SANTA CLARA -- After months of evaluations and discussions, it took just a couple of phone calls for Utah running back Joe Williams to go from a player who did not even warrant a spot on the 49ers’ draft board to becoming a valued prospect worthy of a trade-up in the fourth round to acquire.
“The talent was undeniable, but when you hear ‘Quit the team,’ it was like ‘No, not interested,’” 49ers general manager John Lynch said.
But, just as it is in most cases, there was a lot more to this story of why Williams “retired” – or quit -- early in his final season of college football.
“I talked to his head coach, Kyle Whittingham, and Kyle said, ‘Let’s be very clear, he did not quit the team,’” Lynch said. “He physically and mentally got tired and broke down and he asked for advice on what they should do. He stepped away.”
On Saturday morning, just hours before the 49ers had to make a decision, Lynch called Williams to learn more about the person.
"I came in and I got on the phone with Joe," Lynch said. "I think it’s a wonderful story and it turned in from, 'I have no interest,' because my perception was anyone who quits a team I don’t want. And then I learned about the kid and I got a great deal of respect for how far he’s come and you mix that with the talent and it became someone we actually moved up to go secure.”
Williams remained away from the Utah team for a month. After the Utah backfield sustained some injuries, Whittingham went back to Williams and asked if he would return. Williams said he would. But Whittingham had to get approval from the remainder of the team. He was enthusiastically welcomed back.
Williams returned – and in a big way.
In the final seven games of the season Williams averaged 27 carries for 190 yards, including a 332-yard, four-touchdown performance against UCLA. He capped the season with 222 yards rushing against Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium.
Florida State running back Dalvin Cook was generally regarded as a first-round talent whose character concerns saw him drop to the ninth pick of the second round. Cook is 5 foot 10, 210 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 and the 20-yard shuttle in 4.53.
Williams (5-11, 210) ran a faster 40 (4.41) than Cook, while being significantly quicker in the 20-yard shuttle (4.19).
If it weren’t for Williams’ extraordinary skill as a runner, the 49ers might not have given him a second look. Coach Kyle Shanahan insisted that Lynch reconsider the decision to remove him from the 49ers’ draft board. Shanahan said he did not initially give Williams much consideration because all he knew was that he quit on the team.
“And then just on a random boring day, just watching other guys, I threw it on and watched it a little bit more and when the tape is that talented you want to look into those things a little bit more, and we did and we felt so much better about it,” Shanahan said. “When you see that overall ability, it doesn’t guarantee anything, but it means he has the ability to make all the cuts, the abilities to be a very good back in this league. Now he has to come do it and be consistent.
“After talking with him, his coaches, a lot of people who’ve known him, some of the things he’s gone through, we feel very good about the guy. We know there’s things we do need to help him with, but I think he can have a very bright future for us and for himself in the NFL.”
Shanahan said Williams’ speed, cutting ability, power and balance are as good as anybody in the draft. However, there is plenty in his background for teams to be alarmed.
He was kicked off his first college team, UConn, after being arrested for stealing a teammate’s credit card and having a backpack worth $124.90 shipped to his Pennsylvania home.
“I made that mistake with the situation with my teammate’s credit card,” Williams said. “But I learned from that and I continue to learn from my mistakes and just grow and mature. I can assure the 49ers organization and the fans that I’m a completely new person.”
In September, Williams had a difficult time coping with stress and physical ailments. He needed time to get away from the sport and come to grips with his past. Williams told Bay Area reporters he carried the guilt of his sister’s death for the past decade. On June 19, 2006, Williams’ 7-year-old sister, Kylee, passed away due to a heart condition.
“I was taking care of her to and from her bed you know, that’s when she died in my hands,” Williams said. “So just the guilt and shame that I had put upon myself, because I didn’t act quickly enough for, you know, with my parents or to call 911. I always thought that it was my fault.”
Williams said he needed time to take care of himself in September.
“And as the season started and I knew that my mental health wasn’t where it needed to be, I knew that the best option for me was to sit down in front of my wife and my coaches and just tell them where I was at,” he said. “And we came to the decision that stepping back at that time would be for my best interest, not only for football but life after football.
“I got psychiatric help to get my life back in order because at that time I was in shambles. I did a lot of soul searching.”
Williams got a tattoo on his left arm that reads, “My Sister’s Keeper.” He plans to have Kylee’s face tattooed on his shoulder, as well. He visited her grave in Pennsylvania.
“I finally forgave myself,” Williams said. “That was the biggest thing.
“She was everything. She still is everything. She’s gone now and she’s just the chip on my shoulder that I use every day, gets me up out of the bed.”
Lynch said the 49ers will fully support Williams and provide all the resources he might need to continue to cope with the traumatic event of his childhood.
“We’re going to be very proactive -- not just with him, with all our players and in particular the rookies to support them in every way,” Lynch said. “It’s something that Joe and I talked about. ‘I know you’ve addressed it, but are you comfortable with us reassessing things, where you’re at and then from there gathering a plan?’ He indicated that’s what he wants. That’s what we’ll do.”