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. Joelle Morrison

    Ironic, since the 49ers knocked two New Orleans Saints players from their game a week earlier - with concussions.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
  2. mike joseph

    so where is the talk of the 49er who body slammed a Giant after the play was over with the players back turned?

    January 24, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      You mean the body slam after the Giant player ripped the helmet off the 9er player?

      January 24, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. mike joseph

    It is funny how he sheep hate Tebow, but they will idolize guys like Vick, Burress, and Stallworth because they have done their time. Whatever happened to being a genuine and good person. Also, why is there no condemning of James Harrison who is not going at guys knees viciously in an attempt to injure them. That guy is nothing but a thug in a football uniform and should not be in the NFL

    January 24, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Christof

      Wrong... They idolize guys like Vick because they can actually play ball... Enough with this whole Tebow S***... His five minutes is up... move on

      January 24, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      When was the last time Michael Vick won a playoff game? Pretty sure Tebow won one this year. How many rings does Vick have?

      January 24, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • bob

      Vick is trash. Always has been, always will be.
      Trash.

      January 24, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • bob

      Christof, go back into your single-wide and have another beer, would you?
      Good boy, run along now...

      January 24, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
  4. robg

    Let remove all the no football playing...want to change the sport to flag football wimps and talk common sense. Regardless, of the any injury . . . if you hit a player hard . . . you get in there head. . . Williams is young and a part being young is taking a hit that you have not taken before especially in a game of this magnitude. The final responsibility is with the coach. After, that many "blunders" . . I coach should have had some one else to field the return. This game was bigger than one person or coach.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Christof

      They keep saying the game was bigger than one person... But that's BS.. You and I know it... If it weren't for either of those fumbles the Giants would not be heading to Indy right now... The game was ABSOLUTELY and SOLEY on Williams.

      January 24, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Menos

      Give me a break, Christof - there's no question that Williams blew it when it mattered the most, but to suggest that the Niner's loss was solely due to William's mistakes is ignorant. The Niner's were 13 and 0 for first down conversions on 3rd down. Their offense failed utterly while their defense rocked. The team's imbalance and inability to move the chains is what did them in. You have to factor in a couple of turnovers per game and make up for it by putting points on the scoreboard. Williams is just a convenient scapegoat for those who don't understand the sport.

      January 24, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • bob

      Wow, robg. Love that grammar. Think you're going to graduate 6th grade this time? Third time IS a charm, you know...

      January 24, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jmarkz53

    If the Giants were really 'headhunting', they would have made sure to use a second stringer right into Williams, helmet to helmet, or pads to head, and gladly foot the cost of the fine. NOBODY wants to see the types of injuries that concussions have caused to ex-players over the past. From what I saw, all of the plays on the NY side were clean and above board. In fact, the 9'ers caught hurt more by their own secondary when 2 palyers vehemently tried to pick off a ball at the scariest part of the game.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Shawn

    Its a contact sort. Focus on the word contact. All those guys are in it to hurt the other team, wether you like it or understand it is besides the point. If any member of the team can legally hit another player hard enough to remove him from the game even temporarily they will definitely do so. These guys are large, angry and out to win no matter the cost. Giants won fair and square, it was a good honest game with honest officiating, stop the belly aiking and lets get to the Super Bowl already!

    January 24, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  7. tj

    Answer!??? PLAY WITHOUT PADS and helmets. that will solve everything. head on head contact will cease because both players would be knocked out. the game is a lot safer without helmets and pads.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. evensteven

    Years ago there was more respect and fair play in sports. Now in business and sports, anything that you can get away with is fair game. Morals have been limited to whatever specific rules prohibit certain behaviors. If it ain't on the list, it's OK. And so many—and perhaps most individuals—do not have an inward sense of morality.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike Ellingboe

      When exactly was that? Read Alex Karras' autobiography about how he ripped a teammates knee apart to move up on the depth chart in college, or when Lipscomb pulled his helmet off and crowned him with it after the Lions' fourth TD drive of the day. Remember when facemasking and clothesline tackles were legal? How about Martin bodyslamming McMahon after the play was over? Cleveland trying to break Bradshaw's neck? Alligator rolling on legs, the list goes on and on.

      January 24, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jweller

    You're supposed to hand our medical advice not be a sports newscaster mr gupta. Reading your this article I'd barely have know you are a doctor. "...cause du jour among those who say the game is too violent,?? Shame on you Gupta, flippant comments like this undermine the real concern over sports concussions in for example kids football. The concerns aren't that the game is "too violent" the concern is players trying to give concussions for hurt's sake - leading with the helmet for example. Again, shame on you.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  10. flashtrum

    I know the NFL is attempting to crack down on the helmet to helmet hits, and maybe it's because I'm more aware of that, but I rarely see a north/south play where a defensive player does NOT lead to "tackle" with his helmet. And usually the runner has no choice but to put his head down as well. So it's like two rams going at each other.

    Let them play without helmets – my bet is LESS head injuries.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Smeather Isaac

    This is ridiculous. They did not target him. A part of football is punting so therefore you punt to the punt returner. This is insane that you try to insinuate this. Go report some real news.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jim

    Any excuse for a loss.. We didnt get beat fairly...waaaaaahhhhh Happens in all professional sports in the USA.

    What happened to the better team won ? Congratualatoins and a hand shake? Too much to ask for I guess.

    January 24, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  13. hamsta

    if you have to target and knock players out of the game by injuring them that just says you are a sore loser and arent good enough to win without cheating.

    January 24, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bob

    Any kick returner is automatically targeted. The whole gig is that 11 guys run down the field at full speed and try to knock his block off. As to the dopes saying the whole game is Williams' responsibility – the Niners didn't convert a single 3rd down until they got to garbage time; plus there were three other potential turnovers that just didn't happen (2 easy interceptions where the defenders collided with one another, and the Bradshaw fumble that was whistled dead). It's a team sport. Win as a team, lose as a team.

    January 24, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wes

      Garbage time? In an overtime NFC Championship game?

      January 24, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Yes – what I mean is they picked up their first first down when they were throwing underneath with not enough time to get into field goal range in regulation. Maybe not technically garbage time – but the Giants were giving them the underneath stuff.

      January 24, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Ugh – I meant their first third down conversion.

      January 24, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Renaldo Francois

    Its one thing to target a leg injury or a rib injury. But targeting a head injury is just wrong. The simple fact is that there is more than football and a superbowl at stake here. There is a human being, his family (kids, wife, parents), his life, his ability to function normally and realize his potential as is the right of every human being. When you begin to target a guy because he has a history of concussions, you've crossed over into a new relm of selfishness and blatant disregard for human life. I truly am heart broken that those guys targeted Williams in hopes of knocking him out with a concussion. They could have easily caused a horrific out come for Kyle Williams and his family. Its just unbelievable. Those 2 players should be very very ashamed of themselves for this behavior. The league should be ashamed of itself for not coming down as hard as it can on behavior like this. This shows that this league doesn't care about the well being of its players and their families if they don't respond to these reports accordingly. I'm truly heart broken and dissapointed!!!

    January 24, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
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