Buffalo Bills safety Aaron Williams said it was “50-50” as to whether his football career was going to continue after the neck injury he suffered earlier this season.
Williams underwent surgery in early November to treat the injury, which he initially suffered in Week Two against the New England Patriots. While tackling Patriots receiver Julian Edelman near the goal line, Williams landed awkwardly and temporarily lost feeling in the left side of his body. He lay motionless on the Ralph Wilson Stadium turf for several minutes before being transported by ambulance to Erie County Medical Center.
“They were feeling my left side and I said I couldn’t feel that,” he recalled Thursday of his initial injury. “They just told me don’t move. Next thing I know I was on a stretcher.”
Williams sat out the Bills’ next two games, but returned in Week Five against Tennessee. He was reinjured on his first tackle of the game, but was curiously allowed to re-enter the game, eventually playing 60 of 69 defensive snaps.
“It was definitely tingling, it was definitely to where it was numb,” Williams said of his injury during the game against Tennessee. “I had a definitely numb feeling about all of the second half, but I’ve played with numbness before. It wasn’t something that I was really concerned about.
“It’s just the fight in me. You never know if it’s going to be your last game or not. I’m not really thinking of my health in the future. I was thinking in the moment. I told myself, ‘suck it up. You’ve been hurt before. You’ve played hurt before, so give everything you have.’ ”
Williams said team trainers required him to pass “a lot of tests,” before he was allowed to go back on the field against Tennessee, but admitted to being in “serious pain,” from some of the hits he took in the game.
The fact that Williams was able to finish that game with a neck injury that eventually required surgery should be of major concern. Williams, however, said team trainers were looking after his health.
“I just want to play,” he said. “That’s all it really came down to. At the same time, I’ve got to start looking for my health more than anything else.”
After he was reinjured, Williams faced a sobering reality: He would need surgery that could have possibly meant the end of his career.
“It was too real – to where I had to start thinking about what I wanted to do afterwards,” he said of that possibility, which he put at 50-50. “I didn’t think it would be coming, this time, this soon. … I kept a positive vibe, positive attitude toward it, had my family behind me. My friends, my teammates, they all had my back, always looked out for me, checked on me when I wasn’t around. … The relationships we all have, that really helped me get past this little injury I had.”
Williams said team trainers warned him the rehabilitation process from surgery would be deliberate.
“They made it real clear that they’re definitely going to have this slow process of me coming back,” he said. “I don’t like being too slow on things and I’m a little impatient, but with necks, you can’t take lightly, you’ve got to take serious. They did a great job of getting me back.”
Williams’ rehabilitation took a big step forward Thursday when he returned to the practice field. He won’t play Sunday against Philadelphia, and the outlook for the three remaining games after that is still up in the air, but Williams said just being able to practice again is a “huge step.”
“Coming from not feeling your whole left side to maybe not playing the game again to being able to move the neck, then being able to work out, and then have the opportunity to be out there on the field – it’s definitely an experience that I will never forget,” he said.
Williams made it clear there is still some uncertainty as to how his neck will react to the brutality of the NFL.
“It’s all about that first hit,” he said. “When that first hit gets done, that’s when I’ll know whether or not I should continue playing this game or it’s time to move on to a new chapter.
“With a neck injury it definitely opens your eyes a little more to realize how critical that kind of injury is. The neck and the head are injuries you never want to play with. Guys know me around here. They know I’d do anything to play. I’d have done anything to play the last few weeks, but they all know that sometimes you’ve got to look out for your future.”
Williams, who was cleared to practice Thursday morning, said he was able to do “pretty much everything,” including individual drills and scout-team work, although the Bills made sure he avoided contact.
“Honestly didn’t care what the heck I was doing, as long as I was going to be able to do something, help to contribute to the team somehow,” he said. “It just felt good to be back there with my teammates and run around a little bit.”
“Never been so excited to practice, but you know, being gone again for so long, you get that urge, that itch, to get back out there, and it just felt good.”
As for right now, his role is to just help his teammates get ready for Sunday’s game against the Eagles.
“We want to focus on Philadelphia and what I got to do to get those guys ready. Whatever happens next week, we’ll deal with it when that time comes,” he said. “I definitely want to go out there and contribute. I miss hearing the fans’ screams. I miss hearing The Ralph go crazy, but you know at this time, I’m happy where I’m at right now.”
By practicing Thursday, the Bills now have a 21-day window in which to activate Williams to the 53-man roster. If they take it up to the deadline and do so, he would be eligible to play in the season finale and postseason, if the Bills get there. If they choose not to, he would go on the season-ending injured reserve list.
“That type of injury, you are gonna make certain that he is 100 percent cleared and ready to go,” coach Rex Ryan said. “Not just cleared, but he’s ready to go. Even if you have to sit back and say ‘you know what, as much as we want him to play, we want to make sure that everything is … perfect before he every steps out there.’ This is part of the process where he goes out there, starts doing football conditioning and things.”
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore (shoulder), running back Karlos Williams (shoulder), linebacker Nigel Bradham (ankle) and cornerback Ron Brooks (concussion) did not practice Thursday, with Ryan saying “all those guys don’t look real good to play this week.”
Limited in practice were Aaron Williams (neck), guard John Miller (ankle), wide receiver Chris Hogan (knee) and tight end Charles Clay (knee). Full participants were right tackle Seantrel Henderson (illness) and defensive end Mario Williams (hand). Excluding Aaron Williams, all those players are expected to be ready to face the Eagles.
Ryan said the Bills may have eight offensive linemen active this week. There is a possibility Jordan Mills, who started last week in Henderson’s absence, does so again against Philadelphia.
“We’re getting our guys ready and this may be a game where we actually have eight offensive lineman up because we can,” Ryan said.