Stopped In Mid-stride

Felled by an ominous knee injury, Atlanta running back William Andrews is attempting a comeback after missing two seasons
May 18, 1986

William Andrews was asleep when the ball boy pounded on the motel door in Suwanee, Ga. "Get up!" the kid hollered before moving to the next room. Mist hung over the Atlanta Falcons' practice field across the parking lot. It was 6:30 in the morning, Aug. 21, 1984. The season would start in 12 days.

Andrews pulled on a T shirt and a pair of shorts and yawned. He looked at his roommate, Alfred Jackson, who was half awake. It seemed the Falcons had been going through two-a-days for years. Eat, get taped, practice, shower, study, meet for film, sleep, wake up, eat, get taped—the routine itself was numbing. The night before, Andrews had fallen asleep the moment he lay down on his bed. He hadn't moved. He hadn't dreamed. The dreams would come later. But he had awakened with a start around 11:30 and called his wife, Lydia. She and the two boys, Andy and Micah, were visiting relatives back in Thomasville, Ga., Andrews's hometown. Everybody was fine, she said. Andrews knew they would be. Still, he hated to miss his daily call home.

The 6-foot, 213-pound running back looked at his feet. Sometimes he put on sneakers, but this morning he wore sandals. "It was hot the day before," he recalls, "and I knew it would be hot today." He had no idea how much time he would spend looking at his feet, the left one in particular, in the months to come.

He ate breakfast with his teammates, having the usual—eggs, bacon, orange juice, grits with butter. "After that I took a Jacuzzi, because my lower back was stiff," he says. "Then I had my ankles taped and sat down at my locker to put my stuff on."

Other than being a little tired, Andrews felt great. He had practiced well the day before, and he wanted to have a good one now. "Sometimes you'll want to lie on the floor and catch some more Z's," he says. "I'm usually not real sharp in the morning, but I was up that day. I was excited about practice."

Andrews pulled on his white practice jersey and walked out to the grass field. He joked with some of the defenders, who wore red, and loosened his huge thighs and sinewy calves. "I was happy that camp was breaking up soon and that I'd get to see my boys and wife," he recalls. "And I was happy about the way the team was playing. Things looked up."

If time could be freeze-framed, then it should be stopped right there. William Andrews, 28, was at the peak of his game—possibly at the peak of his life just then. He was entering his sixth season, and already he was the Falcons' leading career rusher, the 26th alltime rusher in NFL history. He had been named to the Pro Bowl four straight years and had gained more than 1,000 yards in every one of his seasons except strike-shortened 1982. He ran like a bull and blocked like a rhino. His hands were as soft as kid; his 81 receptions in 1981 were just one of the 19 team records he held. Only a few days earlier, owner Rankin Smith Sr. had rewarded him with a contract (including an annuity) worth about $200,000 a year for the next 42 years.

Moreover, Andrews was such a good man that nobody resented any of his accomplishments. Name a charity and he worked for it. Name a banquet that needed a speaker and he was there. He signed autographs as long as people wanted him to. His motto was: "If you've got time to talk to me, I've got time to talk to you."

In 1983 his 1,567 rushing yards and 609 receiving yards were 39% of the Falcons' total offense. Said Buffalo Bills linebacker Jim Haslett, "He is just the best runner in the NFL. I know all about Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett, Eric Dickerson and the rest. But Andrews is the best I've seen."

Sitting now on the grassy bank of the drainage pond at the Falcons' training complex, Andrews furrows his brow, thinking back to that day almost two years ago.

He tips his graphite fishing rod over the water and drops in his baited hook. He comes here almost every day after working out, "to meditate and think."

Bream circle his wriggling worm. "God dog, come on!" Andrews yells. He yanks in a nice-sized fish and drops it in his cooler.

"I saw my accident before it happened," he says. "I'm not talking psychic stuff or ESP. I can't tell you when I saw it. Not the night before. I didn't dream then. But sometime, maybe afterward.... I don't know.... I saw it. Maybe I'm a strange fellow. It's hard sometimes to tell what I've dreamed and what really has happened."

