Less than two years after he was nearly paralyzed in an on-field collision, former Texans wide receiver Harry Williams was back at practice last week.
Harry Williams' football-playing career ended a little less than two years ago. In a 2008 preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys, the 26-year-old Texans wide receiver and emerging special teams standout was briefly paralyzed after colliding with a teammate in kickoff coverage.
Remarkably, Williams' football-coaching career began only a year later. In 2009, Williams enrolled at Prairie View A&M University and began helping to coach the school's wide receivers. He has made a full recovery from his injury, of which there are now no discernable effects other than a large scar on the back of his neck from surgery.
"I tell you, it's great, man," Williams said on Thursday after visiting a Texans practice. "I can't play football, but at the same time, I get to do a lot of stuff in life that I wasn't able to do when I was paralyzed. I wasn't able to walk, I wasn't able to drive, I wasn't able to eat by myself. People had to do things for me, and that's a big part of life that I took for granted.
"Even though I can't play football no more, I'm just happy to be able to walk and be able to coach football and teach people to play football, and to hopefully prevent injuries like I had."
Williams, who played at Tuskegee before the New York Jets drafted him in the seventh round in 2005, will graduate from Prairie View after the upcoming fall semester.
Texans owner Bob McNair has been paying for his education, a commitment that McNair made to Williams after his career-ending injury.
"I was really concerned as to how he was going to make a living going forward," McNair said. "I just knew that he was going to have a tough time, and I wanted to encourage him to go back to school. I'm delighted that he wanted to go back and that he's succeeding."
Williams was on the verge of a successful NFL career when his neck injury intervened. He was primarily a practice squad player from 2005-07, playing in only three regular-season games during stints with five different teams. But he was playing so well in the 2008 preseason that head coach Gary Kubiak called Williams the Texans' best player on special teams at the time.
Wide receivers coach Larry Kirksey recalls Williams as a physical player with an unrivaled work ethic.
"You're talking about a tough guy, now," Kirksey said. "He may have been limited in some areas, but the things that he knew he was limited in, he worked even harder in those areas to try to improve, and his toughness kind of offset some of the things that he quite couldn't get. That's what I liked about Harry. He was going to bring that lunch pail to work every day and do the things he needed to do to get better."
Williams needed every bit of that toughness during the rehab from his injury, which was classified as a fracture of his C3 vertebrae and ligamentous injury to his C3 and C4. He temporarily lost movement of his extremities on the field at Texas Stadium before being carried off in an ambulance, and it was unclear whether he would be able to walk again.
He remained in a Dallas hospital for 10 days, during which time he had cervical spine fusion surgery. He was then transferred to the TIRR Rehabilitation Center in Houston, where he spent two weeks going through extensive rehab. That was followed by several months in outpatient rehab to help repair a loss of muscle and range of motion.
Now almost two years later, Williams walks and moves without a hitch, and he doesn't look much different physically than when he was a player. In fact, Kirksey said that some of Williams' former teammates tried to convince him to run a couple of routes when he was at practice last week.
"It's always good to come back here and see everybody doing well, all the people I used to play ball with," Williams said. "They always show me good love when I come back here, and I also had my little pad in my back pocket – don't tell nobody – just picking Kubiak's brain. He's an offensive genius."
Kirksey, who has coached the likes of Andre Johnson, Jerry Rice, Jimmy Smith and Terrell Owens, also has been lending a hand by discussing wide receiver techniques with Williams.
"He's doing a great job over at at Prairie View, and I know the head coach (Henry Frazier) is really interested in him staying around to help with the receiving corps," Kirksey said. "That's Harry, though. He enjoys the game, and he studies the game and he works at it, so I think he'll do very well as a coach one day."
After his upcoming graduation and another season at Prairie View, which won the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship in 2009, Williams would like to continue in his coaching career.
"The ultimate goal is to be coaching in the NFL one day," he said. "If it's the NFL, it's the NFL. If it's college, it's college.
"Whatever it is, I'm going to climb the ladder, man. Hopefully you'll see me around on ESPN coaching somebody's team one day."