Kyle Williams was walking off the field a winner, regardless of the final score.
That the Buffalo Bills obliterated the Miami Dolphins, 42-17, on a damp and dreary Sunday afternoon in the season finale for both teams merely allowed his teammates to hold their heads high, as well.
A season that began with a blowout loss at Baltimore and slogged through four starting quarterbacks and double-digit defeats ended with a raucous party at New Era Field, as rookie Josh Allen threw three touchdowns, ran for two more and accounted for more than 300 yards of offense while leading the Bills to their sixth victory.
A swarming defense appropriately piled on, racking up four turnovers and four sacks on what was dubbed “Kyle Williams Day,” a celebration of the defensive tackle’s 13-year career after he begrudgingly publicly announced his retirement Friday.
Williams, admittedly out of his "comfort zone" as a result of all the attention, contributed on both sides of the ball. He recorded three tackles, including one for a loss. He lined up in the backfield on Allen’s first rushing touchdown. And he caught a nine-yard pass in the flat late in the fourth quarter, his first career reception sending the announced crowd of 67,420 fans and his teammates into a frenzy.
Safety Micah Hyde jumped into his arms.
Wide receiver Zay Jones sprinted to pick up the ball for safekeeping.
“Kyle is just one of those guys that everybody loves him,” Allen said, “so for us to go out and know what’s at stake, put forth our best effort, really play our best game all year, and it happened to be this game, I’m sure it’s pretty special for him. And it’s special for this team and this city to see how we played and how we wanted to play for him and to send him out the way that we did.
“He’ll be truly missed here.”
Chants of “Thank you, Kyle” rained from the stands, peppered with homemade signs showing love to the former fifth-round pick turned five-time Pro Bowler, who finished his career right where it started, with the franchise that drafted him out of LSU with the 134th overall selection in 2006.
Why has Buffalo embraced him like this? That’s easy.
“I think for the same way that I embraced it,” Williams said after the game, climbing to the podium not in a suit, but jeans and a pair of work boots. “For me, I wanted toughness and effort and attitude and all those things to be hallmarks of my career. And I think very early, the people here saw it or sensed it in me, and I sensed it in them, and when kindred spirits kind of come together, it’s a great match.”
Williams, 35, was never the biggest, nor the strongest, nor the fastest player on the field.
But he shared a story with his teammates on Saturday night, recalling a defining moment during his sophomore year of high school in Louisiana. It was career day, and his friend’s dad, an insurance salesman, was bragging about the 16-year-old’s on-field accomplishments.
Williams will never forget the response from his defensive coordinator, a history teacher at the school.
“ 'Yeah, he’s a good player. He’s a talented kid,' ” Williams recalled overhearing. “ 'But you know, if he worked as hard as he could all the time and played as hard as he could all the time, he’d be special.'
“And in a 20-second interaction in a doorway in Ruston High School changed the trajectory of my life. It changed my attitude, it changed my vision, it changed who I was. And I shared it with the team and the coaches last night and I told them, I said, ‘You never know what makes the difference.’ ”
Williams did not tell the coach the impact the interaction had on him until he was 15 years out of high school. When he did, during a visit to Ruston in the spring of 2017, he described the coach's words to him as a "calling card for the way I've played."
Williams’ wife, Jill, said it was his decision to retire, that the family would have supported him had he chose to continue playing.
But with their oldest of five children in middle school, she said, it was time.
Williams had watched too many of his kids’ T-ball games through FaceTime.
And he knew long before Friday's official announcement that this was the end.
“I think he’s known since the spring,” Jill said in the tunnel after the game, “but he committed to this year and then, I think it was around Thanksgiving, he kind of said, ‘I think it’s it.’ ”
Williams informed Bills coach Sean McDermott of his decision Monday, but he otherwise wanted to keep his pending retirement under wraps.
“He had a conversation with me and he didn’t want anybody else to know, in particular the team, until late in the week,” McDermott said, “because he didn’t want it to be a distraction to the team. He’s just a team guy through and through; really personifies what Buffalo is all about.”
The Bills pushed him to make a public announcement Friday.
“He would have rather the news just slipped out on Saturday and not have all this fanfare,” Jill said, “but it was fitting. It was very fitting.”
In his 183rd and final game for this franchise, Williams, at the direction of McDermott, was the last player to walk out of the tunnel during pregame introductions.
He soon realized that his wife, their children and his parents and sister were waiting for him at midfield.
“I couldn’t believe they were making me run out by myself,” Williams said. “I’ve used the word ‘grateful’ a few times this week, and those are my true feelings. Just really grateful for the opportunity of being here. And in that moment, I was grateful. And then I get past the goalposts and I see my family and I lost it. I’m fairly certain that’s the first time I’ve openly boo-hooed inside the cage of a football helmet.”
Kyle Williams runs onto New Era Field for the final time, and is greeted by his family 👏
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 30, 2018
Williams stood beside McDermott during the national anthem, trying to keep his emotions from spilling out. A camera zoomed in on his face, feeding the image to the giant video boards, above the Wall of Fame that will one day undoubtedly bear his name.
Highlights from his career and tributes from former teammates were broadcast during stoppages in play.
Most games played by a defensive tackle in Bills history.
Most tackles by an active defensive tackle in the NFL.
His 48.5 career sacks the most by a defensive tackle in franchise history.
Williams and his teammates, meanwhile, went to work.
Two of the team’s youngest players, rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and cornerback Tre’Davious White, ended the Dolphins’ first two possessions with interceptions.
Defensive end Shaq Lawson finished another, sacking Ryan Tannehill while Williams was occupying the attention of two Miami offensive linemen. Lawson added a strip sack in the second half, recording his first career multisack game, the fumble recovered by rookie defensive tackle Harrison Phillips.
Defensive end Trent Murphy also recovered a fumble, and Edmunds and veteran defensive end Jerry Hughes dropped Tannehill, as well.
“A famous line Kyle always says is: 'What did you promise your younger self you were going to do when you got to this stage?' ” Hughes said. “So it really resonates with a lot of us just because this is a dream for us all. He really pushes you to do the extra work, take the extra initiative so you can go out there and be great.”
At the two minute-warning, with the Bills in position to add to their considerable lead, McDermott had Allen kneel twice, turning the ball over on downs to get the defense back on the field.
Then the coach called a timeout, allowing Williams to enjoy a curtain call before subbing him out of the game to a standing ovation.
There were only two ways Williams’ career was ending with a victory.
Either the Bills would win the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history, or the regular season finale to conclude another disappointing season.
This storybook ending was grounded in reality.
The Bills have problems, particularly on offense, but a strong young core and the means to address those issues this offseason.
That hope, Williams said, made it difficult to walk away, as did the Bills fans who packed the first few rows of seats, ringed around the field long after the final whistle.
Williams, about to walk up the tunnel as a player one final time, instead reversed course and took a victory lap, acknowledging them all.
“We feel very blessed and just really fortunate to have 13 years here,” Jill said. “We absolutely love this city. It’s going to be a tough one to swallow, but we’re excited about what’s next. It’s not like we’re leaving.
"It’s see you soon, not goodbye.”