Real drills began. One-on-one, pass skeleton, seven-on-seven. Then everybody trotted down to the far goal line for timing work. It was approximately 10:30, a blazing, humid Georgia morning. Public relations director Charlie Dayton, his assistant, Bob Dickinson, local radio man Steve Holman and TV man Beau Bock stood in a group near the far goalpost, just behind the offensive huddle. None of the media people was very alert. "You're punchy by that time in the preseason," says Bock.

Quarterback Steve Bartkowski called the play—60 Outside—and set the team down. He spun and handed the ball to Andrews, who started running wide to the right. Right tackle Brett Miller pulled, and Andrews thought to himself, "Wherever he cuts, I'm going to cut."

Miller turned upheld, stumbled and fell, and for a moment it looked as though Andrews's feet got tangled with the tackle's. "I planted my right foot and proceeded to jump to my left," says Andrews. "My left ankle rolled over when I did that, and my knee went."

It more than went; it detonated. Later, Falcons trainer Jerry Rhea would tell Andrews that the injury was the "wickedest thing" he had ever seen.

Rookie linebacker Thomas Benson started to close in on Andrews, and it seemed that the contact may have contributed to the injury. Practice film later would show that Benson had nothing to do with the trauma, nor did Miller's block; that, as team physician John Garrett says, it was "basically a noncontact injury." The film of the play itself was deemed too ghastly and demoralizing to have around camp and subsequently was destroyed.

"Benson was trying to hold me up, and I said, 'Let me fall.' I didn't feel what you'd call pain," Andrews says. "I felt a tingle, a jolt that was so sharp and high I don't know how to explain it. Because really I couldn't feel my leg at all."

That was the true terror. For a few minutes Andrews lay on the ground, hyperventilating, trying hard not to pass out. "A lot of things went through my mind," he says, "but the biggest thing I remember was the expression on Benson's face. I looked at his eyes and what I saw in them was what he saw in my eyes."

And what did Benson see? "Surprise, shock. Not fear. Surprise," says Benson.

Rhea came out of the training room and with the help of his assistants put Andrews on a motorized cart and drove him to the building. The team, meanwhile, had fallen silent and would, indeed, remain almost mute for the rest of the day.

Falcons coach Dan Henning watched the event as though through a dark lens. He had just returned from New York, where he had gone to see his ailing father, and he had not slept for 36 hours. "I went over and looked at William's face and I knew," he says.

Inside the training room Rhea cut off Andrews's pants and put ice on his knee. It was a futile gesture. "I knew a bag of ice wasn't going to help," says Rhea. "I've been doing injury tests all my life, and I didn't get past the first test with William, the one where you ask the person to raise his toes." Andrews couldn't. His lower leg was paralyzed. He had nerve damage.

In minutes Andrews was driven to Piedmont Hospital. The Falcons called Garrett, who was vacationing at Hilton Head Island, S.C. at the time. "I was out windsurfing," recalls Garrett, who immediately began packing to return to Atlanta. Surgery was scheduled for the next morning.

Andrews asked for a phone and called his wife. "I told her to wait till tomorrow to drive down," he says, smiling at the memory, "but that was like telling a tornado not to drop its funnel. It's a 4½-hour drive from Thomasville, and I'll bet she made it to the hospital in three."

When Garrett opened up Andrews's knee he found mayhem. "Every major ligament had been disrupted," he says. Some were ripped, some shredded. Cartilage was torn. Even more worrisome than the joint damage, however, was the damage to the peroneal nerve, the long, pencil-thick cord that runs through the knee and down to the toes. "It has the texture of a night crawler," says Garrett, "but inside it looks like a telephone cable."

The nerve enables one to lift the foot; if it is severed, the foot dangles uselessly—forever. If it is just stretched or bruised, the nerve sometimes can regenerate. As Garrett followed Andrews's nerve down its path, he found that it had been stretched—almost two inches—but it was still "in continuity." With luck Andrews would be able to walk normally again. Run the football again? That would take a miracle.

At home Andrews sat and thought. He couldn't feel his foot. His cast was immense. He couldn't walk. He spent his nights in the downstairs bedroom because he couldn't make it upstairs. If he needed something he called Lydia on their second phone line. "I was a cripple," he says.

