No player wants to be on the sideline. And certainly not on the brink of a senior season. And definitely not with the frightening thought of not knowing that the season could somehow be off the table.
Yet that’s where Southern senior cornerback Virgil Williams found himself little more than a week ago.
A bout of heat exhaustion led to dehydration, a diagnosis of a kidney infection and, fortunately as the situation played out, just the lost time during the feisty, 5-foot-9 cornerback’s final preseason camp.
“I was definitely scared,” Williams said. “The injury came, and it was really close to the season opener. And not just the season opener, but I didn’t know if I would have to get surgery or just sit out for a year. So I just prayed every night, stayed positive and believed that I would be better.”
Being positive is what Williams — with all 5-feet-9 of him setting the tone — and his secondary mates are all about.
First, Williams said his teammates supported him. Meanwhile, Williams saw his injury as a window of opportunity for newer players and liked how his teammates would rather support each other than focus on taking spots.
“I look at it as a big rotation,” said Williams, a preseason All-Southwestern Athletic Conference talent who made the All-SWAC second team each of the past two seasons. “We all tell each other, ‘If you’re out there, I’ve got your back, and I’m cheering for you from the sidelines.’ If I’m out there, they have my back, so it really doesn’t matter to us who plays.”
One bright spot: The younger players had a chance to swoop in and get precious reps.
“While we always want him here, him being gone definitely allowed us to say, ‘OK, if this were a game day, what would we have to do?’ and it allowed us to get a look at (other) guys,” Southern defensive backs coach Marty Biagi said.
And when Williams got back on the field Thursday after being cleared to practice that morning, he said he didn’t feel rusty at all — a notion Biagi and coach Dawson Odums backed.
Odums and Biagi have full confidence in the veteran and have no concern about what he’s capable of delivering this season.
Biagi said: “The reason why Virgil is a four-year starter and All-SWAC player is because he’s consistent and can get right back in the middle of things. He came out, he performed, and we got him some good work in (Saturday, when Southern staged one of its major scrimmages of preseason camp).”
Odums said: “Virgil’s a special talent. He does a lot for the team, so it’s just great to see him on the field. He’s outstanding. We don’t have any issues. We don’t have anything to worry about. He’s 100 percent, and we’re just happy to have him back.”
He said Williams has been great at taking the role of being a teacher and embracing the idea of doing more than everyone else to set an example and promote accountability.
“He’s incredible,” Biagi said. “He’s positive. He knows his role. He knows what we expect from him to be a leader of the defense, and he’s embraced that. His leadership is defined by what he does on the field.”
Biagi explained that Williams’ case was a rarity in the South.
“I think, more than anything, being down in the South, we just have to take all the precautions that we need to stay ahead,” Biagi said. “When it comes to our guys, they do a great job hydrating. This was just one of those instances where he just worked really, really hard in two practices back-to-back and had just been a little dehydrated.”
A player like Williams is not easily broken, and while he may have missed out on crucial practice time, it’s almost as though he never missed a beat.
His teammates respect him, his coaches speak highly of him and he’s expected, as usual, to live up to his title of “Virgil Island” for one more season.
Little wonder that, determined to maintain his momentum during his final preseason camp at Southern, Williams always kept his team and what he had to do to get back in action in his thoughts.
“I really couldn’t work out until the doctors cleared me, and once they cleared me, I’d get a couple miles on the treadmill, lift weights, do cardio, help coach out with the younger guys, you know, just pretty much being a student away from the game until I got better,” Williams said.
Williams said he even watched film while in the hospital, which helped give him the push to rejoin his team as quickly as possible. But although Williams was absent from the field, his team felt his support throughout his recovery.
“I still came to practice on the sideline,” Williams said. “Whenever someone had a question, I could help them. I just did whatever I could to let the team know I’m not really worried about if I’m out there or not. I’m worried about the success of the team.”