‘I didn’t sign up for that’

15 years ago, one hit changed his life. Now this former Alabama football player is suing the NCAA.

‘I didn’t sign up for that’

15 years ago, one hit changed his life. Now this former Alabama football player is suing the NCAA.
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Photos by Kevin D. Liles

They watched the same episode of “Sesame Street” four times. He fed his baby daughter lunch while pacing around the house. The midday sun ducked behind a rain cloud, dimming the living room into a sort of sepia tone, and Les Williams, feeling restless and a bit bored, pointed the remote at the television and put on football.

This was a regular activity on a regular afternoon in late April. Williams, a defensive end at Alabama in the early 2000s, never played in the NFL. But he and those of his generation who also fell short of a payday still have to deal with the consequences of hitting each other with their heads.

What’s left of Williams’s football career — constant headaches, memory loss, fits of depression, occasional rage — makes it hard for him to stay employed. He is instead a 37-year-old stay-at-home dad, taking care of 1-year-old Bailey and trying to sell self-invented products by phone while his wife, Arin, is at work. Most days, after watching Bailey’s favorite shows and playing with Bailey on the floor and rocking Bailey as she sucks formula out of a bottle, Williams circles back to the sport he loves to follow but hates for what he thinks it did to his brain.

He flipped on the University of Georgia’s annual spring game, which he recorded a week earlier and played several times since. He shook his head as a wide receiver lowered his helmet into a teammate’s. He winced, shutting his eyes for a second, as two players collided along the sideline. Then Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, two Georgia running backs soon headed for the NFL, popped onto the screen for a joint interview.

“Look at these two young guys,” Williams said. “They don’t know if there is anything wrong with their brains. They ain’t thinking that. They’re smiling, the ratings are great, everything is great. But what happens later? How are they going to turn out after all the hits they’ve taken?

“Nobody talks about what happens next.”

Williams is a stay-at-home dad who cares for his 1-year-old daughter, Bailey.
A fate he fears

So what happens next?

Williams was a four-year player at Alabama with an outside shot to make the NFL. He didn’t. He found a job. He quit. He started another job and quit that, too. He started having headaches. Constant headaches. He lashed out at random times and, for the first time in his life, it was hard to relate to bosses or co-workers or anyone, really. He was depressed. He married Arin and their family grew. He was out of work and, scared of his future, joined more than 100 former college players who are suing the NCAA.

The individually filed class-action lawsuits are consolidated in front of one judge in federal court in Chicago. Williams and the other former players are suing the NCAA for failing to educate and protect them from the risk of long-term brain damage resulting from repeated hits to the head. They are seeking compensation and reforms in how the organization treats past, present and future football players who suffer head injuries.

Les Williams's 2002 team photo. (University of Alabama)

These cases make up the first large group of concussion-related lawsuits against the NCAA. They come as the NCAA continues to be scrutinized for not compensating or protecting revenue-generating athletes, and also on the heels of it settling a lawsuit with the family of Greg Ploetz, a former University of Texas football player who claimed the NCAA was liable for his brain injuries and eventual death in 2015. Boston University researchers found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease known as CTE, in Ploetz’s brain. CTE also was found recently in the brain of Tyler Hilinski, 21, the Washington State quarterback who committed suicide in January.

“The issue of CTE among former college football players only receives a small fraction of the attention and coverage NFL players receive, and a small fraction of what college players deserve,” said Chris Nowinski, the founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “It doesn’t receive the spotlight for myriad reasons, including the fact that the individuals aren’t as famous.”

College football left Williams living in the in-between.

Like college players then and now, he was not paid to play. He was recruited by Alabama, Ohio State and Texas, among many other top programs, but is never recognized anymore. He is just old enough to have not been warned of the sport’s dangers, but young enough to see his possible future unfold on television and the Internet, with the stories of Aaron Hernandez and Junior Seau and Dave Duerson showing the fate he fears most.

“You mean to tell me that 20 years from now I could . . . ” Williams said before pausing as his eyes filled with tears. “Like I could kill myself, or my wife, or my kids? I didn’t sign up for that.”

The 2002-03 Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Williams wore number 48 throughout his career.
‘Not something we talked about’

More than 15 years later, Williams still calls it the hit.

