Joe Williams is the story of the year in college football. Not just in Utah. He is the story of the year in ALL of college football. Before you start shouting at me about Lamar Jackson or Chris Petersen’s coaching job, think about all of the nuances to this story. A Pennsylvania kid who took the long road to get to the University of Utah from high school, to prep school, to Uconn, to Juco, to Utah only to find himself pulling backup duty behind a future NFL back in Devontae Booker. Williams was hardly given any opportunities to show his speed until AFTER Booker got hurt. His own struggles with ball security were largely to blame, but the fact remains that the Utes rode Booker into the ground while Williams and his 4.35 speed sat in the bullpen. Hindsight is always 20/20, but even coach Whitt expressed regret about not balancing out the rotation more after Williams performed admirably in replacement of the injured Booker.
For the sake of the story, let’s say that it was actually the best thing for Joe to sit, and to learn, to fill that role and to be hungry when he was finally given the chance. After a couple of 100+ yard games, I think it’s safe to say that everybody in and around the Utah football program was optimistic about Joe’s ability to make a seamless transition into the role of feature back.
That’s not how I happened though, as we all know.
For reasons semi-unknown, Joe was not his best self at the start of the 2016 season. He was indecisive at the point of attack, tentative in traffic, sloppy in execution, and worst-of-all, his fumble-itis returned. Perhaps compounding all of these issues was a cadre of hungry and talented young running backs vying for time and carries behind him. Joe is no dummy, he surely saw guys like Moss, Shyne, and McCormick excelling in practice even as his own production dipped. That can be discouraging for anybody, but I would make an argument it’s especially hard on a guy who finally had his big chance and was having a hard time taking advantage of it.
We know what happened next. Joe shocked Utah coaches and fans with a decision to retire in his prime. Yes, his prime. Because even though he was not putting up great numbers and was hurting his team with fumbles, Joe Williams was still a 200+ lb Pac 12 back with NFL speed. He was always a guy who had this incredible ability we are now seeing on display. Whether it was fatigue, personal problems, nagging injuries, personal distractions, or some combination of these that prevented us from actually seeing those abilities in action is now irrelevant. For everyone except Joe and those closest to him, the decision was just something to discuss, wonder about, and even criticize. We all probably did Joe and the situation a disservice by trivializing whatever motivated him to walk away.
I won’t pretend to know what the conversation was like when Joe told his teammates and coaches he was leaving, but I have no doubt that the presence of the aforementioned young talent on the roster meant that nobody tried as hard to convince him to stay as they probably should have. We in the media shrugged it off because Moss and Shyne were performing better. We wrote Joe Williams off as old news. He had “proven” (in only 2 weeks) that he wasn’t who we thought he would be. On to the next one. In hindsight, we were obviously wrong. Joe was never done. He was never old news. Maybe he needed time away, maybe he needed a rest and a reset, but we were still wrong to act like he didn’t matter just because he didn’t matter on the field. I also think he was wrong for thinking he was done when clearly there was so much left in the tank. But that’s hindsight in action.
Now let me be clear, I am not pointing fingers. Nor am I crying for Joe Williams. He made his choice and the whole thing was handled by almost all parties with class and respect. The fact that he “quit” the team and was still welcome on the sidelines and such is a testament to just how deep the familial atmosphere in Kyle Whittingham’s program extends. What I am realizing myself, and hoping to shed light on, is the hasty nature of how we handle these situations on both sides.
Joe nearly robbed himself of the opportunities that he has had these last two weeks. Would he be fine in life without ever having come back? Of course. But there is real value in returning to the fold to help out your friends and the coaches who believed in you enough to give you a free education. There is certainly a lot to be said for tapping into the talent that you knew you had, and rekindling a belief in your own ability to succeed at something you’ve pursued for an entire lifetime. The fact that Joe put up some legendary performances is icing on the cake. The fact that he will be front and center as the top story when College Game Day rolls into town is icing on top of that icing. It’s a Cinderella story of the magnitude usually reserved for March only.
For most, there is a stark and stunning finality when your career is over. Joe Williams volunteered himself for an early encounter with that reality, and I have to bet that it was not as easy of pleasant as thought it might be. Joe got the exceedingly rare chance to walk that back. He rewarded his teammates and coaches for their renewed belief in him with massive contributions to a couple of crucial winning efforts. He went from forgotten man to Big-Man-on-Campus. Two weeks ago, he was a story about unrealized potential, today he is in the record books. In that same span, Joe Williams has gone from program footnote to savior. From curiosity to cornerstone. If Hollywood wrote this stuff, we wouldn’t believe it. In fact I can’t wait to see the Lifetime movie about it. Joe Williams is the greatest story of the year in college football.