Through the toughest times—the cancer diagnosis, the surgery to remove a kidney, the emotional ups and downs—one thought kept Seahawks defensive tackle Jesse Williams going.
As he dealt with the most serious setback in an NFL career full of them, Williams kept himself going by dreaming of the day he would return to practice. And on Thursday, Williams was activated off the non-football illness list, allowing him to return to practice less than three months after being diagnosed with Papillary Type 2 cancer. Williams was limited in his first practice back, only doing limited drills while sitting out the team portion of practice, but it was still the feel-good moment of camp to see Williams back in action, limited or not, so soon after a potentially devastating diagnosis.
"Today was the day I pretty much kept my mind the whole time after being in the hospital," Williams said. "The first day back, that's what was driving me. So yeah it was a big deal to get out there today."
Williams, a fifth-round pick in 2013, has yet to appear in a regular season game having spent each of the past two seasons on injured reserve with knee injuries, and as if that wasn't enough adversity for a young athlete, he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 24.
"I had a pretty rough start already," Williams said. "Hopefully getting rid of the bad kidney got rid of a bit of the bad luck I had as well, so I'm looking forward to progressing and staying out there as best I can."
Williams entered this offseason feeling healthy and ready to finally compete for a roster spot, but everything changed in May when he noticed blood in his urine, prompting a visit to team trainers, who quickly sent him to the hospital. Williams had a kidney removed, started rehab, and now other than having to wear extra padding to protect his existing kidney, he is good to go. He even has maintained a sense of humor through all of this, joking that he should be "a little lighter and more agile," with only one kidney.
And in fact Williams thinks a silver lining of all of this is that he could end up healthier overall because of the surgery.
"It's sort of a blessing in disguise," he said. "The kidney was messing up my hormones a little bit so it was keeping the swelling around a lot, especially in my body. Now I've been recovering a lot quicker, my knees feel real good."
Williams isn't sure how quickly he'll be back to full speed. He says his weight is about where it was before the cancer diagnosis and that he quickly got his strength back, but admits he has catching up to do from a conditioning standpoint. Williams isn't sure if he'll play in next week's preseason opener having missed almost a week of camp, but he's itching to get going whenever his coaches decide he's ready.
"Man, I'll play tomorrow if they let me," he said. "I had my helmet and was strapped up out there today, and they're only letting me run through individuals. But as soon as they give me the OK to go, I don't know if you'll see any more people out there trying to hit someone as hard as me. As soon as they let me go I'm going to hit the ground running."
Williams' story is a remarkable one, and it's one he and the Seahawks hope is just getting started. Not only would Williams finally having a healthy season be great for him, it would be big for a team that just decided to part ways with veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel for salary cap reasons. But whatever happens this season and beyond for Williams, the simple act of returning to practice Thursday was an inspiring one.
"Cancer is universal, everyone knows someone," he said. "So I'm trying to turn this into a positive. Come back, do what I can, help out, and help as many people as I can along the way."