The sun was out, the air was chilly and Ryan Williams jogged a handful of yards at a time early Tuesday afternoon, catching looping passes from assistant athletic trainer Chad Cook as part of what has seemed to be his constant rehab.
It’s a lonely existence, especially this time of year. Only a handful of rehabbing players are around the facility, and few spend as much time there as Williams.
There is a reason for that. The former second-round draft pick hasn’t been the answer at running back, not after playing in just four games in his first two seasons because of serious injuries. His attitude is upbeat, even if the past has not been.
“I’ve got the label of damaged goods,” Williams admits.
“People can say what they want to say, feel how they feel,” Williams added. “I don’t want anybody on my side. I know they are going to talk, say what they will say, and that’s cool. I don’t need anybody on my side. I need all those doubters, I need all those haters.”
There is no bile in those comments. Instead, Williams smiles. “This is the happiest I’ve been in two years,” he says, because he has gotten right both physically and mentally as he tries – once again – to make his way in the NFL.
His rookie season was crushed after he ruptured his right patella tendon during the preseason. His second season ended after the fifth game when he suffered a coracoid process fracture to his left shoulder in St. Louis.
He’s missed more games than he ever thought he would and he doesn’t shy from the inevitable question about being worried about his spot on the roster.
“Who wouldn’t?” he says matter-of-factly.
But Williams still has a confidence he can be a factor, and a factor for the Cardinals. It doesn’t hurt that when new coach Bruce Arians was hired, before ever talking to Williams, Arians brought up his name speaking about the potential run game.
“I know Ryan can flat run the football -- I’m a Hokie,” said Arians, who like Williams played at Virginia Tech. “I know all about Ryan, and I love him.”
Those words found their way back to Williams, who also is hoping for – and counting on – the zone blocking scheme Arians has used in the past and a scheme Williams believes he is best within.
But, Williams said, “I have to show him, I have to prove to him that he’d be happy to say those words.”
The other part of Williams’ self-discovery came via a conversation with someone who is no longer around – former general manager Rod Graves. Last year, knowing Williams’ love for the late Walter Payton, Graves took some time to talk to Williams late one afternoon after the locker room had cleared out.
Williams remembered Graves coming to his locker – coincidentally, a few days before Williams hurt his shoulder – and pulling up a stool, loosening his tie and sitting there for almost a half-hour telling Williams stories about Payton working with the Bears back in the mid-1980s, when Graves was a Bears’ scout.
Graves told Williams stories about Payton working out 30 minutes before practice, getting up a sweat before his teammates even started. He told Williams about Payton’s leadership by example. The anecdotes resonated.
“I needed to grasp that to be the football player I needed to be,” Williams said.
Williams talks about where he is as a player, what he is returning from, and it’s hard not to notice he doesn’t even mention his shoulder injury. It’s about his knee and patella tendon, because that’s what Williams sees as the obstacle to rehab.
The shoulder, he said, will be fine. The other day, after Williams did one-legged hops right-footed onto a short stool, he said he hadn’t been able to do that as well last September even though he was playing in games. He gained just 164 yards on 58 carries (2.8 yards per attempt). If Williams sees his shoulder injury as anything, it was as a sign he wasn’t ready to play in the first place.
“My knee is the thing,” Williams said. “After you read about people with patella tendon injuries, you don’t read about them anymore.”
For the first time, Williams will be able to take part in a full minicamp. He is anxious to start the season, although he isn’t making any predictions. He joked that after all the talking he did last offseason during his rehab and comeback, no one wants to hear it anymore.
So he arrives at 8 a.m. almost every day for treatment and work. He waits for April to prove to Arians and the coaching staff he can still play and be a contributing member of the team. And he waits to show that even if he is damaged goods, he can be fixed.
“Most people get one chance,” Williams said. “This is my third chance. I don’t know how my stars are aligned to get three chances. But I finally know who I’m supposed to be.”