Rawleigh Williams III sat on the edge of his hospital bed, fully clothed and staring straight ahead. Still adjusting to the neck brace that temporarily became part of his everyday attire, Williams couldn’t reach down to tie his shoes.
That’s what mommas are for, though. And you’d better believe that two days after the ordeal her family had experienced — one that only happens in football parents’ worst nightmares — Kim Williams’ maternal instinct had been shocked into the highest gear.
Maybe she and her husband would stay for an extra few days, just to make sure their oldest son, who they affectionately call “R.J.,” would be OK adjusting to his new normal.
Had they gathered all of his belongings?
Was he really planning on going back to class the next day?
Kim Williams was pretty certain, though, of one thing.
R.J. is a smart kid. This scholarship is nice, but he’s never really needed football. God is obviously presenting him with Plan B.
And then, as she laced up his sneakers, R.J. — his surgically repaired neck secured in place by that obtrusive brace — softly spoke up.
“Mom, I’m gonna play again,” he said.
“Excuse me?” Kim responded.
“If we get a second opinion, everything goes well and there are no risks, I’m definitely playing again,” he said.
“Well, we’ll talk about that later,” Kim said.
A little more than 10 months later, Rawleigh Williams III kept that vow. He carried the load last weekend in Arkansas’ 21-20 victory over Louisiana Tech to open the 2016 season. The sophomore running back plans to do it again Saturday evening at TCU — a campus located fewer than 50 miles from the Williams’ home in suburban Dallas.
It took time, but R.J.’s parents have finally made peace with their son’s decision to continue playing the violent game that could have put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“The first game was a challenge,” Kim said. “But getting through challenge, seeing him smile, seeing him happy and healthy … that was a big first step. It really gave us a sense of peace.”
A fortuitous last-minute decision
R.J.’s parents weren’t even supposed to be at the game on Oct. 24, 2015.
Their younger son, Brandon, also had a game that day in Dallas, so R.J. encouraged his mom and dad to forego the six-hour drive to Fayetteville, where Arkansas was hosting Auburn.
After learning that the Arkansas-Auburn game would kick off at 11 a.m., though, Rawleigh Jr. and Kim decided they could see both of their sons’ games. They would watch the Razorbacks, then hit the road back to Dallas in time to catch Brandon’s game that night.
But near the end of the third quarter in Fayetteville, Williams received a toss and ran around the right edge when Auburn’s Kris Frost reached out and tugged Williams’ face mask. Two other Tiger defenders drove their shoulders into Williams, bringing him to the ground on the Arkansas sideline.
All of a sudden, Williams couldn’t feel anything, but his body began to contort in strange, involuntary motions. The movement was such that Williams’ father, sitting in the stands, thought his son might be reaching for his ankle.
Before he knew it, Williams was being loaded onto a gurney, wheeled off the field with his neck immobilized and transported to the hospital.
Initial X-rays indicated that Williams might have just suffered a stinger, and he was starting to regain feeling in his extremities. But a surgeon at the hospital recommended an MRI, just to be safe.
It’s a good thing he did because the MRI revealed just how serious the injury actually was. Serious enough, in fact, that Williams was instantly rushed into surgery.
He spent the next six weeks in a neck brace. All the while, mom and dad remained pretty convinced that their oldest son was probably finished with football.
‘What do you say to that?’
At first, R.J. and his parents mostly avoided discussing his football future.
Let’s wait, his dad advised, until we can take the emotions out of it.
“We are your parents, and we want you to be healthy,” Rawleigh Jr. said. “You are a kid who just wants to play. We have to give this some time and let all of our emotions go away so we can make a rational decision.”
But as time passed, the neck brace came off and his surgeon began to say that he could play again, the uncomfortable discussion had to happen. R.J.’s arguments were bolstered by a second opinion from a Dallas spinal surgeon who repeated — virtually word for word — what the initial surgeon had said.
R.J. never got into any especially heated, angry arguments with his parents, according to everyone involved. But eventually, sometime around mid-January, the 19-year-old went to his mom and dad and told them his decision was made.
“He told me — in the most respectful way possible — that he was an adult, and he didn’t need my permission,” Kim recalled, “but that he would appreciate my support.
“I mean, what do you say to that?”
And once that decision was made, mom and dad pretty much let it go.
“I think he really values our opinion, but I didn’t want to push him so hard that he would doubt his decision,” Rawleigh Jr. said. “If he goes back out there, I don’t want it to be third-and-2 in the fourth quarter, 100 degrees on that field and we’re playing Alabama, and he’s doubting if he should be out there.
“Then he could really get hurt again, thinking, ‘Well, mom and dad did say I shouldn’t be here.’
“We don’t want that stuff kicking around in his head.”
A reassuring smile
Although he was cleared to participate fully in Arkansas’ spring practices, Hogs coach Bret Bielema put R.J. in a green, “no-contact” jersey, just to be safe and give him a little more time.
A side effect of that, though, was a little added comfort for mom and dad.
Summer workouts and fall camp — when R.J. went full-contact just like most of his teammates — went off without a hitch, and then came last Saturday.
Kim admits she was pretty squeamish when, late in the first quarter, R.J. took a handoff up the middle, cut to his left and barreled toward the goal line. He took a high shot from one Louisiana Tech defender just before landing in the end zone to score Arkansas’ first touchdown of the game.
“But when he jumped up and I could tell how happy he was,” she said, “I was OK.”
Kim was further reassured after she watched some online video of her son’s postgame interviews.
He flashed a bright smile throughout virtually the entire media session.
“There was just an overwhelming sense of pride and gratitude,” she said. “I’m just so proud of him and the man that he’s becoming.”
Rawleigh Jr., meanwhile, had noticed something a little different about his son since the injury, and the evidence for it is found in that big, joyful grin.
“I think this thing lightened him up some,” Rawleigh Jr. said. “He’s always just been so die-hard and serious, almost to the point where I’m like, ‘Man, relax and have some fun.’
“After the injury, I think he realized that he needs to live life and enjoy life.”