Arkansas sophomore running back Rawleigh Williams III, the reigning regular season SEC leader in rushing yards, is retiring from football after sustaining a second neck injury; Williams made the announcement in a first-person account posted to the school’s athletic website.
Williams took a hit in the 15th spring practice on April 29, the final session on the Arkansas spring calendar. While it was by all accounts a normal defensive football play, the tackle was enough to re-aggravate a serious neck injury Williams suffered less than 18 months ago. The play in which Williams was injured can be viewed below:
In his retirement announcement, Williams wrote that unlike his first injury, the feeling in his hands returned soon after the hit; he still noted that “when they tested my hand strength I could squeeze, but it was really weak and I could barely feel it.” After discussing it with his family, the sophomore made the decision to walk away from the game while he still has the ability to do so, as he wrote in his farewell letter:
I’ve seen the replay. 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 latest injury follows a similar setback suffered in 2015, when Williams was dragged down by his facemask in an Oct. 24 game against Auburn. He was carted off the field and didn’t participate in tackle drills for 10 months. The then-freshman told Whole Hog Sports that he instantly lost feeling and control over his arms, and only started to regain feeling before he was set to undergo surgery. Per Williams, the disk between his C3 and C4 vertebrae—the midsection of one’s cervical spine—popped out, nearly touching his spine; the surgeon went in and screwed the disk back in place. Williams had to don a neck brace for the following seven months and sleep with his head kept in place by four pillows. Even after being cleared by doctors in the spring, head coach Bret Bielema held him out of tackling drills until the fall practice sessions.
The slow rehab process seemingly paid off come the 2016 season, when as a sophomore, a healthy Williams feasted on the SEC in what would be his final collegiate season.
His 1,326 regular-season rushing yards led the SEC, and he added 12 scores on the ground, one as a receiver, and even one as a passer. This past November, in a 58-42 shootout win against Mississippi State, Williams ravaged the Bulldogs defense for 208 rushing yards and four first-half rushing touchdowns. He also had a hand in the Razorbacks’ lone third-quarter score, completing a one-yard jump-pass to Austin Cantrell.
A month ago, the prevailing thought was that with Williams back, the Arkansas offense, while still lacking some of the necessary skill position pieces needed to improve upon its 7-6 2016 campaign, would be an entertaining watch. They’ll struggle to win games without Williams, but nobody can begrudge him for choosing to walk away from the game at this point.