Every team needs its rock.
Not just a leader. Not just an experienced veteran with wisdom to offer younger teammates.
Someone everyone can lean on. Players. Coaches. Management.
That's what Kyle Williams was to the Buffalo Bills.
It is hardly a coincidence that you saw him at the center of those celebratory locker-room scenes captured by the Bills' video crew. In good times and in bad, Williams was the one to bring everyone together, the one who gave the definitive word on where things were and where they were going.
Now, it is Williams who is going, into retirement after 13 NFL seasons, all with the Bills. He announced Friday that Sunday's season finale against the Miami Dolphins at New Era Field would be his final game.
The Bills are losing their rock.
"He's a class act," an emotional Sean McDermott said. "It's unusual to find a player that can stay at one organization through his entire career, and I think it really fits Kyle. I first became introduced to him at the Pro Bowl, I believe, in 2014 and have had a front-row seat the last couple of years to watch him, watch his habits, what he's been able to do inside the building, what he's been able to do outside the building.
"He's a guy that personifies what we want to be all about as Buffalo Bills. He really bleeds, not only red, but red, white and blue."
It was time, for sure. At 35, his body was beginning to show the effects of 182 career games, including 177 starts.
There was nothing easy about the way Williams played. He used his considerable power and remarkable quickness to win those nasty one-on-one skirmishes. He poured every ounce of blood, sweat and emotion into each play.
"I think one of my biggest fears has always been if I came back just to come back and play a year, and if I weren't able to hold up my end of the bargain," Williams said. "I've set a standard for myself, the way I want to compete, how productive I want to be, and if I were out there, dragging a leg around and not productive and obviously being an anchor to our team, I don't know that emotionally and in my mind I could handle that."
In 15 games this season, Williams had five sacks, third on the team behind the 6.5 of another 35-year-old veteran, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, and the six of defensive end Jerry Hughes. Those totals probably say more about the sad state of the Bills' overall pass rush than they do about Alexander and Williams, although it's impressive that the two oldest players on the roster have continued to find a way to remain relevant.
That speaks to a special quality required to last that long in the NFL and perform at a credible enough level to do so. That speaks to an understanding that the game is about so much more than natural talent. There has to be something on the inside that provides a driving force that pushes a tired and aching body through offseason workouts, training camp, preseason, regular season … and into another year to do it all over again.
Although he still could be a viable presence on the field, Williams decided he had done enough pushing. He accepted a $1 million pay cut, going from $6 million to $5 million, to stick around for the 2018 season. He might have had to take less money to remain for another year, but that likely didn't make more sense than stepping away and being as healthy as a retired football player can be for his wife and their five children.
"I watched way too many tee-ball and soccer games over FaceTime this spring, more so than ever," Williams said. "I have a daughter who is going to be 12 years old and I've been in training camp for a year of her life. And that's just training camp.
"I think, at the end of the day, it came down to the things that I say are most important to me, are they really the most important things or do I just say that because that's what everybody else says?"
At 6-foot-1 and 303 pounds, he defied the many doubters who said he wasn't large enough to succeed at the next level after his standout career at LSU. The Bills managed to pick him in the fifth round, 134th overall, and he proceeded to become one of their all-time draft steals.
Williams did that largely through overachievement, because he didn't know any other way to achieve.
"I think the main thing was I never cheated anybody a day, whether it's our fans, our owners, my teammates, " he said. "I literally gave all I had every day, whether it's practice, games, no matter what. I'm comfortable knowing that and moving forward here."
Williams got his one and only chance to play in the playoffs after last season. The images of him sharing the moment with his sons in the visitor's locker room after their victory at Miami and learning of Cincinnati's miraculous win at Baltimore to end the Bills' 17-year playoff drought were priceless. But on a 5-10 team that's at the front end of a rebuild that likely will keep it out of the postseason next year as well, there wasn't much point to sticking around and living with more growing pains.
Still, the Bills recognized Williams' intangibles. They appreciated the way he helped bring stability to an increasingly younger locker room.
Williams commanded the highest level of respect, because of his straight-forward, professional approach. He was a media go-to before and after games because he usually provided thoughtful answers to questions, seeing the big picture as well as the smaller one.
Teammates regularly sought him for guidance about football and life off the field. So did McDermott, who is still finding his way nearing the end of his second season as a head coach.
"You've heard me talk before about player-driven leadership, and that's highly important, that players can connect my message to the locker room," the coach said. "And he's done a great job of that. We need more Kyle Williamses, although they're hard to find. They only come around probably once in a lifetime.
"But he's been a special player, he's been a special person. I know the way he's served this community for a number of years, it's been fun to watch."
Those are the ingredients of a rock, something the Bills won't have after Sunday's game.
"We'll miss Kyle," McDermott said. "You can't replace a guy like Kyle. They come around once in a career. What we'll take from Kyle is all the great things and we'll embed them in what we do. It's been a great opportunity for our young players to watch.
"I've encouraged our young players to watch our older players, because before you know it, they'll be gone and what greater lesson, from a leadership standpoint, to learn than when it's led by example. And Kyle's done that for a number of years here."
The Bills have used free agency, with the addition of Star Lotulelei; the draft, with the selection of Harrison Phillips; and the waiver wire, with the claim of Jordan Phillips, to beef up the middle of their defense with an eye toward fortification in the post-Williams era. They will need to make more moves to address the front seven.
Whether they can find a new rock remains to be seen. They don't just appear. They are developed over a long period of withstanding the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows of each season. They handle the pressure and everything else that goes with playing in the NFL with class and grace and dignity.
They do what Kyle Williams did for 13 seasons.