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. Greenspam

    It's a sign of time – from the top with Dems vs Repubs, from Christians vs atheists, from abortionists vs anti-abortionists. It's just a sign of the time.

    January 24, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lean6

      Comment on the wrong article here...or what?

      January 24, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Alan

    CNN, none of you have played football, so don't write about it.

    January 24, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Censorship Board of the Republic of Iran

      Winner: Most Stupid Angry Comment of the Day. Congratulations!

      January 24, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve McGee

      It's okay, Alan is bitter he wasn't picked in gym class.

      January 24, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • FailCongress

      Dr. Gupta studied medicine, you did not. Do not post ignorant replies.

      January 24, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. runner15

    It's one thing to defend yourself from the opposition in order to win, but to intentionally impact a person's livilihood is disgusting.

    January 24, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • cynbro

      Agreed 100%

      January 24, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lean6

      I imagine that you find boxing, wrestling, MMA abhorrent; the goal is to physically demolish an opponent in those sports. Football only exploits the threat of consequence. A player has a choice of whether to protect himself, or to be effective on a field full of equal or greater talent. Those guys on both sides of the ball often stand a better chance of experiencing injury by being timid than by being aggressive. It's often a simple matter of balance...where your energy and motion is focused or distributed throughout the muscles in your body. The biggest part of this story is that they got inside Williams' head quite effectively. He didn't even put his energy into catching and holding onto the football.

      January 24, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. driveby

    How many 'fans' would would actually be disturbed if a member of an opposing team were killed during a game?

    January 24, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  5. george ke1

    What a stupid game. Why doesn't the USA play real rugby like the rest of the world?

    January 24, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • syed

      if you guys want us to played rugby then what you guys gone a play beside 22 guys chasing one ball or two 22 guys kicking one ball ,just mind your on bussiness

      January 24, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • EC

      USA does play Rugby, we have leagues at the College and Recreational levels just not in the professional level. Also, have you ever played American style football? I have played the game and can tell you it's one the BEST sports in the world. I've watched rugby and enjoy the game BUT in my opinion can't compare to American football! People who get American football can understand why. But, maybe that is a good thing foreigners don't like American football because that what makes it so unique to us Americans! Frankly, we could care less that you foreigners don't want to follow OUR sport!

      January 24, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Because no one (or not enough) people are interested in it here. Same reason why we play baseball instead of cricket.

      January 24, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
  6. conoclast

    It's no longer a matter of IF but WHEN a football player actually dies on the field after sustaining a concussion. Surely the NFL has done some thinking about the scenario: will they cancel the game at that point and forfeit the millions of dollars in ticket refunds and advertising losses? Or would they cynically say something like "it's what he would have wanted" and allow the game to continue? It's obvious that football as a sport is at a crossroads; it seems the least they could do is figure out a way to make the kickoff less life-threatening!

    January 24, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • syed

      i belived you should be positve ,not nagitive some body son,father our husband playing these game

      January 24, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      In nearly 100 years no player has died in an NFL game. Even if one did, that would just be the odds. Thousands have died in warehousing accidents, I don't see anyone crying about that.

      January 24, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      No, Mark, but I wonder how many (hundreds?) have died years later as a result of playing.

      January 24, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  7. syed

    i agree with SANJAY ,basically special team let us down specialy kyle williams ,also our offence can,t COMPLETEs the third down you can not winthe game ,also head coach should take chance on 4th down on giants area all little mistake losing the big game ,but this is not a end of the world hope still their for next SUPER BALL NO 6 ,hopefully soon with in 5YEARS

    January 24, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Rob

    It's not just sports we see this in nature. A pack of wolves or lions. Will target a weak member of the group. They know they have a better chance. As does a line backer it's a good athlete who knows his opponents weakness. Could be the difference between going to the super bowl or going home.

    January 24, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • FailCongress

      I like how you justify intentionally hurting someone else as being the sign of a good athlete. Football is a rough sport, but intentionally putting a hit out on a guy that may cause permanent damage is morally wrong.

      January 24, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |

    This is part of sport from the begining of it....going after a weakness.....if this player was not able to play then it was the responsibility of the team to keep him off the feild. What where the Giants to do...this is a contact sport people...

    January 24, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. brenda

    Players can't have it both way. Lying about thier health status so they can continue to play and make money, and then suing afterward because they suffered brain damage. You can't tell me in this day and age players aren't aware of the dangers. Saying the league filed to warn them about the dangers? That's bull. Where's personal responsibility in all this. The owners, sponsors and networks want hard hitting, brain rattling games. That sells tickets and keeps viewers watching. You know what you're signing up for. Cry me a river.

    January 24, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mike

    That's just Mean.. I now have to question my faith in Mankind.. But at least I have NASCAR which in case you haven't heard is Racing !! Everything else is just a Game.

    January 24, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Drew

    It is unfortunate when a player is hurt playing and/or when players attempt to hurt other players. Also unfortunately, this story left me with little sympathy for any 49ers players, as it is quite apparent that they have been one of the most aggressive teams in attempting to hurt players of other teams. Even their fans are out to hurt people; see the articles about how last week's NFC championship game required undercover police to patrol the stadium after the prior game against the Saints was followed by reports of Saints fans being threatened. Sportsmanship is playing the game in a manner that you expect your opponent to play by too. Sadly, 49ers will bring this behavior from opponents as long as they do so themselves, which is unfortunate for thier player's health.

    January 24, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Zeus

    imo, a perfectly valid tactics. not a fan of either team, but congrats to the Giants who are going to the super bowl!

    January 24, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Another comment by an ignorant poster who has probably never suited up and played a single football game in his life.

      January 24, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Steve McGee

    Nothing says, "I suck at sports" more than the idea that you have to injure a player in order to win. Go Patriots.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. r rega

    As a football fan who watched the game...Williams simply goosed the moose...twice...tough break...thats just how it goes...with todays tough NFL rules...if he wasnt healthy enough to play...his trainers would have kept him off the field...now if Williams had returned both flubs for touchdowns...we wouldnt be having this discussion,would we.Giants saw his first mistake and capitalized on his second boo boo.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
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