FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Rawleigh Williams was well on his way to becoming another top running back for Arkansas coach Bret Bielema a year ago, right up until the point he couldn’t move.
A lightning-quick grab of Williams’ facemask by Auburn defender Kris Frost was all it took to jerk Williams neck to the side and send the freshman to the ground in Razorback Stadium last October. He temporarily lost feeling in his extremities and his teammates and fans were left in a hushed shock.
Williams was carted off the field that afternoon, headed for emergency surgery that night. And while his future away from football was the primary concern at that moment, his once-promising on-the-field prospects appeared dim.
“When I heard the word(s) ‘broken neck,’ I thought it was over,” Bielema said.
Thankfully for Williams, his way of life wasn’t drastically altered that day. And somewhat surprisingly, neither was his football career — which the 5-foot-10, 223-pound speedster will resume when Arkansas hosts Louisiana Tech to open the season on Saturday.
“I’m not nervous at all,” Williams said. “I’m just really excited. That’s what I came here to do, and I get to do it again.”
Williams’ return to the football field began in the spring, following surgery and weeks in a neck brace. It also came only after multiple doctors assured Williams, his parents and Bielema that he was at no additional risk of injury.
That’s not to say, though, that the decision to allow Williams to return was an easy one — particularly for his parents, who were in attendance when the running back was injured against Auburn.
“My mom and my dad, they both care about me as a person,” Williams said. “They want me to be able to walk again at the end of the day. So, when everything was going on, we didn’t know how it was going to turn out. … I always wanted to come back, but I wanted to be able to walk again at the end of the day. And if that proof (from doctors) wasn’t there, I would have had to reevaluate. But thank God that it was.”
The Razorbacks eased Williams back into action with a non-contact spring, though occasionally the fearless running back would seek out a blitzing defender to block.
Still, he was watched carefully by first-year running backs coach Reggie Mitchell, who took particular care to balance Williams’ love for football with the concerns any parent would have for their child following such a traumatic injury.
“One of the first questions I asked Rawleigh was, ‘Why are you coming back?'” Mitchell said. “The answer he gave me was that he loves football and he doesn’t need football to validate himself … I think the injury helped him put life in perspective.”
Williams has looked every bit like the player who averaged 4.5 yards per carry a year ago during the preseason.
And his return comes at a time when the Razorbacks are in desperate need of playmakers in the backfield following the departures of running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams to the NFL.
Following an injury to Williams a year ago, Rawleigh Williams appeared on his way to becoming Collins’ primary partner in the Arkansas backfield — even rushing for 100 yards on 14 carries in a victory at Tennessee.
His coaches expect the sophomore to pick right up where he left off this season, with offensive coordinator Dan Enos saying he thinks Williams “can be an elite running back in (the Southeastern Conference).”
Williams believes that as well, just as he fully understands how fortunate he is to return to the game he loves.
“If I came overcome this, I can overcome anything,” Williams said.