Headhunting: Giants boast of targeting punt returner, raise questions about concussions
Kyle Williams fumbles in the NFC Championship on Sunday. Two Giants say they targeted Williams because of his concussions.
January 25th, 2012
03:28 PM ET

Headhunting: Giants boast of targeting punt returner, raise questions about concussions

Editor's note: Dr. Sanjay Gupta's documentary, "Big Hits, Broken Dreams" debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

It’s a reality of sport, and not just football: If your opponents know you have an injury, they’re going to target it.

If a quarterback’s ribs are fractured, they make sure to put a shoulder right in his numbers. A pitcher in baseball may hurl the horsehide a little differently when a batter has a jacked-up wrist or hip. In hockey, soccer and basketball, a player with a tender elbow or knee can expect opponents to clip her or him on multiple occasions. And we’re not even going to discuss what happens to a boxer with a swollen eye.

But what about a brain injury? Is it different? Especially in the NFL, where concussions have become the cause du jour among those who say the game is too violent, is "headhunting" a player with a history of concussions the same as going after a quarterback’s sore hand?

The New York Giants are making this a prime topic for discussion after two players told the media after their NFC Championship win Sunday that they targeted punt returner Kyle Williams.

The San Francisco 49ers' Williams, of course, provided the biggest headlines in Sunday’s game, first by letting a punt graze his leg, and on a later punt return, by coughing up the football after a hit from linebacker Jacquian Williams.

(For what it's worth, Kyle Williams didn't get his bell rung on the play, an NFL rep said there were no illegal hits on Williams and a San Francisco newspaper flatly stated there was no evidence the Giants were aiming for the 23-year-old's noggin Sunday.)

The G-Men recovered both balls, ultimately resulting in half their points in a 20-17 overtime win. Some zealous tweeters quickly called for Kyle Williams' death.

Jacquian Williams said of Kyle Williams during a locker room interview, “We knew he had four concussions, so that was our biggest thing, to take him out of the game.”

It might’ve been written off as a slip of the tongue. Perhaps in the gleeful post-game atmosphere of the locker room, Jacquian Williams did not mean to say the Giants targeted Kyle Williams because of his past concussions.

Well, Devin Thomas put an end to any speculation when he told the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, that Kyle Williams was indeed a target because “he’s had a lot of concussions."

“We were just like, ‘We gotta put a hit on that guy.’ … (Tyler) Sash did a great job hitting him early and he looked kind of dazed when he got up. I feel like that made a difference and he coughed it up.”

Late Tuesday, Big Blue did a little backtracking as two of the team's more veteran players (Thomas has been in the league only four years, and Jacquian Williams is a rookie) told a Star-Ledger reporter they did not discuss in team meetings the prospect of targeting Kyle Williams.

“It’s not like we wasn’t trying to hit him,” defensive end Justin Tuck told the newspaper, adding that the team "was definitely trying to get a lot of hats on him" because the 49ers' starting punt returner was hurt, but "as far as trying to knock him out of a football game, no.”

Added linebacker Michael Boley, “In our meeting we didn’t talk about it. ... Concussions is a big deal. That’s something that you don’t teach. We don’t talk about it. Obviously, we don’t want to hurt anybody. We’re a fraternity of brothers all across the league, so we don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”

Bouncing back from injury

Kyle Williams, a second-year player who became increasingly important to the 49ers because of a depleted receiving corps this season, suffered his latest concussion on Christmas Eve. Seattle Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson and linebacker Adrian Moten crushed Williams almost simultaneously.

Robinson was erroneously penalized on the play for a helmet-to-helmet hit, and Moten was later fined $7,500 by the league. Replays showed that Moten’s helmet hit Kyle Williams in the chin.

Kyle Williams, who was knocked out cold on the play, sat out the following week and held a press conference January 2 in which he told reporters, “I think I’m on track to be cleared” for the divisional playoff game 12 days later. He further said, perhaps unwisely, that though this was his fourth concussion, there were no lingering effects from the hit.

He even downplayed the gash on his chin as “a battle wound.”

“I think I’ll be ready,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s just a matter of following the progression, the protocol. I’m getting my bearings back a little bit.”

The 49ers’ 2011 injury report makes no mention of Kyle Williams before the Seattle game, and the sixth-round draft pick saw limited action in 2010, registering only one reception in four games and fewer than 100 yards combined on his handful of kickoff and punt returns. It should be noted, however, that NFL injury reports are highly unreliable and that Kyle Williams missed part of his 2008 season at Arizona State after a concussion. It’s unclear when he suffered the other two concussions.

Kyle Williams ended up playing against the New Orleans Saints on January 14 but only returned one kick and one punt. He caught two short passes on six targets.

His stock rose the following week, not only because he made a key block on the game-winning touchdown but also because it was announced that wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., the 49ers’ No. 1 punt returner, wouldn’t play against the Giants.

