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. jones

    he didnt just screw up twice.....he did it 3 times.......he had a fumble when gore pitched him the ball , lucky it was recovered by the niners but dude screwed up 3 times that game.........

    January 24, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • jones

      nobody was going after his head...he just sucked.....first his daddy said he was injured....now they were going after his head???.......excuses.....you have to catch the ball in order for the otehr team to go after your head...he caught none.....the punt returns he made, no one was near him to take a head shot......he straight out sucked.....and im a niners fan.....

      January 24, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eviscerated

      Let's talk about the screw up of the offense not being able to convert on a single third down. Not even 1 conversion in like 13 3rd down attempts. Yet, it was still a tight game. Plenty of blame to go around for that loss.

      January 25, 2012 at 12:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Eviscerated

      Well, except the defense. They did their job fantastically.

      January 25, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
  2. Carlos

    So... let me get this straight... the Giants are bad because they were looking to hit the ball carrier?
    Honestly, if this is really an issue – then the bad guys here are the 49ers for letting him play. If the Giants don't put a hit on him... they lose.
    Maybe the 49ers were hoping the Giants wouldn't tackle him (because they knew of the concussions) and they would just let him score.
    This article is nonsense.

    January 24, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Xondra

      Sorry, but I don't care if he was put into the field by his team. A head concussion is nothing to be playing around. He could have died because the guys in the other team don't know how to play clean. In my book, that's a felony, if not attempted murder.

      January 24, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      Xondra.... really? What were they supposed to do? Hit him lightly? Did they go for his head or was it just a hard tackle? You're supposed to tackle anyone hard... otherwise they might keep going. I'm no football expert, but I've played for a few years... and you calling it "attempted murder" is either ignorance or trolling.

      January 24, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • bob

      I agree with Xondra. It's clear that they weren't talking about just putting a hit on him. Their remarks show clearly that they intended a hit that would affect him because of his concussions. In other words, a head shot. That said, I do believe that the 49ers and Williams himself should have kept him out of the game for that reason.

      January 24, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Xondra

    That's attempted murder. I would lock those guys in jail for a long time.

    January 24, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • ScrewELouE

      Go to the ballet please.... this is FOOTBALL,,, a doctor cleared him to play and the other team went for an edge... these guys know the risk and make big $$$ to take those risks.

      January 24, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shawn

      So in your world, a paraplegic should just be allowed to roll into the end zone because it wouldn't be right for someone to tackle him? Wrong....the paraplegic shouldn't be on the field and if the paraplegic chooses to go on the field, they assume the associated risks.

      January 24, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Willis

      attempted murder might be an extreme opinion but you're right xondra. it's really messed up if you head-hunt in football, especially when you have an INTENTION of hurting someone because "you knew he had a lot of concussions." tackle the guy, and make sure the ball doesn't cross your goal line. if you hurt him, and it's an accident….then oh well, it's a risk assumed with football. but don't try to hurt someone on purpose, thats not football.

      January 25, 2012 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
  4. SadFan

    If this is true then it could be a good case for a criminal charge of ASSAULT. Football fans appreciate good hard hitting contact because that is the nature of the game but to premeditatively try to injury a player should be considered criminal.

    January 24, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Josh

    Wow, way to make America look stupid- people are giving death threats to a guy with brain injuries because he dropped a ball. Sports fans, can you keep your occasional moronic friend at bay?

    January 24, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. mar

    The 49ers owe Kyle Williams
    For going further than most medical
    Physicians would have advised.

    January 24, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ScrewELouE

    So let me get this straight... football players want to hit each other? And get paid BIG $$$ to do it? MY GOD!!!! There should be an investigation!!!! Please stop the wussification of America. By the way.... stupid article Gupta!

    January 24, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Joe

    Did you even watch the game...? Williams kicked one ball and had it poked out from under his arm on the other... Where were the head hits...? When Williams had a decent return earlier in the game he went head first for more yards (no head hit). If he was dizzy from any hits, the 49er trainer should have kept him off the field. Smith was the man the Giants should have targeted... his jersey was way too clean at the end of the game. When he broke that long run on the game tying drive, he failed to go feet first and could have been subject to a head shot... he was not. The Giants backed off on a bone crushing hit!

    January 24, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  9. BurstBubble

    On the last 49er play Kyle wasn't really touched by the giants player. Kyle wasn't "protecting the ball" he had it away from his body. It was a little touch on the ball from the giants player. It wasn't a monster hit it was tiny, more like a poke. If Kyle had covered the ball with both hands and forearms, he wouldn't have had that game ending fumble. Regarding Harrison's comment, hey "the fans want it and the NFL knows it". Sounds like he has half a brain and he isn't using it wisely. He may have problems later? These men are hugh and run so much faster then most players in the 70's and 80's and 90's too. I can't believe their own ego's are getting in the way of their health. Yes, the fans may want it,but you guys aren't a video game. Just start tackling like they taught in High school football. Save your own health and stop blaming the NFL. Some of this is the players choice you guys are Rock Stars, you are football players unless you're like Steve Tyler and fall off the stage every once in a while.

    January 24, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • BurstBubble

      Oops, at the end ( correction) I meant to say..... "this is the player's choice you guys aren't Rock Stars, you are football players"....

      January 24, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Joe Camel

    The best way to make this game safer is to require players to run around on their knees. 50 yard penalty if you stand up.

    January 24, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Rico1957

    Sad, why in the world would you admit you were looking to hit him and shake him up because of his concussion history? This goes beyond the players, this behaviour is COACHED! Plain and simple. I would be willing to bet this is what a coach said to the players and they were stupid enough to repeat it to the press! He probably should not be playing, but does not deserve to be TARGETED in this manner. Sometimes it is smarter to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are stupid that to open it and remove all doubt. Poor form Jacquian and Devin!!

    January 24, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • BurstBubble

      I agree with you. Teaching to target players is just messed up. More thugs seem to play this game anyway. I don't really know who to blame. These are grown men who have probably been taught to hurt people on the field. It sounds much like a cultural thing in the realms of football, maybe it is started in High school? To hurt others seems to be an except-able way to play football. What other game is so willing to break the rules and not call some penalties and teach "do it " as long as you don't get caught.

      January 24, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Kent Bowen

    This story is a complete waste of time. There is absolutly no relationship between the punt returner's miscues and the fact that he had a history of concussions. God, I hate that this crap is passed off as journalism.

    January 24, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  13. AM

    It stands to reason that if nobody has ever paid an athlete for their intelligence, then discussing the impact of a brain injury is pretty mindless.

    January 24, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. mmi16

    Football, as it is played today, the helmet is not a protective device for the head but it is used as a weapon. Eliminate helmets – if they want to teach tackling by leading with the head, without helmets, so be it. There are too many way to tackle that don't require the head being involved. Technique, Technique, Technique!

    January 24, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. doug

    These guys get paid too much and play dirty. It will take someone getting killed or paralyzed for life until the sport has the b_lls to do the right thing and rein in the thugs. This was once an honorable game played for the most part to win, not win by hurting someone – and then bragging about it.

    January 24, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
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