustained a scary neck injury against Auburn. Even the most optimistic of Hogs fans wondered at the time if he would ever be the same.
Williams defied the odds in 2016, going over the century mark in seven of 13 games — including a career-high 205 yards at Mississippi State that included 4 touchdowns — and actually leading the conference in rushing at the conclusion of the regular season. Only when bowl games were complete did he drop to third.
Unfortunately, lightning struck Williams for the second time two Saturdays ago in the Arkansas Red-White Spring Game.
Running a routine off-tackle play to the left, Williams again failed to get up after the whistle. The hit he sustained was anything but vicious, too. As he wrote in his letter, it’s a play he’d run hundreds of times previously.
With Williams lying on the ground — on, no, not again — the air was sucked out of the Razorbacks indoor practice facility. He was carted off the field. His teammates fell to a knee, joined hands and prayed together. I cover this league for a living, and yet I don’t remember anything else happening that day in Fayetteville.
Thankfully, Williams was diagnosed with nothing more than a stinger, although he was taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure.
Now Williams has officially morphed from player to ex-player. Despite the fact that he was on the verge of a huge junior campaign and had a decent shot at a future in the NFL, he’s hanging up his spikes for good.
And Williams has forever won my respect as a result. The young man is 20 years old. He shouldn’t be “retired” from anything. Most most kids his age — especially those who play this game — feel more indestructible now than they ever will later on in life. But the 5-foot-10, 223-pounder is clearly fragile. He’s not taking any chances.
A lot of his contemporaries would’ve ignored all the signs and kept playing. Football makes up too much of their very existence.
However, from a young age, Williams was taught by his father to think about the game not just down on the field, but up in the box, as well. He doesn’t have to think to himself, What now? His path is more defined than ever.
While Williams was an All-SEC selection last season for what he did on the gridiron, he was also an Academic Honor Roll pick in the conference for his work in the classroom. A finance major — that’s a much tougher course load than, say, sport management — he’s prepared to trade in his helmet and shoulder pads for a suit and tie.
He may be losing his leading rusher, but coach Bret Bielema isn’t losing Williams. That bond goes beyond blocking and tackling:
“As a head coach, you always remember the first meeting you have with all your recruits and how that first impression is made. Rawleigh was committed to another school, but after a visit with him and his father, I knew we had a chance. We said at the time that unique recruiting stories often lead to unique experiences in the years ahead, and that has been no disappointment. Rawleigh handled his recruiting with maturity and class, and that followed into his playing career. At Arkansas, not only does he have All-SEC academic success, but he also steps away as the reigning SEC regular-season rushing leader. This next chapter in Rawleigh’s life will be filled with unlimited success in any career path or anyway of life he chooses. As a head coach, I couldn’t be more excited to begin the next chapter with him and be there for him.”
As far as the depth chart is concerned, rising sophomore Devwah Whaley is now the starter and has more than enough talent to thrive on the ground for the Hogs. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry last year as a freshman.
Nevertheless, this isn’t about football anymore. This is about life. Williams wants to live it to the fullest — even if the next act came prematurely — and it’s refreshing to know he doesn’t need an oblong ball tucked under his arm in order to do so. It took more courage for him to stop than it would have to continue:
“I’m moving onto the next chapter of my life. It’s tough to not be able to play football anymore because I’ve been playing since I was four years old. It wasn’t something I wanted to do or planned on having to do so early. I’ve prayed, listened to my doctors, my parents and my gut. It still doesn’t seem real yet, but I really don’t have a choice. I’ve dodged the bullet twice. I realize that at the end of the day I want to live a normal life and be around my family.”
Get fitted for that suit, Rawleigh. I’ll buy you a matching tie myself. You don’t have to worry about impermissible benefits anymore.