Though Kyle Williams had numerous questionable plays during the Giants game, many of them came before the Sash hit that Jacquian Williams cited. Days of rain prior to the game and 11-mph winds may have factored into his sloppy play.

As Sports Illustrated reported, “The second-year player had other rough moments: a fumble on a reverse that he fell on, a strange sideways diving catch on another punt that could have been disaster. In the rain and wind, it wasn't a fun day to be a relatively novice punt returner.”

Should he have been in the game?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, said it’s impossible to diagnose Kyle Williams without seeing his medical records, but “many would argue that Williams should not have been playing in the first place.”

Gupta added, “The long term impact of these concussions is better known than ever before, and the picture is not pretty: permanent damage to the brain resulting in depression, anger and chronic memory loss.”

Certainly, the NFL said it is taking concussions seriously, especially after Ann McKee, a Boston University neurologist and neuropathologist who is a foremost expert on concussions, told a House committee in 2009 that the NFL needed to “take radical steps to change the way football is played.”

McKee told CNN in July that through her work at the Veterans Affairs Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy Brain Bank,

She has examined 80 brains belonging to deceased football players, hockey players, boxers and soldiers. An overwhelming majority of those brains were positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease linked to brain trauma, she has said.

The league has since held conferences on helmet technology and last month began putting concussion-specific trainers on the sidelines at every game to monitor injuries. Last year, the NFL also moved the kickoff up 5 yards to diminish the instances of kick returns, widely considered one of the most dangerous plays because 11 defenders (10 if we’re discounting the kicker) roll down the field with a 70-yard head of steam and converge on the returner.

Moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line has resulted in a little over half of kicks being returned, as opposed to four out of five in 2010.

Is it enough? Depends on who you ask. Gupta, who is also the associate chief of neurosurgery at Atlanta’s Grady memorial Hospital, said, “While so many positive strides have been made to reduce brain injuries, mandate sideline exams, and sit players out – this story reminds us how difficult it will be to change the culture of football.”

Some players feel misled

That issue is at the heart of an upcoming documentary and ongoing lawsuits surrounding concussions.

Former Green Bay Packers running back Dorsey Levens is producing, “Bell Rung: An Alarming Portrait of Professional Football,” in hopes that players will be more candid with him about their injuries than they are with coaches, doctors and the media.

“There's a comfort level because I played the game - kind of been there, done that,” Levens told CNN in July. “I think one of the prevailing attitudes around the NFL, especially when people conduct interviews, is that reporters don't have a clue. I mean, it's not disrespectful, but if they haven't played the game, the respect is just not the same.”

CNN was granted access and sat in during filming as several players told Levens they didn’t believe the NFL was taking the issue seriously. One player told Levens that league warnings about illegal hits are routinely disregarded and that players lie about injuries because they want to play and get paid. Another player questioned how the NFL could fine him for a hit one week, then use footage of the illegal hit to advertise the following week’s game.

Levens and three other players filed suit last month against the NFL, saying the league failed to take action to protect players, failed to warn players of the dangers and hand picked doctors to misrepresent the effects of head trauma and concussions.”

Despite the suit’s harsh language, several players – the Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison chief among them – proudly said they won’t change the way they play. This is football. They want to lay the boom. The fans want it. The league has always known it.

Look at some of the biggest defensive names in the history of football – Ray Nitschke, Mike “Mad Dog” Curtis, Deacon Jones, Dick Butkus, Ronnie Lott, Steve “the Smiling Assassin” Atwater, Lawrence Taylor, John Lynch – and they were all famed for their devastating blows on the gridiron.

Lott himself coined the term “woo lick.” Asked what the phrase meant, he explained it’s when you hit someone so hard everyone in the stadium goes, “Wooooooo.”

Dad wanted son to be bowler

Which brings us back to fellow 49er Kyle Williams, who may not have taken the dangers of concussions too seriously before entering the league in 2010, even if his dad did.

The son of White Sox general manager Ken Williams, Kyle played both baseball and football in college. His dad, who also played both sports at Stanford, would ask him after Arizona State football games if he could still walk, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“That's what I want to know,” Williams said. “That's a tough, tough sport.”

On the gridiron, the paper reported, the junior Williams seemed to put his teammates’ success before his own health.

“We have 100-some guys here all focused on one thing - getting to the national championship game,” he told the paper. “I'll trade a win for a concussion any day.”

Asked if he dreamed about his son being a modern-day Deion Sanders, Ken Williams was blunt: “I would prefer that he bowl … There's very little chance of concussion.”

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Filed under: California • Football • Health • New York • Pro football • Sports • Super Bowl • U.S.
soundoff (222 Responses)
  1. D

    Williams won the game for the Giants..period...he should find a hole and disappear..

