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Trent Williams' return to being NFL's top tackle powered by gratitude after terminal cancer diagnosis

Trent Williams plays football with such physical and technical dominance that it looks easy for him. For his opponents, it might feel unfair. For everyone else merely watching, it can seem scary. 

Such descriptions make Williams laugh, but he wouldn't dare say the game is easy. Not even when he's playing as well as anyone at his position, or perhaps the sport (his Pro Football Focus grade of 98.5 through Week 15 is the best in the NFL). And especially not after the journey the San Francisco 49ers left tackle has been on the past three years, where concepts like unfair and scary paled in comparison to his reality. 

"I take so much pride in the product that I put out there. I'm always concerned, I'm always nervous, I'm always anxious about football and playing. I don't feel like that part of it gets easier," Williams said in a phone interview last week. "But when it comes down to actually going out there, every time I can tie my cleats up, I can strap my shoulder pads up and my helmet, just taking advantage of that. I do know how it feels for that to be snatched away."

Williams is talking about football, sure. But he's really talking about life and death. He's talking about cancer. It's a conversation no one wants to have, but one Williams is bound to. On Dec. 14, he debuted "Silverback: The Trent Williams Story" -- a documentary detailing his recent battle with cancer and return to the gridiron. 

"My agent talked me into doing it," Williams admitted. "I wasn't a huge fan of doing it at first. He just kept working on me, just knowing that maybe I could help someone in my same position or reach somebody just to give them a little more motivation."

When Williams received a terminal diagnosis in January of 2019, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound giant never felt smaller. Neither did the game he'd dedicated his entire life to. 

"The football player, the sport, all that was kind of out the window at that moment in time," Williams said. "I really felt helpless. It felt as vulnerable as you could feel as a human, just not knowing what the next day might bring, not knowing how much longer you got left on Earth."

A mass, in fact, had formed on Williams' head back in 2013, just a few years into his storied tenure with the Washington Football Team. While he and the franchise have since disputed how the illness was subsequently handled, Williams was prepared to undergo what he was told would be a simple extraction following the 2018 season. Instead, he soon received a gut-wrenching diagnosis: He had Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans, a rare form of cancer that develops deep in the skin and was creeping toward his brain. He was 30 years old.

Doctors didn't give Williams a timetable for how much longer he'd live, only communicating that these could be his "last days."

"Six weeks or six months, I didn't think (there was) a big difference in that," he said. "I was told to get my affairs in order, so I didn't have much fight after that. It was unbelievable. I felt like it was a dream that I just couldn't wake up from. I didn't want to believe it."

"Twelve months ago I felt blessed, I felt lucky, I felt like I was cheating. There's overcoming what I overcame, and then being able to do what I still love, I feel like I was cheating." Trent Williams

The blindside protector had been blindsided. But he never stopped protecting. Williams said he withheld the news from daughters Micah and Makayla, who were 9 and 5 at the time, to spare their thoughts, while exploring candidates to raise them in his expected absence.

"While I wanted them to understand what I was going through, I also feel like my first role as a father is protector, and you never want your kids to worry about you," he said. "I wasn't as concerned with my time here for myself. I was more so concerned about having young daughters without a father figure."

In February of 2019, Williams underwent the first of several scalp reconstruction procedures. His cancerous tumor was successfully removed just weeks before it would have metastasized through his skull. The surgeries incorporated about 30 percent of his scalp, skin grafts from his thigh and a few hundred stitches. But he'd survived cancer, he was able to circumvent chemotherapy, which he was told would have put a 15-year cap on his life, and the incisions in his head did not require him to retire from football.

Williams was sidelined about eight months, a period in which doctors urged him to avoid so much as perspiring. When he reported to Washington, he had issues wearing a helmet as well as with his contract, and he was placed on the non-football injury list against his wishes. Though Williams' longstanding relationship with the team effectually deteriorated, Washington honored its star's trade request by sending him to his favored destination -- the 49ers, coached by Kyle Shanahan, Williams' offensive coordinator for the first four years of his career.

"I think that part of my life I learned the most about myself," Williams said. "When tragedy strikes, everybody always thinks about the impact and whether you survive or not. Hardly ever do you think about how it feels to start from square one. I feel like that's exactly where I was starting from, after going through those surgeries and taking the time off to recover and just mentally what I had went through just even having to think about dying at such an early age. When all the smoke clears, here I am, I haven't lifted weights, I haven't run, I haven't even broken a sweat in eight or nine months. There was no easy way to go about it. There only was the hard route, that was to bust my butt and get into elite football shape and being the elite player that I once was, and having to hear all the doubts. I wasn't very open with what I went through, so I know a lot of people doubted. They thought it was more so contracts, and I understood that, but the human nature of being criticized, it has an effect sometimes."

The perennial Pro Bowler was soon thrown another curveball in the form of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented Williams from working alongside his new teammates and learning Shanahan's evolving offense hands-on. After sitting out an entire season, the aging tackle also had to prove himself while entering the last year of his deal. The Niners weren't ready to commit long term, but they did agree to rework his contract so that he could not be placed on the franchise tag after the season.

"Twelve months ago I felt blessed, I felt lucky, I felt like I was cheating," he said. "There's overcoming what I overcame, and then being able to do what I still love, I feel like I was cheating."

Powered by gratitude, Williams went out and earned his eighth consecutive Pro Bowl nod, setting him up for a six-year, $138 million pact that reset the OT market last March. Never content with his performance, the 12-year veteran is playing at an All-Pro level in 2021 for the surging Niners and was named a Pro Bowl starter Wednesday. He can improve his case for his first All-Pro first-team selection Thursday night against the Titans, in a game that will have major playoff ramifications for both conferences.

It's the type of game Williams believed he'd be in by joining San Francisco, which he said has become "home" for him since their 2020 union. Last year also saw the arrival of his third daughter, Marley. The 33-year-old views fatherhood and football as his "second chance in life."

"(My daughters) didn't even know what I was dealing with," said Williams, who still requires semiannual checkups to ensure sarcoma cells haven't returned. "Every day I see them, I talk to them, it does go through my mind that just a couple years ago, this conversation wasn't even supposed to be possible. I'm just thankful that I could be here in their lives and be an influence and be a father.

"I definitely do give thanks for every day that I'm here because I know how fragile life is. Regardless of your age, it all could change in the blink of an eye. But for the most part, I just feel like I'm maxing out my potential. I think it would be hard for me to sleep at night, knowing that I was abundantly blessed with an ability and with a physical set of traits and I didn't take advantage of it. That's all I want to do. I just want to be a vessel of what God has blessed upon me and just show others, whether you're a young offensive lineman or whether you're somebody having to battle with cancer, I just want you to be able to look at me and draw some motivation or relate to me in some type of way and see my battle and draw some strength from it."

That is the easy part.

Follow Adam Maya on Twitter.

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