It was one play in a career full of colliding helmets. But if he tries to trace his headaches back to where they began, the hit rushes into his brain all over again, at the center of Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2002, his chiseled 20-year-old frame draped in a No. 48 Alabama jersey, his legs pumping him straight at Southern Mississippi’s punter.

“I hit that boy so hard,” Williams said, and he shook his head before reenacting the play in his living room while Bailey crawled at his feet. By that point in Williams’s football career, it was normal to launch himself at vulnerable opponents. That is what he was told to do, he says now, as a Pop Warner player in Phoenix, a high school standout in Stone Mountain, Ga., and eventually a 6-foot-5, 216-pound defensive end at Alabama.

Williams grew up poor, eating bread and peanut butter for many dinners, so ramming himself against other teenagers felt like his best chance at a better future. So when that got him to Alabama, he never asked questions. He never complained to trainers. He did what he was told.

He remembers a summer workout drill early in his college career that ended with a helmet-to-helmet collision. An assistant coach told Williams he could hit harder. The next time the whistle blew, he sprinted at his teammate and flung his head into his face mask. Williams remembers losing vision in his left eye for about 30 seconds as that whole side of his body went numb. He did not tell coaches in fear of losing his spot on special teams or being labeled as “soft.”

Williams says he did not hear the word “concussion” until he was finished playing football.

“That never came up,” Williams said, adding that he and his teammates were not educated on the risks of long-term brain damage or safe-tackling techniques. “It was not something we knew about, it was not something we talked about.”

CTE, which cannot be diagnosed in living patients, can be caused by blows to the head that result in concussions and by the accumulation of subconcussive hits over a longer period. Williams believes he suffered a concussion on the hit against Southern Mississippi in September 2002.

He was mad at his position coach over his playing time and wanted to take his anger out. Southern Mississippi punter Mark Haulman fumbled a snap before taking off toward the first-down marker. Williams tracked Haulman until they were all alone on the sideline, and smashed his helmet into the side of the Haulman’s head.

Haulman flew out of bounds. The hit later made the Top 10 plays on “SportsCenter.” But Williams’s head rang as he jogged to the bench. Teammates smacked his helmet in celebration and fans showered him with cheers, yet the noise all blurred into a slow, monotone hum. Something wasn’t right.

“I knew I made a mistake the way that I hit him,” Williams said. “From that day forward, my life really hasn’t been the same.”

Williams at the line of scrimmage during a game against the University of Georgia in 2003. (University of Alabama)
Downward spiral

They had to write down all the reasons they were here, sitting in a marriage counseling office in early 2016.

Les and Arin Williams married in May 2015 on a white-sand beach off Florida’s Atlantic coast. They went to the same high school in Georgia, Les a year ahead of Arin, but did not connect until a mutual friend introduced them about six years ago. Les worked as an insurance agent for New York Life at the time. Arin conducted HIV research for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a job she still holds.

Their life felt perfect. Then it wasn’t.

Now Arin checked off the reasons they were in therapy less than a year after the wedding: their heated arguments, or Les’s sudden fits of anger, or Les’s inability to focus on their relationship. She glanced over at her husband’s sheet and saw five words: Suicidal thoughts in the past.

“He had not shared that with me,” said Arin, who said she was not speaking on behalf of her employer when interviewed for this story. “But I wasn’t really surprised after how I had seen him spiral into really dark places and be overcome with such sadness. It’s heartbreaking.”

A few months before that appointment, an Internet advertisement caught Arin’s attention. It was for a law firm in Fort Worth that was representing former college football players with medical issues that could be linked to CTE. The symptoms listed in the ad matched what Williams was dealing with, so Arin wrote the phone number down.

“You mean to tell me that 20 years from now I could … Like I could kill myself, or my wife, or my kids?”

Except Williams refused to reach out. In his mind, he did not need a lawyer or a doctor or a therapist to help him. He needed to find a job; he needed to stop being sad all the time; he needed to be a man.

But his issues had grown over the past several years and were now reaching the most important people in his life. The opportunity weighed on him until he was lying on their guest room floor one night, his face soaked in tears, his trembling voice repeating the same question while Arin sat close by: “What is wrong with me?”

Williams called the law firm the next day.

“The hard part is that these players have trouble linking their health issues to their careers,” said Vinny Circelli, the lawyer representing Williams in his case. “They were never told there could be a link, or a lot of them don’t want to believe it. They’re powerless, whether that’s by a lack of education or the football culture they played in.”

