In this autumn of pain, Trent Williams has watched game film of a proud and stubborn 310-pound man attempting to play offensive tackle through a damaged right knee ligament, accompanied by a miserable deep bone bruise. Listen to Williams talk about that game film, and it almost sounds like he’s describing an out-of-body experience. He watches the man’s leg — his leg — plant in the grass and then give out. He doesn’t remember that happening.
“Every time that kneecap shifts to that certain spot, your body just shuts your leg down,” he said Sunday evening. “So I’m numb, but I’m watching plays on film where I’m planting, and my leg is giving out, and I’m not even noticing.”
According to Williams, there’s a chance that one of those times his leg gives out, his knee will buckle, putting major ligaments at risk. And that’s not even accounting for the pain, which he described rather vividly as he leaned back against his locker Sunday evening.
“Like somebody’s stabbing you in the knee,” he explained matter-of-factly. “Just think if you had a bruise in your arm, and somebody just kept punching that bruise for days and days and days on out. Eventually that bruise is gonna feel like you broke your arm. And that’s essentially what I’m dealing with.”
These are the sort of realities — along with his reduced effectiveness, and his sense that the injury was actually getting worse — that finally, finally forced Washington’s best player off the field on Sunday. As he watched from the sideline, his team — using a mismatched offensive line ultimately reduced to its fourth-string left tackle — got pushed around by the rival Cowboys in a 33-19 home loss.
His emotions? Pride in a ragtag group that probably had no business hanging around until the final minute. Helplessness that he couldn’t assist. (“It’s torture,” he said. “It’s torture.”) And some sort of complicated, deep-in-his-gut understanding that this wasn’t the day for him to numb up his battered knee yet again and trudge back on the field.
“Basically I let people think for me. Because if you let me make my own decision, I’m gonna be suiting up until they’ve basically got to replace my leg with another one,” Williams said. “I mean, I could be effective. I could go out there and I could play. But I wouldn’t be the Trent that you guys know, that you’ve watched for years before. You could see flashes of him, but I wouldn’t be at my all. [And] there comes a time where even numbing it up really doesn’t do the trick. It doesn’t get all the way numb anymore.”
Fun stuff, huh? And that’s without Williams even talking about the bone-on-bone sensation, and the way his kneecap “is gonna float around” until the medial patellofemoral ligament gets fixed.
Williams is, in some ways, an outlier in the world of pro football. He’s unusually blunt and honest about both his thoughts and his injuries. He’s introspective, but also willing share that quality with the strangers sticking recorders in his face. He’s okay punishing his body for some greater good, even in the dying days of lost seasons. He already set his current recovery back by playing through the knee injury earlier this month, because the Redskins needed him.
Now — facing a potential surgery that he admits is terrifying, with a six- to nine-month recovery time, and with his team still hovering near .500 and in desperate need of his help — he might be facing a weekly decision. Should he play through the pain? Should he take on the risks of further damage? Should he just wait, and hope for the best? Should he consider the horrifying prospect of getting surgery sooner rather than later, to make sure he’s healthy for the start of the 2018 season?
To an outsider, that might feel like the most logical choice, especially with this season already hanging by a thread. Common sense would almost certainly keep Williams out of next week’s game at Seattle. But common sense might have had him sit out the 49ers game a few weeks ago. Yet Washington’s dire left tackle situation instead forced him on the field, which he acknowledged made his injury worse.
“I hate sitting out, man, especially with the injury situation we’re looking at,” he said on Sunday. “Who knows, I could cut [the current] timeline short, or be forced to. And I’m all right with that. I just have to do what I’ve got to do.”
Williams is wrestling here not just with Washington’s 3-4 record, but with the way he’s imagined his legacy. He wants to be one of the all-time greats. He wants to play into his mid-30s. He’s 29 now, and “if I put [surgery] off for a couple more years, your body just don’t heal the same when you’re entering that third decade of life, so I’ve got to weigh that type of decision out, too,” he said.
But he also wants to help the Redskins, “and then sitting here watching games that I know I can help my team in some capacity, it’s tough, man; it’s tough,” he said.
“I’ve never been in a situation like this.”
Players grapple with such issues in all corners of every NFL locker room. Managing your health might be even thornier for fringe players clinging to their careers, who might not have a starting spot waiting for them if they take a breather. Williams isn’t asking for sympathy — “I’ve got comrades who are all dealing with something, so I don’t want too much attention drawn to my struggle,” he said — and he isn’t conceding anything about the rest of this season.
He’s still hoping that time off will get him back on the field this year, and that the inevitable surgery can be pushed into the future. He guessed it’s 50/50 that rest will improve the injury, and said there was only a small chance that his season is already over, saying “if I get the bruise to calm down, I’m gonna test it again for sure.”
But there’s nothing simple or obvious about this process, not when watching is torture and playing might as well be. The injury “runs my life right now,” Williams said. And yet the prospect of surgery, he said, is “like a black cloud hanging over my head.” He played through the pain “until I really just basically couldn’t bear it anymore.” And he also said “there’s not a second of the day that goes by where it’s not on my mind.”
So he will talk to doctors again on Monday and throughout the week, and they will reach a conclusion about his status as Sunday’s game approaches. Outside observers who care both about this elite player and the team’s long-term fortunes might want to drag Williams to the surgeon this week — discretion and valor and all that. But when you’re trying to balance your responsibilities as a teammate with your responsibilities to yourself, none of the options is appealing.
“For one time in my career, I can’t let my heart make the decision,” Williams said. “I’ve got to actually think this thing out.”
Summary: Cowboys 33, Redskins 19