    January 24, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yakobi

      Bull. That was a TEAM loss. If SF deserved to go to the Superbowl, they would have put up more than a measly 17 points. Just last week, people were touting Alex Smith as the the 3rd coming of Joe Montana and Steve Young. Yeah, right! Face it, a good D will get you to the postseason, but won't win championships.

      January 24, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      IIt's only a game. I'm a football fan, but death threats, that's ridiculous.

      January 24, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • t

      Hey D I hope the next time you mess up your friends(if you have any) will throw you under the bus.

      January 24, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • M

      Really? How about 1 for 13 on 3rd down? That did not contribute? And without his nice block on Smith's TD run against the Saints, the Niner's probably lose that game.

      The regular guy was injured and he stepped in. The Niners got outplayed by the Giants. The Niners stunk on offense. Get over it and stop whining.

      January 24, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • anonymous

      Giants didn't put a hard hit on him all game. This is a couple of special teams guys trying to sound bigger and badder than they are. The guy blew two plays and handed you 10 points, stop trying to take credit for it, say 'thank you,' and move on. You can question why a guy who was knocked out cold was back in a game less than a month later, but in the end, it didn't have anything to do with his misplays. The bigger play was Brown getting knocked out of the game- it was his replacement that was burned by Manningham for the Giants touchdown after the muffed punt.

      The comment on the Whitner hit "nothing but maiming intended." I'm pretty sure most guys in the NFL outside of cornerbacks attempt to deliver as hard a blow as possible. To say that hit was dirty is simply inaccurate. Even if running backs were not fair game for head shots, take the blinders off and watch a slow motion replay of that hit. Whitner's intent was to deliver the blow with his shoulder, this was not James Harrison launching head first into another player. Thomas tucked his head as Whitner delivered the blow and their heads hit.

      And any Giant fan beating their chest over this win is delusional. The g-men played well, it was a great game, but two turnovers by a backup return man were the big difference. You can point to the niners futility on third down, i can point to the Giants getting shut down in the second half while Eli spent much of the fourth in particular getting helped off the ground by the d-linemen while looking out his earhole. Cruz had a big first half and kept them in the game, the niners got their big plays from davis, the niners also ran the ball for 150 and 5.4 a pop. There's hardly anything there to indicate the Giants outplayed the Niners in this game in any significant way outside those turnovers.

      I actually don't mind the g-men, i think JPP is a great player and Eli is a class guy and one tough SOB. Trash talking after the game about targeting a guy who had concussion issues is bush though, and I suspect Coughlin has already told these two to shut the F up. And you fans with the Giants pom-poms, put them away already, there's no shame is admitting you got a gift 10 points in that game. With any luck, this game will usher in an era of a renewed rivalry between these two teams and we'll get to see a few more of these classics.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  2. steveb

    That's takin it too far. And to brag about it gleefully. This is the kind of trash we are dealing with. I now know what team I will be rooting against. And if they all do – well then, shame on them all.

    January 24, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • gmen

      hey steveb

      Wahhhhhhhh! its football baby. go root for the ice capades.

      January 24, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • bczu

      Its football? What a sorry excuse for a human being you are...

      January 24, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • CircaRigel

      I agree with you on this. To willingly try and disable someone for life, then brag about it, is obscene in the worst sense. These are pros, and they should act like it. They're playing with other pros. There ought to be a level of respect between them.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • keef

      shouldnt have had him in the game....period. nothing on the opponent.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • DT

      So are you rooting against the doctors that let him back on the field? Or are you rooting against the coaches for letting it happen? The Giants lost some players in the preseason to injuries so should their opponents not throw to the back ups because that is abusing an injury? I don't understand your logic. Eveyone plays to win the game period.

      January 24, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Sammie

    What about the hit by '49er Whitner the week before on the Saint's Pierre Thomask? Nothing but maiming intended.. helmet to helmet full blow but NOT illegal. Whitner should have been ejected

    January 24, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ricky Bobby

      Unfortunately the way the rules are written that was a legal hit. SF played complete dirty ball that game, but did it up to the line where still technically legal.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jerry

      The hit on Pierre Thomas during the Saints game was completely legal as Pierre Thomas was not considered a defenseless player since he was running towards the endzone.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • DT

      Their was not one even close to illegal hit on Williams.

      January 24, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Harvey

      Sam said it was NOT illegal. doesn't mean it wasn't a dirty hit. But judging by the way Whitner didn't even LOOK for the loose ball but bounced up and headed back to the bench means Thomas wasn't the only brain bruised. Idiot. I agree, legal, but dirty. So quit whining about some Giants talking trash...

      January 25, 2012 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
  4. Giantsfansrdbagsuckas

    Typical NY low class b.s. I hope they get tuned up in the S.B. to shut the team and the fans up. It would only be temporary though cause that's what the suckas do best yak yak yak

    January 24, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • PCola Vet

      What a dumb post with an even dumber handle. TWO guys made comments after a big win, guess you never played organized sports before?