Circelli’s law firm is representing more than half of the former players suing the NCAA. The cases were also brought against a handful of individual conferences and colleges. (Williams is suing the Southeastern Conference in addition to the NCAA, but not Alabama because, Circelli said, he “loves his school” and does not find it responsible for his health issues.) Their lawyers plan to present evidence that the NCAA, which does not provide long-term health care for former athletes, had extensive knowledge of the long-term health risks associated with hits to the head that it did not relay to players. The plaintiffs are also suing the NCAA for breach of contract, insisting that it failed to care for players as promised in forms signed by athletes at the start of their careers.

Then-Alabama coach Mike Shula poses with Les Williams during the team’s Senior Banquet in 2004.
Williams is suing the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference but not his alma mater, Alabama, because, his lawyer said, he ‘loves his school.’
LEFT: Then-Alabama coach Mike Shula poses with Les Williams during the team’s Senior Banquet in 2004. RIGHT:Williams is suing the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference but not his alma mater, Alabama, because, his lawyer said, he ‘loves his school.’

Each individual case has the potential to be a class-action lawsuit if the class is approved by U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee, who is reviewing a handful of motions to dismiss filed by the NCAA’s lawyers that are expected to be decided in the coming weeks. That gives this concussion litigation the potential to reach thousands of former college football players. The proceedings are expected to pick up in the fall, a few months after the undisclosed Ploetz settlement, and as the NCAA faces questions of whether it should pay players who help generate millions of dollars in annual profit.

The NCAA did not respond to an interview request for this story. SEC officials declined to be interviewed through a spokesman, who said the conference does not comment on pending litigation. Alabama declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

“There was a good amount of concern from the NCAA with how the trial would have gone,” Michael McCann, a sports law professor at the University of New Hampshire, said of the Ploetz settlement. “These cases are coming and coming, with the class-action lawsuits potentially next, and it doesn’t seem like they are going to stop.”

“Does this continually get worse? Is there anything I can do about it? There isn’t. I just don’t want to burden my wife and kids. I just want to be me for as long as I can.”

In the two years since contacting Circelli, Williams has educated himself on the consequences of head injuries. He and Arin watched the movie “Concussion,” and she cried while looking at her husband stare into his potential future. Williams closely followed the Aaron Hernandez case, from the former NFL tight end’s murder conviction to him committing suicide in jail at age 27. Last summer, Williams read about the study that found CTE in 110 of 111 former NFL players’ brains donated for study.

He wishes he could go back and be a basketball player or a track runner or anything not involving football. He will never let his two sons, now 9 and 5, play organized football. Concussions, he now believes, have turned him into a spectator of his own life.

“I’m 37, so what the hell is going to happen when I’m 67?” Williams said. “How about when I’m 70? Does this continually get worse? Is there anything I can do about it? There isn’t. I just don’t want to burden my wife and kids. I just want to be me for as long as I can.”

Afternoon walks with Bailey bring Williams some relaxation.
Starts and stops

Williams shook three tablets of Motrin out of a white bottle, then a fourth, and then a fifth before popping the handful into his mouth and tossing his head back.

“They don’t work anymore,” he said in the kitchen on that same late-April afternoon. “I am so sick of taking these little orange pills.”

This is when he starts to get mad at his unemployment, at the headaches that come more frequently, at not knowing what happens next. He and Bailey, out of shows to watch and things to do, paced around the house for a while until they were ready to go outside.

Their daily walk through the neighborhood is Williams’s chance to relax. He relies on routine to combat depression and anger. He hums lullabies to Bailey. He points to his favorite houses while she blows spit bubbles onto her chin.

“That’s how I want my grass to look,” Williams said as he slowed in front of a three-car garage. “Arin supports our whole family, but when I start chipping in again that’s how our lawn is going to be.”

It was soon time to put Bailey down for a nap, get his youngest son from school and pick up dinner from Chipotle around the corner.

But first Williams had to sit down. He started to rub his bald head as soon as he and Bailey returned home. He winced as he folded his large frame onto the couch. He looked around the living room and drew a long breath.

“I feel another headache coming,” he said, and then he leaned back and closed his eyes.

Credits: Story by Jesse Dougherty. Photos by Kevin D. Liles. Designed by Brianna Schroer. Photo Editing by Brent Lewis.