That’s the question DeAngelo Williams has asked himself occasionally since this summer. First, it was the death of his mother, Sandra Hill, after her long fight with breast cancer.
When the season came and offered a chance to take Williams’ mind away from the pain of his loss, he dealt with more injuries than ever before during his nine-year NFL career.
In a rare moment of openness, the Carolina Panthers’ all-time leading rusher reflected on what 2014 has been like for him.
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“It’s definitely one of those seasons where you don’t like to take it back, but it’s a learning experience,” Williams said Wednesday. “Because not having to deal with this type of adversity throughout a season before, and in Year 9 you have that, it’s kind of one of those things where you sit back and look at it like, ‘What’s next? What’s next?’ What’s next, not in terms of injury but getting over whatever’s ailing.”
First it was his heart, then his hamstring and then his ankle. After starting in Carolina’s season-opening win against Tampa Bay, Williams’ hamstring tightened up on him and he missed the next two games.
When he returned against Baltimore in Week 4, Williams suffered a high ankle sprain during the second quarter. He wouldn’t get back on the playing field for five weeks.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. The night the Panthers flew back from Baltimore, Williams was in the training room getting treatment on his ankle, coach Ron Rivera said.
“It wears on him. DeAngelo’s a tough-minded guy who takes a lot of pride in his preparation and the way he does things,” Rivera said. “Not being able to prepare and play in certain parts of the season when he knows he could have helped us has been hard on him. And he’s struggled with that. He’s handled it like a pro.
“That’s who he is. But it’s been tough on him, I know.”
Williams, 31, has missed more games than he has played this season, which is uncommon for him. Aside from him sitting 12 games during 2010 season with a foot injury that landed him on injured reserve, Williams had missed just seven games since 2006.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “You come in and you try to stay healthy and do the right things. You do things outside of football like cold tub or hot tub or get treatments and maintenance work to keep the body going and healthy throughout the season. Unfortunately things happen on the field that are out of your control. You get back healthy and you get back out there and keep chipping at that wood.”
Williams, who has rushed 56 times for 198 yards this year, said he’s as healthy as he’s going to be considering the Panthers are 11 games into the season. And the Panthers will need him to show it during these final five games.
Carolina is 25th in the NFL in rushing offense with 96.4 yards per game. The Panthers’ 3.7 yards per rushing attempt is 27th in the league.
For an offense that’s predicated on time of possession and a two-running back personnel grouping, those statistics showcase the struggles of the backfield this season.
Not only has Williams missed time, but fellow running back Jonathan Stewart had to sit out three games with a knee injury. Fullback Mike Tolbert returned from the short-term injured reserve this week after missing eight games with a leg injury.
Rivera often says 100 rushing yards a game is one benchmark of a good offensive performance. Carolina has gained at least 100 rushing yards in seven games this season but has only one win in those games.
“We’ve been close, and the reason it is part of the benchmark is if you’re running the ball effectively early on, you’re controlling the clock, tempo and pace,” Rivera said. “It helps your defense as well. If you rush for 170, 180, (yards) that means you got to the point where at the end of the game where you wanted to run you could run. That’s what you want to be able to do.”
Williams believes the Panthers can get back to that this weekend against Minnesota. Wednesday was just the third time this season Williams has spoken to Charlotte media.
He spoke after the season-opening win against the Buccaneers, and he spoke on the Thursday leading up the loss at Baltimore.
It’s unclear why he hasn’t spoken to the media this season, and his remarks Wednesday came one week after the NFL fined Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch $100,000 for repeatedly refusing to address the media.
Throughout the season, Williams – through a team spokesman – has requested not to speak with the media about the death of his mother. Those close to him say the loss still affects him as he tries to focus on football.
In attempts to promote breast cancer awareness, Williams has dyed his dreadlocks pink twice, painted his toenails pink and regularly offers encouraging words on Twitter for those dealing with cancer.
“It’s a special season for him for a particular reason,” Tolbert said. “But he’s handling it to the best of his ability. He’s playing for a reason and you can really tell that this season.
“We’re brothers in that room, and regardless of what the situation is – like DeAngelo’s situation – we’re going to be here to support. We hold each other down.”