      January 24, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • CircaRigel

      Agree- these are pros, and people look to them as role models. They ought to have more class. Moreover, they shouldn't aim to permanently maim another player on purpose. Take them down, yes- that's part of football, but not to cause permanent brain damage.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. steveb

    the ice capades are dangerous

    January 24, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. T

    I think for athletes, the mentality of targeting other players' injuries, and then bragging about it, is weak. Shouldn't these guys want to win games as a result of their own abilities, rather than as a result of someone else's weakness?

    January 24, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe T.

      Although I don't feel anybody should be intentionally injured over a game, it's good strategy. In war, you go after the enemies weakness.

      It doesn't mean you are going to intentionally injure them but if you know a QB's shoulder is hurting you will target that shoulder to make him as uncomfortable as possible. Every team does this in every contact sport.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. K Walsh

    reminds me of the time that John Ferguson, hack for the Canadiens, went after Chicago's Bobby Hull to fight him. Hull was playing with his jaw wired after breaking it. Ferguson's reply, He shoulnt have been out there if he was hurt. Ferguson proved to be the coward that he was.

    January 24, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  8. CBR

    What a lack of sportsmanship! Get your opponent out of the game in any way you can which includes injuring them. This is the major flaw in professional sports.

    January 24, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rick

      Hey... doocheburg... they had ZERO illegal hits on this guy. Target the weak is in ALL contact sports.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • CircaRigel

      I fully agree with you on this. To cause permanent injury is NOT the name of the game, even in Football, and especially at the pro level, where players are looked to as role models, this is VERY unsportsman-like behavior and ought to be penalized.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe T.

      Giants had zero illegal hits. None that were even questionable. What are you going to do? Penalize them for playing too hard? Penalize them for making legal tackles?

      January 24, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • DT

      You take advantage of every advantage given to you. That happens in all facets of life. Also Circa, if professional athletes are role models to you than your parents messed up badly.

      January 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      Exactly right CBR. The time has come to change the rules. Comments made after the game prove that.

      January 24, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  9. steveb

    Hey gmen, when I was talking about trash I was also talking about fans like you. Playing football at the college level goes back three generations in my family – including me – and fourth will be my son. We live the game. Targeting someone because they have concusion vulnerability – and bragging about it – is not football.

    January 24, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      gmen is a troll and we ignore him anyway

      January 24, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Rick

    This particular discussion in this article is completely mornoic.

    The press will twist ANY ELPHING THING into a story.

    January 24, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eliott C. McLaughlin

      Why is my article moronic, Rick? The danger of concussions should be of interest to any football fan, so it certainly seems like a story when players say they went after him because of a concussion - and there appears to be premeditation and organization behind those words. If they had given him another concussion, or worse, would it be a story then? I certainly respect your criticism of my article, but I have to disagree that this is twisting anything. It's a running news story, and this is just another chapter. In any case, thanks for commenting!

      January 24, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Rick

    These guys do NOT get paid millions of dollars to be namby pamby cream puffs...

    If you are HURT get the heck out of the way.

    January 24, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eliott C. McLaughlin

      That, Rick, is an astute point and one certainly has to consider whether their pay compensates them for the danger of going out there on Sundays. As for getting out of the way, several players have told me in the past that that isn't the mentality that gets you to the NFL. It's not how they're wired. They were taught since peewee league to be tough, to be a man, to ignore the pain. To ask that they get out of the way at this stage of their career might not resonate with them, especially with those heavy paychecks rolling in.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • anon

      These guys are paid plenty to compensate. How many in the military receive the pay PRO Athletes do and at greater risk? That being said, they are considered Professional Athletes and should act as such on and off the field. We all have our bad apples though, even in the military as evident in the news lately.

      January 24, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  12. PCola Vet

    Honestly after FOUR concussions, what the hell was that guy even doing on the field?

    January 24, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Kingofthenet

    The Giants players weren't saying they were trying to hurt his brain, and end his career. They were saying because of the injury we knew he couldn't be 100% and were going to make him prove that he is.

    January 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • DT

      Exactly. No one said they were going to try to hurt him. They just stated that he was a weak link in a very solid team and they were going to exploit that weakness by making him make plays.

      January 24, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  14. iaver

    I see nothing wrong with targetting a guy because he is prone to injury. I wouldn't agree if you purposfully go to the helmet, thats obviously against the rules and dangerous. I would agree however with hitting a guy, legally, extra hard because you know he is proned to injury. Simply put., if your worried about gettting hurt then you shouldn't play the game. Although the NFL can be faulted for not doing enough, if a player legally hits another player and that player become concussed then that was one hel-of-a "woo lick".

    January 24, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. yo

    ya Giants Won 49rs suck

    January 24, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
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