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Two decades after Craig's fumble, 49ers' Williams joins lonely lore


SAN FRANCISCO -- Kyle Williams walked out into the rainy night, looking like a high school student, a dark hoodie pulled low over his head, backpack hanging over sagging jeans. He disappeared into the parking lot behind Candlestick Park, apparently without notice from the dejected 49ers fans gathered there.

He couldn't be as anonymous on Twitter, where -- within an hour of the game -- he was receiving death threats and racial slurs to his account.

Former 49ers running back Roger Craig must be happy his mistake came long before the advent of social media. He walked the same path as Williams in 1991, fumbling away the 49ers chance to go to a third straight Super Bowl.

It's a path that many 49ers had walked in recent years, when letting victory slide through their hands and losing heartbreakers was commonplace and almost expected.

This was a different season. Before Sunday the 49ers had lost only three games and only once at their home stadium. As the wins piled up, they seemed to fully believe they were a team of destiny, capable of winning any game.

But somewhere in the second half of Sunday night's NFC Championship slugfest, it became clear that the game was going to be lost rather than won. That some mistake, some human error, was going to crack open the defensive stalemate and send a team to Indianapolis.

And, unfortunately for 23-year-old Williams, the error belonged to him.

Williams, forced into returning punts because of an injury to Ted Ginn, Jr., fumbled the third punt of overtime on the San Francisco 24-yard line. Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams punched the ball out of Williams' hands, Giants receiver Devin Thomas fell on it, and that was the deciding moment of the game.

"It was like, 'I can't believe he just fumbled,'" Thomas said. "Then I'm like, 'Okay I'm right here.' So I just made sure I secured it and made sure no one would take it from me."

Thomas wasn't the only one feeling disbelief. The 49ers defense had stopped Eli Manning twice in overtime and had a chance to win the game until the fumble. Their fans abruptly went silent.

And Williams walked off the field stunned. He threw his helmet to the ground, and then was wrapped up by Jim Harbaugh, who told him to keep his head up.

He sat on the bench, receiving pats and words of encouragement from his teammates, as the Giants ran the ball closer to the end zone, lined up for the game-winning field goal and, once again, earned a trip to the Super Bowl on the strength of kicker Lawrence Tynes' foot.

After the game, Williams was buffered by the 49ers PR staff. But he took a few questions at his locker.

"It was just one of those situations where I caught the ball, tried to head upfield, tried to make a play and it ended up for the worse," Williams said.

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It wasn't his only mistake of the game. In the fourth quarter, Williams let a punt drop near him, and the Giants fell on it. The 49ers were originally awarded the ball but replays showed that Williams' knee brushed the football as it landed. Giants coach Tom Coughlin challenged the ruling and the play was reversed, with the Giants getting the ball on the 49ers' 29. Seven plays later, the Giants scored a touchdown -- Manning finding Mario Manningham -- to retake the lead, 17-14.

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.

Williams was just a week removed from glory, throwing a terrific block on Saints defensive end Will Smith to allow quarterback Alex Smith to run into the end zone to take the lead in the NFC playoff victory over the Saints.

A sixth-round draft choice in 2010, Williams spent most of his rookie season injured. But he had become increasingly vital to the 49ers, because of their depleted receiving corps, forced into the role of second wide receiver and punt-returner.

The 49ers' lack of production from their wide receivers has been glaring all season, but never more so than Sunday night. In almost five quarters of football, the 49ers wide receivers caught exactly one pass: a three-yard reception by Michael Crabtree.

But Williams -- the son of White Sox general manager Kenny Williams -- wasn't intimidated by his expanded role.

"I'm very comfortable," he said. "There wasn't any situation where I felt out of place."

Williams has been in the same situation before. Including the unhappy outcome. On the last play of his collegiate career at Arizona State, he fumbled a punt that his archrival Arizona recovered, and the Sun Devils lost 20-17. But there wasn't a berth in the Super Bowl at stake there.

To their credit, none of the 49ers pointed a finger at Williams. They knew that their offense hadn't done nearly enough to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.

"What did we go, 1 for 13 on third down?" quarterback Alex Smith said. "I know it's tough for him and he's going to think about those two punts for quite awhile. But we didn't lose the game there. We lost the game across the board. Offensively we weren't good enough today. We didn't get it done .... We all had a hand in it. You can't put it on him."

Williams said that his teammates were unconditionally supportive.

"Everyone in here told me to keep my head up, it's not on me," he said. "You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it up in that fashion and lose a game of this magnitude. It is what it is. We're going to move forward as a team. I couldn't be happier with the teammates I have in here."

Many players -- more accomplished players -- than Williams have made the same painful walk out of Candlestick Park.

"It's football man," Crabtree said. "Nothing you can do about it.

"It's going to hurt."