Former Buffalo Bills safety Aaron Williams officially retired from the NFL on Wednesday, doing so in an emotional letter he penned for The Players' Tribune.
Titled simply, "To Buffalo," Williams starts with an apology – for not taking his career seriously at the start.
"I came into this league with two things on my mind: money and fame. The way I saw it, I balled out at Texas, so it was a given that I was gonna ball out in the NFL, too," he wrote. "Easy money, right? So when I first came in, I didn’t work very hard. I didn’t watch film. I didn’t study.
"I pretty much made it through my first two seasons on straight athletic ability. Football wasn’t a priority. I was more concerned with what kind of car this guy was driving or what club that guy was posting up at. I was trying to live the NFL lifestyle you see on TV and in the movies."
The letter, which was posted Wednesday morning, was widely circulated on social media, with Bills fans applauding Williams for the raw honesty in his writing.
"The feedback has been amazing," Williams told The Buffalo News in a phone conversation Wednesday evening. "Everybody has been showing me so much love. It's definitely been really emotional, just going down memory lane."
Williams' letter, which is just over 4,000 words, goes in depth on how he turned around his career entering his third professional season. He credits former running back Fred Jackson, one of his best friends, for getting him more involved in community events, which gave him a greater appreciation for the team's fan base. One particular meeting with a young fan who told Williams that he looked up to him made a lasting impression.
"I finally started to understand what an incredible responsibility it was to play for this football team," he wrote.
His motivation for the letter, Williams explained Wednesday, was "to inspire people, to push people, to make them reach their goals. And to be a great role model."
"I didn't do any of that my first two years," he said. "If someone told me they wanted to be like me growing up, I would have been like, you're trippin'. "
With a renewed commitment to his craft, Williams' 2013 season was the best of his six-year career. He started 14 games, making 82 tackles, 11 passes defensed and four interceptions. He followed that up with 76 tackles, five passes defensed and one interception in 2014, starting another 14 games.
The Bills signed him to a four-year contract extension after that season, worth up to $26 million. Injuries, however, would soon derail what had become a promising career. The first of those came in Week 2 of the 2015 season, when he suffered a neck injury while making a diving tackle attempt against Patriots receiver Julian Edelman.
"Half my body felt like it was on fire. Then, that burning and tingling faded, and it turned into no feeling at all," Williams wrote of the injury. "I tried to get up – because you always get up, you know? You never wanna show weakness. But when I tried to roll over, only my right side moved. The trainers came out and told me to stay still. They were pinching my legs, pinching my arms, asking me if I could feel this, this, or this.
It wasn't until he had been taken off the field in an ambulance and arrived at a local hospital that feeling began to return to the left side of his body. Williams was actually back on the field just three weeks later, but he left a Week 5 win over Tennessee and was eventually placed on injured reserve. In his letter, he wrote about the surgery that he had to "shave down the vertebrae in my neck and give the nerves more space."
That allowed him to resume his career, but two more injuries would eventually end it. During training camp in 2016, Williams suffered a concussion after accidentally colliding with receiver Dez Lewis during a practice. The violent collision left those who witnessed it stunned silence, with Williams writing that it was the "loudest hit I’ve ever heard on a football field."
The moments after that collision, from when Williams broke down in the team’s training room in front of a group that included owner Terry Pegula to when he returned from the hospital and dealt with the overwhelming loneliness that came from sitting in a dark dorm room is a painful look at the less glamorous side of the NFL.
“My story kind of shows the reality of what happens in the business of football,” he said. “Everybody wants to be in my position, but nobody knows what comes with it, so I wanted to shed some light on what happens.”
After having neck surgery, Williams returned to the field in 2016, but again suffered a neck injury on a devastating, blind-side hit delivered by Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry in Week 7.
"Now, you want my honest opinion about the hit? I feel like it was unnecessary. He didn’t have to hit me in the chin like he did," Williams wrote. But You know what? I remember when I was a little kid, I used to watch that segment they had on ESPN with all the big hits – Jacked Up! or whatever it was called. You probably remember it. I used to replay those hits on YouTube like crazy. And a lot of those hits were like the one Landry laid on me. So I can’t be a hypocrite. I glorified that kind of hit myself growing up. Football’s a violent game. Stuff happens. I got no ill will towards Landry."
Williams was released by the Bills following the 2016 season. He mentioned in his letter that he had three tryouts in 2017 – with the Texans, Jaguars and Chiefs – but none of those teams would clear him because of his history of head and neck injuries. When a self-imposed deadline of finding a new team by Dec. 31, 2017, passed, Williams knew it was time to officially retire.
"Honestly, I haven’t found the answer yet," he wrote of what he'll do next. "It’s all just still so new. All I know is, I’m never going to play another down in the NFL. And that hurts, for a lot of reasons. But when I think about those first two years in Buffalo — those wasted years when I was just a young punk who didn’t get it — man … it hurts a lot more."
Williams ends his letter thanking those who helped him in his life and career, saving his last words for Bills fans.
"Thank you, Bills Mafia," he wrote. "Because I was born in California and raised in Texas. But Buffalo will always be the place where I grew up – where I became a man. No matter what comes next or where the next chapter of my life takes me, we’ll always have that. And I wouldn’t have it any other way."
"I really do have a lot of respect and love for the city of Buffalo," Williams said Wednesday.