Kyle Williams hasn’t had any second thoughts about his decision to retire last December. Sure, it would have been a blast to be a part of the Buffalo Bills’ 5-2—soon to be 6-2—start on their way to a likely playoff berth. But the defensive tackle who earned six Pro Bowl invitations during his 13-year NFL career hasn’t once contemplated picking up the phone and asking Coach Sean McDermott for his old job back.
See, Williams is quite content where he is. The transformation from player to fan has gone as smoothly as he thought it would. Ten months after taking that victory lap around New Era Field a final time, Williams finds himself in a happy place. He knew back then it was the right time to call it a career and spend more time with his wife and their five kids, ranging in age from four to 13. And he made that decision fully aware of the football fun he was about to miss. He was convinced 2019 was going to be a launch season, given the mix of talented veterans and young players on Buffalo’s roster.
“I got to see how things were developing from inside that locker room and on the field every practice and every game, so this great start is hardly unexpected to me,’’ said Williams, who will headline the 30th Ben Giambrone Compeer Rochester Sports Luncheon on November 7 at the Joseph Floreano Riverside Convention Center. (Tickets still remain.) “But the timing was right for me, and I can honestly say there hasn’t been a moment when I’ve questioned my decision.”
Many athletes struggle with the transition from the arena to real life. Depression often sets in once the competition ends for good and the cheers grow silent. But that hasn’t been the case with Williams, who at age 36 is enjoying his post-playing days as he ponders his next career. He experienced closure and is ready to move on. Being able to leave the game on his own terms has made that journey easier.
“I was really blessed in that respect because the truth is that most guys are told by the game when to leave,’’ he said. “I’m probably among the one percent who spent 13 years in pro football and was able to leave while the getting was good. I think of my friend and longtime teammate, Eric Wood. He suffered that unexpected neck injury and couldn’t play again. He was forced to walk away several years before he wanted to. And, sadly, his situation is the norm rather than the exception.”
Williams also is at peace with his decision because he gave it his all, whether it was in the weight room or film room or on the field for practices and games.
“I have no regrets,’’ said the man who finished with 48 sacks, most in franchise history by a tackle. “I don’t look back and say, ‘Well, if only I had done this’ or ‘if only I had done that.’ That’s something I’ve tried to get across to guys I played with and the young guys just starting out. Don’t leave anything for chance. Give it your best every rep, so that when it’s over, you can look yourself in the mirror and say you didn’t cheat yourself or your teammates or your coaches.”
That all-out, all-the-time approach is one of the things that endeared Williams to Buffalo fans. They admired him even more because he never allowed the mediocrity around him to drag him down. Through 10 losing seasons and more coaches and roster makeovers than he cares to remember, Williams continued to play hard. Bills Mafia loved him for that, and he loved the passion they showed the team, particularly during the lean times. “Here’s this kid from Louisiana, who shows up back in 2006, and there’s an October snowstorm that dumps about two feet of snow on Orchard Park, and I get to the stadium for a game, and the fans are acting as if it’s 70 degrees,’’ Williams said. “And that can’t help but pump me and my teammates up. You’re looking at them, giving their all despite the snow and the losses, and you say to yourself, ‘Well, if they are going to give that kind of effort to support us, then I surely can give an honest effort, too.’ I recognized that passion in them not long after I showed up in Buffalo, and I think they saw it in me, too. We were kindred spirits. There are no accidents in life. That was where I was meant to be.”
Fortunately, for Williams, he didn’t have to leave the Bills cold turkey after last season. McDermott has had him mentor several young players during training camp and some regular-season practices. It’s been a way for the man who may become a coach someday to stay connected to the team. And it’s only reinforced those beliefs that something special is unfolding.
From his first conversation with McDermott before the 2017 season, he was convinced the Bills had finally hired the right head coach. And Williams’ interactions with Josh Allen during the quarterback’s rookie season a year later has him believing Buffalo has finally found a signal caller worthy of succeeding the legendary Jim Kelly. “A lot of people will talk about Josh’s physical skills—his great arm, his athleticism, his size—and that’s all impressive,’’ Williams said. “But the thing that struck me from the git-go was his leadership skill. Josh is a connector of people. People gravitate to him. He’s the type of guy who will go out of his way in the locker room to seek out the guys who might be introverts and get them involved, make them feel like vital parts of the whole.”
In that respect, he is similar to Williams, who became a beloved and trusted confidant in the Bills locker room. There’s another trait the former fifth-round pick from Louisiana State University shares with Allen: toughness. Though, like many, Williams hopes Josh will become more judicious about trying to run over defenders. “You are walking on a razor’s edge there, between being tough and being foolish,’’ he said. “Josh is a big, strong, fast athlete, and you want to make sure he utilizes those attributes wisely. There are times when a tough, physical play is called for, depending on the situation of the game. And there’s no question that when Josh is taking on someone to pick up a first down or a touchdown, that physicality can become infectious. His teammates on both sides of the ball will say, “Well, if he is willing to lay his body on the line, I can, too.’ But’s he’s got to be smart. Don’t put yourself in position to turn the ball over or get hurt.’’
There has been talk in recent weeks about how Tom Brady may be leaving the New England Patriots or even calling it quits after this season. Such talk, obviously, gets Bills fans stoked because Brady has owned Buffalo, and the NFL, for that matter, for nearly two decades. Williams, though, isn’t putting much stock into those rumors. “Tom’s still playing at such a high level at age 42, and the Patriots are undefeated and contending for yet another Super Bowl run,’’ he said. “I don’t know of anyone who loves the game and the competition more than Tom does. I don’t care if his contract is up or if his house in Boston is for sale. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Although done playing, Williams will be back on the field at New Era within the next few years, hearing the cheers once more. A space on the Wall of Fame will be reserved for this overachiever. He may have been born and bred in the Bayou, and continue to live there today, but we know and he knows better—Kyle Williams will always be a Buffalonian.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.