Trent Williams, the toughest man in the locker room, stammers. He sighs. He chooses his words carefully, as if picking fruit in an orchard. The Washington Redskins left tackle has spent the past three months fending off football's best pass rushers on one good leg, but he cannot block a simple, one-word layman's question.
His right knee is a wobbly footbridge at this point. With every athletic move, he's exacerbating risk. His kneecap is unstable and causing problems that he already knows will require a surgery and take at least five months of recovery. His team is 5-7 and clinging to its playoff hopes with a pinkie finger. Still, Williams persists.
He has heard the question so many times from so many people — family, friends, media, strangers — that his nervous laughter feels rehearsed.
"Everybody wants to know," he said.
His answer is always raw.
"Man, I don't know . . . man," Williams said. "I'm a competitor, man. These seasons are so . . . fleeting. You never know when one can be your last. You never know when this window closes. I just don't . . . for some reason, it's just in me, man. It's hard for me to quit on something. If there's any way I can continue to go, it's just hard for me to succumb to anything. I feel like, you know . . . I mean . . . I know that's probably not the best thing for me, but I feel like me being there for my team is the best thing for the team. So I guess, as a result, my needs are kind of taking a back seat just so I can be there for the guys who've been here for me.
"This is just me."
You should commend Williams for his grit and unselfishness. Courage is a word handed out too liberally in sports, but Williams can be appreciated for the modicum of courage it takes to compete through pain and with the understanding that he could further damage his knee.
But even he can tell you other words to describe his toughness: foolish, shortsighted, dangerous. He's 29. With his extraordinary athletic ability, he could play at a high level into his mid-30s if he avoids a devastating injury. In August 2015, Washington signed him to a five-year, $66 million contract extension that included $30 million guaranteed. He remains the team's most valuable long-term asset.
So, yeah, why? In terms of playoff contention, this is another lost season. Washington hasn't been mathematically eliminated from the postseason, but that's just a matter of time. And even if the injury-ravaged Redskins won their last four games and purchased enough voodoo to ruin the seasons of every wild-card contender ahead of them, do you really think their playoff appearance would result in more than a one-week vacation to lose to a superior opponent?
Williams's injury emphasizes one great conflict of football. We respect toughness and playing through pain in this sport, in all sports, but how thin is the line that separates fortitude and negligence? How can we celebrate Williams and lament the league's callous treatment of ailing retired players?
Why hasn't the team been more proactive in protecting perhaps its most important player, even if it means protecting him against himself?
The situation is complicated. It is full of hypocrisy and stubbornness. And admiration. Don't forget admiration.
"I've been blown away, pleasantly surprised, by just the mind-set and the attitude of my teammates," quarterback Kirk Cousins said when asked about the willingness of Williams, Morgan Moses and the entire battered offensive line to play through injuries. "I've talked about how I like the locker room. I like the culture. I like the resiliency. There is a little bit there. You can see it in the way guys are responding from what we have been through and the way they want to continue to go out there and fight."
Only the front office could stop Williams from trying to play. He has missed three games this season, but he keeps coming back. Usually, he plays well. He can see his limitations on film, but he also sees a solid left tackle, even on one leg. So he persists. Williams assumes that, when Washington is eliminated from contention, he will be forced to have a conversation with team President Bruce Allen and others about whether to call it a season and get surgery. If that's what the doctors and the team tell him to do, he will acquiesce. But as long as he has a choice, he will try to play.
In an interview Wednesday, he gave more details about his injury and potential surgery. It's possible, Williams said, that he could need nine months to recover. It means that, if he played the entire season, the worst-case scenario would be a return next October. If you assume that he wouldn't be immediately ready to play in a game, you can speculate that he could miss close to half of next season. It's a possibility that, even if small, should make Washington eager for Williams to have the surgery now to reduce the chances of losing him for a significant portion of 2018.
"Five months is on the low end for the recovery," Williams said. "That's the thing. There's two procedures under consideration. One is five to six months to recover. One is six to nine months. I really don't know which procedure it's going to be yet. I think I'll know soon after some more imaging and after we go with a doctor and see what they say."
Pressed for more details, Williams said: "It's definitely a patellar, kneecap tendon. It involves the MPFL [medial patellofemoral ligament]. They intend to take more pictures of it prior to surgery, but from the previous diagnosis, there is some cartilage degeneration, but it's from where the kneecap keeps rubbing against the same joint line. Right there, it has kind of rubbed it, bone on bone, but nowhere else. It's not a weight-bearing spot, so it isn't where I would have to require some kind of microfracture procedure. My knee is not blowing up on me or nothing like that."
Williams meant for the details to provide reassurance, but yikes, that sounds scary. Sure, it seems he will avoid the dreaded microfracture surgery that has ruined many careers, including the dominant 12-year run of his idol, Hall of Fame left tackle Walter Jones. But delaying surgery to play meaningless games against elite athletes seems silly. Williams knows that "everybody" thinks this.
"Anybody you can think of probably has given me the counter to my decision," he said. "I think about it all the time. I'm not sitting here acting like I don't. I'm not acting like I'm Macho Man and thinking nothing can happen to me. I think about day in and day out. But like I said, it's something in me. When I wake up in the morning, when I come in this locker room, something says — when they ask me, 'Trent, can you go?' — I'm thinking, '[Expletive]. I went last week. It felt the same. Yeah, I probably can go.'
"I just pray that God continues to take care of me when I step out on the field and that I can just, at least, leave the field in the same condition I stepped on. I know it's a risk, but we're risk-takers. It's what we do in this game. And I love to play the game. I love the game of football. It gives me peace. It puts me in the right state of mind."
Williams is too thoughtful to be crazy. He thinks he owes the game all of him, right now, no holding back for a future that isn't promised. This is what makes him great and perhaps unrelatable.
He persists. We look, cover our eyes and look again. His right knee braces for impact.