Six years ago, he fractured his neck. Now? Mike Williams is dominating.
Go Long chats with the Chargers wide receiver tearing through NFL secondaries. As Williams explains, one career-threatening injury is actually to thank.
It’s been six years but he refuses to forget the fact that his football career could have ended on Sept. 5, 2015.
That day, Mike Williams leapt for a catch in the back of the end zone against Wofford, dotted the “i” and awkwardly crashed into the base of the field goal post. It was a scary scene. Williams was strapped to a stretcher, carted off and — while he was able to raise a hand to the crowd — the Clemson wide receiver soon discovered he had fractured his neck.
The memory is not suppressed. Now in the NFL, Williams makes a point to remember the cryptic feeling of not knowing what came next as he was whisked away.
“It’s a big part of my life and my story,” Williams says. “And it’s a reason I’m here today. I feel like the game can be taken from you at any given time so every day, every workout, every time I step on this field, I get in the meeting rooms and try to give it 110 percent because I was so close to the game being taken away from me. I have to take advantage of every opportunity I get because I’ve experienced that feeling of not being able to play the game I love anymore.”
Now, this fifth pro season sure feels like a coronation for the Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver.
His star rises each week. With quarterback Justin Herbert and new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Williams is busting out as one of the best receivers in the game. He’s currently fifth in receiving yards (471), first in touchdowns (six) and eighth in receptions (31). With most of the country shouting “No! No! No!” as Herbert threw late at Kansas City, Williams’ two clutch catches on the game-winning drive were the difference.
And in last weekend’s 47-42 shootout win over the Browns, he hauled in 72- and 42-yard bombs for touchdowns.
The Chargers are no longer a fun team bound to implode. They’re legit Super Bowl contenders.
Williams, one of the nine players drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes in 2017, is a major reason why, too. An injury that should’ve ruined him only made him stronger. And defined him. And instilled a perspective he insists he’ll never lose. Throughout this conversation with Go Long, Williams is full of optimism and says this season is already becoming everything he ever dreamed of.
Up to 2021, Williams was mostly utilized as a jump-ball specialist, a secondary weapon.
Now, he’s featured.
“They said in the offseason how they were going to use me,” Williams says. “Just hearing it was a little different. I just wanted to see some action. Now, I’m seeing the action and it’s fun. They trust me to go out there, make plays and put the ball in my hands. So, I just have to continue doing what I’m doing and that’s playing fast, playing physical and making plays.”
Most people punching Williams into their fantasy lineups likely have no clue how fragile his future was upon smashing into that goal post.
Williams was transported to a hospital by ambulance, completely unsure what the MRI would reveal. The further up the spine players suffer an injury, of course, the worse the damage. And this was the neck. This could easily be career-ending for one of the best players in college football, a 21-year-old kid fresh off a sophomore season in which he caught 57 passes for 1,030 yards (18.1 avg.) with six touchdowns.
Backup quarterback Nick Schuessler remembers the air getting sucked out of the stadium that day. The angle at which Williams collided with that goal post was chilling. With a headset on, serving as the liaison between Deshaun Watson, the QB coach and the OC, Schuessler “could hear a pin drop.”
“It was extremely deflating,” Schuessler says. “At that point, Mike was our go-to guy. Unguardable, really. I just remember it being really quiet. One, you’re concerned for his safety. Any time it’s an injury with football, everybody has that ‘Oh, crap’ moment. But when it’s your best player as well, who the majority of your offense flows through, it sucks that much worse.”
The neck was, indeed, fractured.
For a while, Williams didn’t know what his future held. Some doctors told him the neck could heal on its own. Some doctors recommended surgery because if the neck did not heal correctly, one more hit could end his career. Or worse.
“I just had to make a decision,” Williams says, “and trust it.”
He decided to let the neck heal on its own and wear a neck brace for nine weeks. His 2015 season was over.
Into 2016, Williams absolutely was concerned about that first hit. But once he got blasted and popped back up, he insists he was fine. He sincerely stopped worrying about refracturing the neck and picked up exactly where he left off with a 98-catch, 1,361-yard, 11-touchdown junior season that culminated with a thrilling national title win over Alabama.
Williams has taken his fair share of licks in the pros, too, and hasn’t had any issues.
Still, the most haunting image in sports is that of a motionless, immobilized football player. Many don’t have feeling in their extremities. Some are forced to learn how to walk again. The slightest risk of this scene — an even scarier scene than his — could’ve persuaded Williams to give up the sport entirely. After all, he still had his whole life to live. This was no ACL or Achilles. Neck injuries are far more complicated.
Williams didn’t let his mind wander toward such doom because, while football presented such risk, football was also the key to giving everyone he loves a better life.
