Rawleigh Williams III announced Monday on ArkansasRazorbacks.com what many Hog fans feared might be the case when they watched him carted off the field for the second time in three years with a neck injury on April 29.
Williams, a rising junior who led the SEC in rushing through the regular season in 2016, announced his decision to step away from football on the “Voices” platform of Arkansas’ athletics website.
“I’m moving onto the next chapter of my life,” Williams wrote. “It’s tough to not be able to play football anymore because I’ve been playing since I was four years old. It wasn’t something I wanted to do or planned on having to do so early. I’ve prayed, listened to my doctors, my parents and my gut.
“It still doesn’t seem real yet, but I really don’t have a choice. I’ve dodged the bullet twice. I realize that at the end of the day I want to live a normal life and be around my family.”
The play that will be Williams’ last was a routine run around the end, and the hit was a normal practice play by defensive end McTelvin “Sosa” Agim that was not meant to tackle Williams to the ground.
“I’ve seen the replay,” Williams wrote. “I saw a normal hit. That scared me. It shows me it doesn’t take a big hit at this point. Any little thing can trigger it. I also saw the reaction of my mom and my sister. That broke my heart. I can’t do this anymore. I want to be able to walk.”
The replay of the hit by the SEC Network showed Williams flexing his waist muscles in an attempt to set up, but he couldn’t. His arms were flayed out straight from his torso and were immobile.
Physicians initially described the injury as a stinger to Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who passed that diagnosis on to the media following practice.
A stinger is a pinched nerve in the neck that is very painful and causes weakness in the arms and often momentary paralysis.
A stinger is usually not a career-threatening injury, but Williams suffered a much more severe spinal-cord injury as a freshman on Oct. 24, 2015, in Arkansas’ 54-46 overtime victory over Auburn.
Williams absorbed a blow that fractured a disc in his neck on a running play that ended near the sideline. The injury came close to severing his spinal cord. Though his life was threatened by the injury, Williams made a strong recovery and returned to the game he loved.
Williams played every game last fall and totaled 1,360 yards for the season after a 35-24 loss to Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl.
Williams has an infectious smile and is well liked by his coaches and teammates as the statements released by Arkansas Media Relations attest.
“As a head coach you always remember the first meeting you have with all your recruits and how that first impression is made, Bielema, said. “Rawleigh was committed to another school, but after a visit with him and his father, I knew we had a chance.
“We said at the time that unique recruiting stories often lead to unique experiences in the years ahead and that has been no disappointment. Rawleigh handled his recruiting with maturity and class and that followed into his playing career.”
Bielema bragged on the running back from Dallas who not only excelled on the gridiron but also in the classroom.
“At Arkansas, not only does he have All-SEC academic success, but he also steps away as the reigning SEC regular season rushing leader,” Bielema said. “This next chapter in Rawleigh’s life will be filled with unlimited success in any career path or anyway of life he chooses. As a head coach I couldn’t be more excited to begin the next chapter with him and be there for him.”
Arkansas senior quarterback Austin Allen reflected on the type of teammate Williams was.
“Rawleigh is a guy that every team in college football wishes they could have on their team,” Allen said. “He’s hardworking, unselfish, determined and an all-around great teammate.”
Allen said Williams’ leadership would be missed as much as his on-the-field productivity.
“When your best player is also the one who treats others with respect, is the hardest working, and one of the best in the classroom, you know that guy is special,” Allen said. “That will be Rawleigh’s lasting legacy with this program. Just because his playing career is over doesn’t mean he won’t have an influence on all of us for his rest of his time at the University of Arkansas. He will be with us every step of the way through this upcoming season. We should all strive to do it the ‘Rawleigh Williams way’ because if we do that, the sky is the limit.”
Senior center Frank Ragnow was responsible for opening many holes for Williams the last two seasons. Ragnow respected Williams’s ability on the field, but enjoys his friendship even more.
“The term uncommon is something we use around football, but Rawleigh defines uncommon as a friend,” Ragnow said. “He is a guy in the locker room who everyone loves, always seems to be in a good mood, works extremely hard and is the same guy every day.”
Ragnow said Williams’ work ethic is inspirational to the other Razorbacks.
“He does everything the right way, and that is why it breaks my heart that this happened to him,” Ragnow said. “It is because of all of these traits I know he is going to thrive off the field as well. I’m going miss blocking for 22, aka the SEC leading rusher, but I know he’s going to be very successful and attack this stage of his life full speed.”
Arkansas sophomore running back Devwah Whaley steps into the starting tailback role for the Hogs. Whaley gained 602 yards on 110 carries for a 5.5 yard-per-carry average and scored three touchdowns as a 2016 freshman.
Maleek Williams, a 6-0, 230-pound freshman from Punta Gorda, Fla. graduated high school in December, and joined the Hogs for the spring semester. He received third-string carries during spring practice.
Arkansas made plans for Little Rock sophomore T.J. Hammonds (5-10, 197) to play running back and receiver this fall. He practiced mostly at receiver in spring workouts, but the loss of Williams III might have him line up more often at running back. Hammonds had 15 carries for 88 yards and one reception for 16 yards as a freshman.
Chase Hayden, a 5-9, 189-pound freshman from Collierville, Tenn., will join the team in August. Hayden was considered a four-star recruit.