David White

David White: Ex-Fresno State, Raiders linebacker Sam Williams lives with NFL hitting legacy

Sam Williams has been out of the NFL for two years. Try telling that to his throbbing temples and pounding forehead.

"I definitely still have symptoms," said Williams, a retired Raiders linebacker and former Fresno State standout. "Some days are better than others. Some days, the headaches will come. You go through the depression, but you just have to learn how to deal with it. Jeremiah 29:11, right? God's got a plan for you."

For Williams, that plan meant getting out of a concussive football career while he still had his lucid mind. After all, there would be a Drinkwear clothing line to launch, a Tackling the Odds youth foundation to run, and "Raiders Legends" community appearances to make for the only NFL organization he played for in his eight-year career.

Last week, Williams recorded "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis," a PBS "Frontline" documentary on the league's troubled history dealing with head injuries. He hasn't watched it yet, but is there really a need to, since he's been living it longer than he can remember?

"Concussions are why I chose to retire," Williams said from his Sacramento home. "I got my last one in training camp in 2011. It got to the point … you know what? I have so much more I want to do in my life. Every concussion you get, you lose a little bit more. A little less memory, a little more cloudy. I didn't want to lose anymore, because I'm 33, and there are guys my age I played with who are having seizures, and they don't know why.

"I know why: It's all the concussions. The league always denied it was football-related because we never had quote-unquote 'concussions.' They said we just got our bell rung."

Williams remembers his first true knockout experience in the NFL. It was a Monday night game against Denver in 2006. He was a special-teams starter, told to run full blast into someone with 50 yards of a running start.

"I hit the wedge, knocked one of their guys out and knocked myself out to the point I didn't know what was going on. All I heard was a ringing in my head. I wasn't quite sure where I was. They asked me how many fingers they had up; they put up all five. I answered the question maybe 30 seconds later and they sent me right back out there.

"I didn't miss a play. It was no big deal back then."

Williams couldn't afford to let it be a big deal. He wasn't a first-round draft pick to be pampered, or a Pro Bowl player being paid too much to sit. He was a versatile linebacker who played special teams. NFL Casting is filled with guys just like that, ready to make him Sam Who?

So, Williams did what so many other NFL players have done. He said nothing when the bell kept ringing. He told no one when he struggled to remember game plans. He was cloudy for two weeks after the Denver concussion, and kept it to himself or be replaced.

Players hid it. The NFL dismissed it. Most all the media shrugged it off — including me during four years of covering Williams and the Raiders for the San Francisco Chronicle. We were more fascinated with JaMarcus Russell's weight and Al Davis' overhead projector than Williams' brain and his future.

Only now does everyone seem to recognize this stuff is mind blowing to the extreme point of dementia.

Williams' NFL generation is the one that played through a seismic shift in attitudes toward football head injuries. In 2003, teams were sending knocked-out players back into the game. Come 2007, the league introduced baseline testing and handed out concussion pamphlets to players. By 2009, it became mandatory to sit concussed players for the rest of the game. Williams was forced to sit in 2010, and remembers feeling protected for the first time.

His final concussion came in the 2011 preseason opener. Williams had heard enough ringing. He remade a life after football — helping underprivileged youths in the Bay Area, and serving as a Raiders ambassador — even if it requires ibuprofen.

"It's a thousand times easier to walk away when you have new goals to accomplish," he said.

Williams is content to sit back and remember his NFL career, if only because it means he can still remember.