“For me, trying to get out of my situation from where I was from,” Williams says, “I felt like that was football. I felt like football was a ticket for — not just myself — but for my family, too. My family. My Mom. My sister. My stepdad. My brother. My grandparents. My aunts. My uncles. It was a big opportunity for us to change our lives. Through football. Through me. It was a big impact, not knowing if I’d play the game again.
“Now, we’re here. We’re doing what we love to do. So, I’m excited.”
Drive into Vance, S.C., and you’re greeted with a Home of Mike Williams sign. Here, he says, “everybody’s family” and that’s not much of an exaggeration with the town’s population hovering around 100. You’re bound to see your cousins, aunts, uncles. There are a couple stop lights and no malls, no big restaurants. (“There’s nothing to do,” Williams says bluntly.) As a kid, all Williams did was play sports “all the time.” Football, basketball, baseball, track.
Williams always presses on because he knows he can give everyone in Vance hope. He holds a summer camp back home each year and is also working on building a new facility for his youth football team.
Los Angeles, Calif., pop. 4 million, doesn’t feel like another planet to those back home now.
“I wanted to be an inspiration,” Williams says, “that you can make it out of Vance and take it to higher levels.”
Meanwhile, in L.A., he torches secondaries. With the Chargers driving late on Kansas City in Week 3 — the game tied at 24-24, with 32 seconds left — Herbert changed a run play to a fade and Williams plucked the ball above Mike Hughes’ head.
Says Williams: “Any situation like that in the red zone, one on one, I feel like I have a huge advantage. I think our fades, the percentage right now is pretty high. I thank the coaches to trust me and go up there to make a play on the ball. We just have to continue to get better and better every day.”
When you see Williams up close, Schuessler explains, you fully understand why the Chargers would risk a throw in that situation. The ex-Clemson QB says Williams possesses “freakishly long limbs” with a vertical leap that’s “unreal.” When a Watson injury once threw Schuessler into action against Syracuse, the backup remembers thinking he had to find No. 7… regardless of the coverage.
A subconscious thought became very conscious very quickly.
“Because it really didn’t matter,” Schuessler says. “We’d always say that when you’re throwing to Mike it’s not a 50-50 jump ball. It’s an 80-20 ball because eight times out of 10, he’s going to come down with the ball. Just because of his crazy combination of speed and his catch radius and making catches in traffic without losing focus. That’s what’s so crazy. These are routine plays I’ve seen him make 100 times. And in practice, he’s making them look like it’s a warmup. I think it’s a combination of the God-given abilities and just his makeup. He’s not rattled. It doesn’t matter who you put on top of him to try to cover him with — double-coverage, single-coverage — he’s super laidback, even-keeled, he’s going to handle his business.”
In Week 5, this total game was on display. The Browns had zero answer for the wide receiver on slant routes, stop routes, quick screens or the deep ball.
From afar, Schuessler wasn’t surprised. He never saw Williams drop a ball in a game back at Clemson. The only time Williams did in practice, he says, was if he was screwing around and trying to snatch a pass with one hand.
He compares his former teammate to DeAndre Hopkins.
“Everybody’s acting like he’s catching the NFL by storm when this is the Mike that everybody knows,” Schuessler says. “This is his normal. This is what was expected. This is the reality. You can’t double Keenan Allen because then you leave Mike Williams one on one.”
So, how do you defend this L.A. offense? Coordinators must respect Allen.
Allen remains one of the best route runners in the game, a four-time Pro Bowler who caught 403 balls from 2017-2020. Now, Austin Ekeler is the new “Alvin Kamara” in the scheme Lombardi brought west from New Orleans. He can run. He can catch. He may be the strongest pound-for-pound back in the NFL. And in one-on-one coverage, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Williams is now every bit unguardable as he was at Clemson.
It almost sounds blasphemous to say out loud but at least two teams may not regret passing on the Michael Jordan of the NFL. Granted, Mahomes took a bazooka to everything we thought about the quarterback position. The opinion here is that the Chiefs star remains the best player on the planet. But similar to the Buffalo Bills, these Chargers made out pretty damn well. The Bills traded out of that No. 10 pick, took Tre’Davious White in ‘17, then used their draft ammo to move up for Josh Allen in ‘18. The Chargers took Williams No. 7 overall ahead of Mahomes and, eventually, drafted Herbert in ‘20.
Now, both the Bills and Chargers have teams capable of slaying Goliath.
That touchdown at Arrowhead had to be extra sweet for Williams.
Yes, Mahomes has been revolutionizing football one no-look pass, one shortstop flick of the wrist at a time. And as Mahomes morphs his position into a blend of different sports, so does Williams.
