Clemson University

From fear to determination: Mike Williams’ journey back from a broken neck

Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams (7) during a practice at Scottsdale Community College in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams (7) during a practice at Scottsdale Community College in Scottsdale, Ariz. USA TODAY Sports

Mike Williams had never broken a bone in his body before breaking his neck last September.

His previous “injuries” included a jammed finger and twisted ankle. As he was being taken off the field at Death Valley on a stretcher after crashing into a goalpost, Williams’ initial reaction was fear.

His trepidation quickly turned to determination as he began his journey to get back to being one of the best receivers in college football.

Williams had to see a neck specialist weekly to make sure his neck was healing properly. He was told to be patient with the rehab process and not push himself early on, but from the time he was a small child, being active and playing sports was all he knew.

Williams grew up in Vance, a small town in Orangeburg with a population of about 170 people. Entertainment options are limited.

“There’s not really much to do. Go to the park and have fun,” Williams said. “I just played sports with my best friends. That’s basically the only thing to do. ... I played every sport: basketball, football, baseball. I had a big back yard. All of my friends would come over and play sports all day.”

When Williams was told that for the first time in his life he would have to sit and watch others play it was a tough pill to swallow. So tough that he tried to speed up the process of getting back on the field on his own.

“I was doing things that I wasn’t supposed to do. I was doing sit ups, pushups, neck rotations with my neck brace off, just trying to get better while nobody was looking,” Williams said. “I was just trying to get my neck better. That was the main thing. If I get my neck better I know everything else will be good.”

The initial timetable for Williams had him possibly returning for the College Football Playoff, but as the season wore on, Williams and the Clemson staff decided it would be best to sit out all of 2015 and return the following year.

While Williams slowly began to do more and more as far as running and catching passes, he still wasn’t on the field and able to play in games.

Still, he attended meetings and team activities and was intent on making sure that his time away from the field would not be wasted. Williams studied defenses and focused on the mental side of the game. He was determined that when he did return to the field he would not only be as good as ever but better.

“I felt like that was the main part of my game that I needed to improve in was reading coverages. That’s what I started to focus on,” Williams said. “I learned a lot while I was out.”

After watching from the sideline as Clemson fell short of winning the national title, Williams finally returned to the field full-go in the spring. Williams was confident he was fully healthy and said he was not thinking about his neck at all in his first practice back, but Clemson coaches and players were a bit nervous. Williams quickly put to rest any questions about whether or not he was fully healthy.

“I remember watching him dive for his first ball. He dove, hit, tumbled, rolled, and everybody just kind of held their breath. He pops right up,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “I knew then that he was going to be good.”

With his health good, Williams’ play was great once the season began. In Clemson’s opener at Auburn the junior caught nine passes for 174 yards, erasing any doubt that he was not still a difference maker.

Entering the College Football Playoff he has 84 receptions for 1,171 yards and 10 touchdowns, despite playing in an offense that likes to spread the ball around. Williams is considered to be almost a lock to go in the first round of April’s NFL draft.

Clemson has had a number of top wide receivers in recent years, including former No. 4 overall pick Sammy Watkins and 2015 Pro Bowler Nuk Hopkins, but Swinney believes Williams is the best of the group.

“I think he’s the most complete that we’ve had coming out,” Swinney said. “I think Mike is the biggest challenge (to defend) of all of them, because of his combination. He’s 225 pounds and can run and change direction. He can sink his hips, he’s got (Hopkins’) ball skills. He’s incredibly intelligent. He’s passionate about the ball, about his technique, and the discipline of route-running, like Sammy was. He’s a load. He’s going to be a great, great, great pro.”

Williams is honored to be mentioned alongside Watkins and Hopkins, players he idolized and models his game after.

“I played with Sammy. I seen every day how he worked and got better every day. It was good for me to see that,” Williams said. “I always looked up to Nuk. I felt like he was a great player here and a great player in the league. It’s good to be named with those guys.”

Williams is hoping to complete his comeback with two more victories and a national title. After sitting out last year’s playoff run, he is anxious to get his opportunity to shine on the biggest stage in college football.

“I wanted to be a part of this last year,” he said. “But just to get this opportunity to come out here this year and be a part of it, it’s a special moment.”