College football: Williams finds role in Va. Tech backfield after injuries
BLACKSBURG -- All of the emotional phone calls with her son and daily reminders of just how challenging his rehabilitation was didn't compare to the times Tracey Williams actually would see her youngest baby nearly every other weekend in Blacksburg.
Those visits over the last two fall and winter seasons were when it was the hardest for Tracey and Marshawn Williams. That's when it hit home for Marshawn, a Tech redshirt sophomore who graduated from Phoebus High, that he was facing an uphill climb to get back on the field after having two surgeries to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and other damage in his left knee -- a journey that lasted 22 months.
"For him, it was like, 'This is all I know. Playing football is what I want to do,'" Tracey said. "It was a big deal for him, because in high school, he didn't really have an injury that was debilitating. This one was hard."
He's back, running 15 times as a backup tailback for a team-high 81 yards Saturday in Tech's 49-0 win against Boston College. With the lengthy rehab finally behind him, and a chance to possibly take another step forward Saturday against East Carolina (2-1), it all seems like a blur.
"You said 22 months?" Marshawn said Monday. "I didn't even know how long it was.
"There were a lot of early mornings involved. It was a lot of being with my team, and talking with them and talking with my family and trying to just keep me into it, because it's to a point where you came to college (for classes) and to play football. When one of those (is) taken away, it's kind of hard to just keep it all together, so yeah, there were low points and there were high points, but that's with anything."
Seeing Marshawn, who goes by the nickname "Juice," run again rekindled memories for Tech defensive tackle Ricky Walker, a Bethel graduate who played against Marshawn in high school. After running for 1,854 yards and 31 touchdowns for Hampton in his first three years of high school, Marshawn transferred for his senior year to Phoebus, where in 2013 he ran 265 times for 2,192 yards and 30 touchdowns.
"I was very excited," Walker said of watching him run against BC. "Just going back to high school days, Bethel-Phoebus games on Friday night, man. Just seeing him run, I had to stand up and say, 'Let's go, Juice. Let's go.' Brings back memories, man. I was proud of him."
Marshawn originally tore his ACL on Nov. 15, 2014, during his fifth carry in Tech's 17-16 win at Duke. It brought an abrupt conclusion to a freshman season in which he was second on the team with 475 rushing yards and four touchdowns on a team-high 124 carries.
He had 21 carries for 100 yards against Miami in the '14 season and 14 carries for 114 yards against Western Michigan.
He spent a lot of time in the spring and summer of 2015 rehabbing alongside Shai McKenzie, who also suffered a torn ACL as a freshman in the '14 season (his second torn ACL in his right knee in less than 12 months), but McKenzie returned last September to Tech's backfield in a limited capacity, playing in just two games.
"Me and Shai used to always compete in rehab," Marshawn said. "Some of our workouts were the same, so we'd see who could balance the longest or who would catch the most passes during the rehab thing. It was fun."
Last October, Marshawn still hadn't returned to action. He was getting back into playing shape and going through workouts when disaster struck again in his left knee.
"I re-injured it," Williams said. "I was making a cut. It was just like a strong cut, a jump cut. It just didn't hang with me, I guess. My ACL wasn't ready. It was the same injury again."
Going through nearly another full year of rehab wasn't part of his plan, but he had no choice. He was far more cautious his second time through rehab.
Don't underestimate the return of Marshawn Williams. Runs the ball like a savage and will wear down a defense, especially with VT's tempo.— Dwight Vick (@vick757) September 19, 2016
He struggled with his weight because of inactivity, gaining more than 20 pounds and topping out around 250 pounds. When he finally was able to exercise again, he dropped the weight in a hurry. Tech (2-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) lists him at 6 feet and 227 pounds.
"[My weight] got pretty high," Marshawn said. "It was up there, and that was a lot with just not being able to run around. As soon as I started being able to run down, I got right back down. Now I'm lower than I was playing freshman year, and I feel a lot better."
Tracey, her husband, Solomon Bassett, and Marshawn's five brothers, sisters and step-siblings formed the best support group Marshawn could find. Tracey said Bassett researched stories to share with Marshawn of NFL players who'd recovered from multiple knee injuries to play again. Tracey's role was to stay on Marshawn about icing his knee and keeping his left leg elevated.
"We wanted to let him know we were supporting him, and that things may not look as good as he wanted right now, but it's a process," Tracey said. "We were there almost every other weekend to keep him lifted. There were times when we were crying into the phone, and when we'd see each other, it was so much to deal with."
Marshawn was ready to play at the start of this season, but what he described Monday as an academic-related issue kept him out of the first two weeks.
"That was one of my low points," Marshawn said. "It wasn't anything crazy. It was just some things with my injury ... but it was just a quick little hurdle. It got solved."
Tech coach Justin Fuente was eager to see him get involved last Saturday against BC.
"I felt good about the way he played and the way he had prepared," said Fuente, adding he doesn't quite know yet how Marshawn will fit into the running back rotation along with Travon McMillian, Sam Rogers, D.J. Reid and McKenzie.
"This (August's) two-a-days was really the first chance I had to see him play and really felt like he was full strength and was pretty excited about him. Then, obviously, had a couple weeks there where we couldn't play him. So, I thought it was good that we got him a lot of work there at the end with the second group, because he needed to knock some of that rust off, and I didn't see any rust."
Marshawn said he never thought about transferring as he watched McMillian and Rogers establish themselves in Tech's backfield in his absence. After missing spring practices, Marshawn knew he was missing chances to prove himself to Fuente and the new coaching staff.
He's finally getting his shot.
"I don't know my role," Marshawn said. "I don't know how to really like judge myself or gauge what I do, but I mean, hopefully I can fit into the offense. I'm going to keep working to get there, and I'm going to see what happens."
This article was written by Norm Wood from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.