The Return of No. 43
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — His heart was still racing long after the final whistle.
Photo by Dan Harker
Nathan Williams hadn’t felt that good in a long time. A really long time. It was almost a year ago to the day that Williams played in what could have been the final football game of his career.
Not just at Ohio State, but period. The kind of injury he had, not everyone comes back from. Many of the ones who do are never quite the same again. Some of the best athletes in the world have never made it back, so when Luke Fickell called his name Saturday, Williams knew better than to blink when he ran on to the field in front of 105,000 fans at Ohio Stadium.
“This is like a dream come true all over again for me to have another chance to play here at this stadium,” he said after the Buckeyes’ 56-10 win over Miami (Ohio).
“To play for (these fans), I wake up every morning looking forward to going to work just to make you guys happy. I’m not going to take it for granted.”
Williams almost walked away from the game altogether after last season. He felt alone and underappreciated after his injury went from something that might only sideline him for a couple of weeks to a potential career-threatener.
With everything going on around the program, there wasn’t much time for anyone to throw their arm around Williams and assure him everything was going to be OK. That didn’t stop him from giving everything he’s got to get back on the football field.
“For so many months, I was down and out,” he admitted Saturday.
“I was (working out) on a machine and icing my knee. Just being able to get out there and play and see the guys and the coaches and make them happy, it’s an unparalleled feeling I have right now.”
While there was always a hope Williams might be able to get back out there as a now-fifth-year senior with the Buckeyes, it was anything but a certainty. Even as recently as a couple of months ago, the doctors weren’t sure exactly when Williams might be able to resume football activities.
He missed all of spring practice and didn’t even begin jogging on the knee until June. He barely practiced during fall camp – at least not the kind of practice that would have indicated he was ready to play big time football again – but the doctors gave him a clean bill of health heading into the opener.
“I knew I would play, but I didn’t know how much or when,” said Williams, who thought he played around 20 plays, but said it felt more like 50 to his body after a year away.
Photo by Dan Harker
“I didn’t feel like I would play that much but the coaches believed in me. They were talking with me about how I felt. I can’t thank the coaches for having faith and confidence in me. When I go in and they call my number, I will not let them down. I just want to do my job.”
Even though he had been cleared by the doctors, Williams still had to pass a number of tests from Fickell and defensive line coach Mike Vrabel before the game to prove he was really ready to get back in the game.
“It was during pregame,” said Fickell, who served as Ohio State’s interim head coach a year ago.
“We weren’t sure exactly what he was going to do. We said we would take him out there and test him in pregame and see. We took him out there and were pleasantly surprised. The big thing is we’ll see how he feels tomorrow.”
Williams didn’t start the game Saturday, even with Ohio State holding starter Michael Bennett out of action because of a groin injury, but it wasn’t long before Fickell and Vrabel wanted to see what they could get from No. 43.
“I love Nate,” head coach Urban Meyer said.
“I love the fact that he is a warrior, that he loves Ohio State. That he's doing the best he can. And I like the fact that Coach Fickell and Coach Vrabel had enough confidence to get him in the game.
“He played more snaps than I thought he would. It must have made him feel good. He had a big smile on his face and we knocked the rust off of him. He hasn't practiced a whole lot. I'll let you know how he played on next week's press conference.”
One of Ohio State’s most dangerous defensive players two years ago, Williams finished Saturday’s game with just two tackles. The defensive line didn’t make a lot of plays against Miami’s quick passing attack, but Williams is still thinking about the one opportunity that got away.
“I expect a lot more. I expect to get that sack I didn’t get. My responsibility was to take him down and I didn’t do it,” Williams said after the game.
“If I had gotten him (down), I would have considered it that I was back. But I didn’t. My glove kind of slid over him. That’s no excuse. There won’t be any more of that. When I get a chance to get a quarterback, I’m going to take it.”
As if anyone would expect anything less after all he’s been through.
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