Basketball was his first love.
“Without even me knowing,” Williams says, “I’m playing basketball out there on the football field. Whether it’s a release or posting up a defender and boxing him out to make a play on the ball. Attacking the ball is like grabbing a rebound. So, I put that in my play a little bit. I feel like it’s impacting my game tremendously.”
Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton has called plenty of Chargers games as a broadcaster, and was even the team’s wide receivers coach from 2002-2007. Initially, he says the team was using Williams in a “Malcolm Floyd role.” Like that longtime Charger, coaches sent Williams 40 yards downfield to catch a jump ball. Considering Williams’ neck fracture — “something you’d think is career-ending,” Lofton says — it was damn impressive to see a young player completely sacrifice his body on those plays.
This Chargers coaching staff realizes Williams can do much, much more.
“The more you throw to him,” Lofton says, “the more productive he’s going to be. I know that sounds corny. But, to me, he’s not just a deep threat. I think he’s an equally good intermediate route runner. He may not have the quickness of a guy who’s 6-foot, 185 pounds, but he can shield. If the defender is behind him, he has no chance. If the defender is in front of him, you can throw the ball up high and use his height to get the ball up over that defender.
“I look for size, speed, strength and skill. He certainly has size, great speed but he doesn’t have the short-area quickness of an Antonio Brown. But Antonio Brown doesn’t have his size and his wingspan. He’s got glue for hands.”
Asked if Williams is trending toward stardom, Lofton makes a comparison.
Typically, you’ve got to break onto the scene early to be billed a “star.” Exactly like Odell Beckham Jr. did with one of the greatest catches in pro football history. OBJ was larger than life his first three pro seasons. Since that meteoric rise? Beckham has inched closer… and closer… to anonymity. Meanwhile, Williams only gets better… and better… and better. Lines have crossed and, now, there’s a good chance most teams would rather have Williams.
The ratio Lofton looks for in receivers is whether they score one touchdown for every 10 receptions. Williams’ 23 touchdowns on 182 receptions is a sign, to him, that he needs the ball even more.
Expect more deep shots to come. Williams knows this is what separates him from everyone else.
“My size and how I can react and catch the deep ball,” he says. “That’s tough to do — track the ball in the air with a defender on your back.”
Of course, he’ll always cling to that Sept. 5, 2015 perspective.
Schuessler knew that was an ultra-traumatic time for Williams, but never noticed a change in his demeanor. Williams handled it all “gracefully,” he says. Williams never stopped joking and never stopped laughing with that neck brace on. And when ‘16 rolled around, Schuessler saw a player with a completely newfound love for the game.
One suddenly fighting for every possible yard on the field. One willing to lower his shoulder with the ball and smash cornerbacks as a blocker without the ball.
“You could tell he was playing with extra inspiration and appreciation,” Schuessler says. “Everything’s easy for Mike, right? It’s a lot harder than the way he made it look. But I do remember how positive and how enjoyable he was to be around — even at those super stressful moments.”
Unrestricted free agency is around the bend. Williams can’t help but laugh at the “perfect timing” for this production. As Lofton notes, Corey Davis was able to parlay a career season into a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the New York Jets. At this rate, Williams will earn a deal north of that. He’s currently listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens with a knee injury — and the Chargers will certainly need him. Even with a slew of players on injured reserve, the Ravens also enter this AFC showdown 4-1. Lofton’s mind is blown at how well the Ravens have played while signing “legends of the past” off the street to play running back.
“It’s like getting the old Temptations,” Lofton says, “and telling them, ‘We don’t have Bruno Mars but we’re going to throw the Temptations out there to entertain you.’”
Lamar Jackson has thrown the Ravens on his back. Everything runs through him in Baltimore.
Five games in, the Chargers are quickly realizing that their offense best runs through Herbert and Williams.
“I’ve shown I can make plays in tough situations. He trusts me,” Williams says. “And I trust him to put the ball up to me to make a play and make things happen. So I feel like the chemistry is pretty high. We trust each other to go out there and make plays. It doesn’t matter what situation it is. Whether it’s fourth and long. Whether it’s the end of the game and we need a play. I feel like we trust each other in this offense and we’ve got a lot of playmakers.
“As long as we continue to do what we need to do, it’s going to be tough for defenders to defend us.”
Williams will always appreciate every snap.
Schuessler knows he’s just getting started, too.
“If Mike’s not a Pro Bowler for the next five, seven, eight, 10 seasons, I’d be shocked,” he says. “He’s that dominant. And you love seeing him do that on a professional scale like this.
“As long as Mike stays healthy, it makes football better.”