The first surgery of Trent Williams' life put more fear into him than any pass-rusher on a football field.
“I was scared,” Williams said. “I was terrified.”
Not much terrifies the Washington Redskins' star left tackle, though this was different. Now eight months removed from major surgery on his right knee, Williams is ready to get back on the field when the Redskins open the season at the Arizona Cardinals and already looks like the player he was before the debilitating injury.
“He looks amazing,” coach Jay Gruden said this week. “We just have to make sure we take care of him, get him right. Physically, I think for the game, he's in great football shape. He's always been in great football shape but I expect him to be Trent Williams, the best left tackle in football.”
Williams has gotten that kind of praise from Tampa Bay defensive end Gerald McCoy and others around the NFL and earned respect for playing through countless injuries. His six games missed last season were more than he sat out for injury combined over the previous five seasons.
This knee injury was so bad it forced Williams not to play and affected his mindset.
“It was difficult to have to — I'm not going say give up — but basically have to go ahead and I guess bow down out of the battle,” Williams said. “I just more so felt defeated because I had tried so hard to continue to work through.”
Williams was so determined to gut it out he played games even when Washington was eliminated from playoff contention. The sight of his name on the injured reserve list for the first time in his career was the wakeup call he needed to finally go under the knife.
That happened Dec. 29: a medial patellofemoral ligament reconstruction by way of a tibial tubercle osteotomy, which involved breaking his tibia bone and realigning it with the knee joint. Every doctor he saw told him he was underestimating how major it was.
“I was,” Williams said. “Maybe I was in denial. I did underestimate how intense it was and how hard the recovery was going to be.”
Eight weeks of being unable to get around without crutches or assistance followed. Williams spent months building the strength back up on both legs, got eased back into practices and still had a hurdle to overcome that's common to players coming off knee surgery.
“Trent came in and he did drills with us in OTAs and to me he looked quicker and faster than he had been before,” running back Chris Thompson said. “But then when you get out here and bodies start flying, people start coming towards you full-speed, mentally you're just like, ‘Oh, I don't know if I'm ready yet.’”
Williams took limited snaps in the preseason as the team preferred a cautious approach to getting Williams to Week 1. As he built up his workload through training camp, teammates saw glimpses of Williams at his best.
“He hasn't lost his step,” right tackle Morgan Moses said. “The guy obviously is an incredible athlete. He runs like a deer. He runs like a guy that's supposed to be playing slot receiver.”
Williams is still dealing with scar tissue and managing internal expectations. But now he can put his weight on his right leg without the burden of worrying about what'll happen next.
"It's a relief because at the time I was playing and putting other ligaments and other parts of my body at major risk and I knew the risk I was taking prior to doing so," he said. "When you're competing and you're a competitor, all that stuff kind of falls to the wayside. You throw caution out the window. But it feels great knowing I'm not bowing out anymore."