New Chargers receiver Mike Williams has been to the brink and back
The worst-case scenario flashed through Dabo Swinney’s mind as the Clemson coach watched star receiver Mike Williams get carted out of Memorial Stadium, his body strapped to a backboard and his neck in a cervical collar, in the 2015 season opener against Wofford College.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh man, this kid may not play again,’ ” Swinney said. “It was a scary moment for everybody, for sure.”
Fast-forward to Friday’s news conference at the StubHub Center, where the Chargers introduced Williams after selecting the 6-foot-4, 218-pounder with the seventh pick of the NFL draft.
Twenty months after a neck fracture ended Williams’ 2015 season, and 3 1/2 months after he capped a superb 2016 comeback by helping Clemson win a national championship, it’s clear that what didn’t kill Williams’ career made him stronger.
“Sometimes to truly be able to appreciate something, you almost have to be in jeopardy of losing it,” Swinney said in a phone interview. “That’s a sad reality, but sometimes that’s the way it is, whether it’s a family member, a job, or your health. I think it gave him a whole different perspective.
“Once we knew he’d be OK, he never pouted. He never complained. He went right back to work. Through that process, his maturity, his appreciation to practice, to be able to play, went to a higher level, and it showed all season. He was literally thankful to be able to compete again and to display his gifts. There’s no question it made him a better player, and it’s gonna pay off.”
Williams suffered the injury after leaping in the back of the end zone to snag a short touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson, getting shoved from behind and smacking his head into the padded part of the goal post as he fell to the ground.
Williams was transported by ambulance to a hospital, where an MRI test brought relief. The fracture would not require surgery. Williams would wear a neck brace for nine weeks and miss the rest of the season but would be able to play again.
Though not career-ending, the injury was career-altering. Williams was expected to enter last year’s draft; instead, after missing virtually all of 2015, the native of tiny Vance, S.C. (pop. 165) returned for 2016 and improved his NFL stock by catching 98 passes for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Williams said. “I came back to Clemson, got my degree, came out with a national championship. The injury showed me I can’t take anything for granted; the game can be taken away from me at any point. I took that as motivation, and it’s stuck with me since then.”
Williams, a high school basketball star who uses his strong hands, leaping ability and box-out skills to win aerial battles with defensive backs, had five games with 100 or more yards receiving last season, and a monster 15-catch, 202-yard effort against Pittsburgh.
He had six catches for 96 yards in the national semifinal win over Ohio State and eight receptions for 94 yards and a touchdown, including crucial catches of 26 and 24 yards on the Tigers’ final two drives, in the title game against Alabama.
“He shows up in big games, and that’s what you like about him,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “He has some size. He plays fast. I love the way he goes up and makes the catch on contested balls.”
Swinney said Williams is “the most complete” receiver he’s had in nine years at Clemson, one who combines the athleticism and ball-catching skills of former Tigers great DeAndre Hopkins, the explosive power and route-running ability of Sammy Watkins and the toughness of Jaron Brown.
Williams will give veteran quarterback Philip Rivers another target in a deep and talented receiving corps that includes Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Dontrelle Inman and Travis Benjamin.
“He’s very polished for a big guy, he’s got great flexibility, unbelievable body control and a high football IQ,” Swinney said. “I was texting Philip Rivers Thursday night, and I told him, ‘Enjoy your new toy.’
“Philip is gonna have an absolute blast throwing the ball to this guy. He’s an area-code receiver — you know, just get it in his area, and he’ll catch it.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna
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