SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Early in Clemson’s 2015 season opener against Wofford, Mike Williams took a short touchdown pass over the middle and was shoved into the padded upright in the end zone. He crumpled to the ground, then was strapped carefully on his back to a cart and rushed to a hospital.
The diagnosis: a broken bone in his neck.
Fast forward almost 16 months and here is Williams back and better than ever. He could be the first receiver chosen in the NFL draft.
First, though, he has some unfinished business — the College Football Playoff experience that his scary injury a year ago caused him to miss. It begins with Saturday’s semifinal game against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
“Remarkable, just remarkable,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “You’re talking about probably the scariest thing that’s in the mind of any football player, that’s breaking your neck, and being close to potentially being paralyzed and never walking again. And he came back even better than he was before he got hurt.”
Williams said he never thought his career was over.
“Ever since the day I got hurt, the doctors always told me that I was going to be able to play again,” he said.
Tigers running back Wayne Gallman said Williams was running in the locker room within a couple of weeks of the injury.
“Yeah, that’s true,” Williams said somewhat sheepishly.
What he supposed to be doing that?
“I don’t think so,” he said, laughing, “but I’m here today, so I’m good.”
Had he played last year, he probably would be in the NFL now rather than gearing up for a college football title run.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “That’s one of the things I live by. Something happened, it happened for a reason. Maybe that was God just telling me to come back to college and get my degree.”
He did, in sociology.
Wearing a neck brace through the 2015 season, Williams still caught footballs from the passing machine. But mostly, he could only watch, and that was the hardest part.
“Just being away from the game that you love to play and watching your teammates have fun and you just can’t go out there and have fun with them,” he said. “After a while, I got used to it and surrounded myself with some good people that kept my spirit up.”
Williams learned there was improvement to be made just by watching, reading coverages, understanding how defenses might try to go at him.
His first time back at spring practice this year, he got a big test that scared the heck out of his coaches. He soared for a catch and came down hard on his back.
“I just popped right back up and was ready for the next play,” he said. “I wasn’t shying away from contact or anything like that. It’s a contact sport. Whether I was looking for it or not, it was going to happen regardless.”
Williams has added a few pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame, weighing 225.
He is the latest in an impressive list of Clemson receivers: DeAndre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant, Sammy Watkins chief among them.
“Nuk (Hopkins), the ultimate competitor but with great ball skills,” Elliott said. “Sammy was the freakish athlete and Martavis, I’d never seen a 6-5 athlete run as fast as he is. And you look at Mike, Mike can do a little bit of everything that all those guys have.”
This season, Williams has 84 catches for 1,171 yards and 10 touchdowns, an average of 13.9 yards per catch on a team loaded with other receiving talent. His first game back, against Auburn, Williams caught nine passes for 174 yards, one of five 100-yard receiving game for him this season. Against Pittsburgh, he had 15 catches for 202 yards.
Not bad for his second-favorite sport. He likes basketball better. He played four years in high school, winning a slam dunk contest as a junior, but recruiters wanted him for football.
It worked out.
“It’s no surprise for us,” quarterback Deshaun Watson said. “We know that’s Mike Williams. We knew that if he would have went out the full year last year and stayed healthy, he was going to be the first receiver off the board. But he had that adversity and came back and he’s doing the same thing that he was going to do last year. I feel like he’s the best one in the country.”