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. NYYFan1

    The Giants are going to WIN the Super Bowl !! Four-Time Super Bowl Champions !!!! YES, YES, YES and YES...LOL !!!!

    January 25, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Edwin

      As they keep trying to kill players, yes.

      January 25, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Giant H8ER

      Shut your gums!

      January 25, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Burbank

    Deliberately targeting someone with an injury with the intent of injuring them further is criminal and the height of poor sportsmanship. If it happened outside of the playing field the perps would be arrested and put in jail. What a wonderful example for the children that are taught to idolize them and then we wonder why so many of them grow up to be violent criminals! You can't fix stupid!... And they are breeding!

    January 25, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • DPCrow

      But if a QB knew a corner had a gimp ankle and kept targeting the receiver he was covering there wouldn't be any fuss about it, people would probably say the QB was playing smart. Is that any different than trying to lay a big hit on a guy already banged up? Think about it, it's their job; a lawyer would do the same thing in court. It's a tough gray area. Maybe kids should be taught to go for the win and not that everyone always wins. Just a thought...

      January 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. misfitdiva

    I just dont get why there is a so much hype over concussions in football?!?! Its like being amazed that a boxer has a bloody nose. Both sports are full contact meat gridding sports. DUH. What do some of these "professionals" think was happening this whole time? While they are trying to make the game "safer", they are killing the whole point of the game. These players are payed MILLIONS of dallors to take the hit. They know that. While I agree that intentional hits are wrong, if the mansy pansy stuff keeps up, players will soon be wearing full foam suits in every game. JMO

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

      Maybe we will get to the point where football (as we know it) and boxing are banned. These sports injure, maim, and kill. And we call this sport? The people who like this kind of stuff are patently insane.

      January 25, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • misfitdiva

      Go study your history....men have been participating in hard hitting sports since the beginning of time. If you ban football or boxing, another sport will just emerge. Yes, try and make these sports as safe as possible but they are what they are. While I will agree that athlete are payed way to much....give there incomes to teachers, imo...they a still fill a need in society. All cultures have there men vs men rituals. Always have, always will. It just that ALOT of American men have become pansies. jmo

      January 26, 2012 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  4. Me

    And they say the Patriots cheat...

    January 25, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  5. NavySeniorChief

    I have no sympathy for any athletes… Most make millions upon millions to play a sport. My fellow service members make less than 50K a year – most see combat. I agree great athletes are 1 in a millions… I just don’t have any sympathy for broken bones or concussions. Try getting you limbs blown off for 50K a year. Just sayin

    January 25, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • NavySeniorChief

      *are 1 in a million
      *Try getting your limbs

      Sorry for the mistakes in my post

      January 25, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • KenC

      I fully agree with you, I don't care about these stupid athletes. Most of them are total jerks too. And the fans of these sports, well they are just LOSERS with NO lives!!

      January 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. miki801

    Just as the players know that they can get hurt and are paid well, gamblers should know that they could loose those millons of dollars. As it is a game of cards, dice or darts, ball games are still GAMES. There used to be more of a sport involved, but with the behavior of both players and their fans, ball games are not good examples of that. Competative sports should be taken out of all schools.

    January 25, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Your Name Here

    You're an idiot! Obviously and uneducated one at that!

    January 25, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. yo

    east coast teams are the armpit of the league

    January 25, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Rob S

    High risk typically equals high reward. In sports, exposing and opponents weakness is generally a key to winning. I dont think the Giants were out to intentionally go after his head. If a player is prone to fumbling, you go after the ball. If they are weak off the line, you play close coverage. If a guy has a glass jaw, you hit him hard. This is no different in any professional sport and only a few can play at that level and have their bodies exposed to that kind of trauma. That is why they are paid the big bucks. If we could all do it, who would pay to see us?

    January 25, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. yo

    nobody outside of new york and new england area wants to see these two shi**y teams play again. nobody likes these teams.

    January 25, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason S

      Yo, what special team is your team that's not in the Super Bowl?

      January 25, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jason S

    OK the Giants are not the first and only team to do this. Players get targeted all the time, every game, and not just football. This is not news, it has been happening since the dawn of time. It's human instinct. It's not right but on the other hand why is the injured player playing?

    January 25, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. My Name is... Not Mike

    These punks should be penalized just for saying that crap!

    January 25, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. g.t.

    4 concussions and he is not even in 4 years in the league. time to call it a day. Take what money you have left , and run.

    January 26, 2012 at 11:10 am | Report abuse |
  14. Frank!

    This why it's important that we BAN FOOTBALL NOW before more guys get killed and injured. I don't know the exact number of people who get killed playing pro football every year, but it's probably in the hundreds or thousands. We must do something NOW to end the gridiron SLAUGHTER!!!!

    January 27, 2012 at 7:25 am | Report abuse |
  15. KenC

    Most football players are d-bags, so this doesn't surprise me. But what goes around, comes around, and to the idiots that targeted the injured man...they could be next themselves. I really don't get why people like this sport, it's SO boring!!

    January 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
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