The injustice was that now he never would be known. At Auburn he had blocked for James Brooks and Joe Cribbs and had seldom carried the ball. He had been drafted in the third round by the Falcons and got no fanfare then. His name—a TV announcer once called him William Miller on a network broadcast—and a running style that resulted in a career 4.6-yards-per-carry average but no run more than 33 yards seemed to preclude superstardom. "The problem was you never saw William on the Monday Night highlights going 80 yards," says Dayton.

But it was O.K. with Andrews. He had never chased fame. "I don't fit into the star role," he says. "After surgery I was relaxed, because I knew what was wrong and what I could do to get better."

It was harder for Lydia. She bought needlework for herself and William to work on to pass time together. Some of their efforts—depictions of shells, a boat, a lighthouse—hang in their bedroom now. Sometimes at night Lydia would stare at her husband. One night she just started crying. Andrews consoled her. "I'll get better," he said. "I promise."

Andrews himself spent hours staring at his left foot and comparing it with his right. "I would look at my toes and say, 'Move.' And my toes would say, 'You're crazy. We can't.' "

"One day he came in and told me, 'Look, my toes are wiggling,' " says Garrett. "And it was very sad for me to tell him, 'No, they aren't.' "

Before Christmas that year Andrews and teammate Billy (White Shoes) Johnson took a group of kids they were sponsoring at a halfway house for battered children to a local mall and bought them presents. Johnson had just had knee surgery, too, and the two players cut strange figures with their long white casts and crutches. When they returned to the halfway house they found that some of the other children had been stood up by their sponsors. Andrews and Johnson went back to the mall with this new group and bought them presents, too. Not long after that Andrews got his own present—his left little toe moved.

Since that time he has shown steady improvement. By last fall his knee joint was fairly sound, and his thigh and calf muscles were almost back to normal strength. At the end of the '85 season he even ran practice plays with the team, a brace stabilizing his knee.

But he had to cut back on his jogging this spring—his weight has been up as much as 15 pounds—because of fluid buildup in the joint. "If they have to drain it every week, hey, fine," he says.

Last summer Garrett said, "Think of the nerve cables as a whole series of TV sets. Right now half are plugged in, and half are not. William's going to need the vast majority plugged in before he can play again." Most are plugged in now, Garrett notes, but if Andrews comes back he will have missed two entire NFL seasons because of one injury. No NFL running back has ever come back after doing that.

When the Falcons' minicamp opened last weekend, it was still uncertain whether the real William Andrews would ever be seen again. His knee began to swell on Sunday, the second day of drills, and he was forced to miss the afternoon workout.

Hurdles are everywhere. Garrett sighs, "Now you're seeing the effect of not playing for so long, as well as age [Andrews turned 30 last December]. Plus, there's a new kid on the block."

That, of course, is running back Gerald Riggs, who took Andrews's spot and rushed for 3,205 yards in the last two seasons. "I'm glad Gerald is there," says Andrews convincingly. "He takes the pressure off my comeback."

Henning sometimes wonders if injuries like Andrews's won't be prevented in the future. But the thought irritates him just now. Without Andrews the Falcons went 4-12 two years in a row, and Henning knows he must win this year, regardless of setbacks, or be gone. "We spare no expense to protect our players," he says. "But what do we do, put them in armor? Cover them with sheet metal? Where do we stop?"

Andrews himself, optimistic, proud, hardworking, doesn't know where he will stop. He is a very patient man. Defensive line coach Tom Brasher watches him coax in another bream and declares, "William Andrews can catch fish even when they won't bite."

"I know I'll never be 100 percent," Andrews says after the coach is gone. "But I believe I can be 97 percent. And I'll play at that. I've had dreams where I'm running the ball again."

And he casts another red wiggler into the water, waiting for his future to rise up and greet him.

ILLUSTRATIONBART FORBESOn the fateful play, called 60 Outside, Andrews cut inside of Miller and jumped to his left, severely injuring the peroneal nerve. ILLUSTRATIONBART FORBESThe knee had exploded as though a tiny depth charge had been triggered in the joint. ILLUSTRATIONBART FORBESAndrews, working hard on his rehabilitation, has made some encouraging improvement. ILLUSTRATIONBART FORBESSans Andrews, Atlanta has gone 4-12 two years in a row. ILLUSTRATIONBART FORBES"I know I'll never be 100 percent," he maintains, "but I believe I can be 97 percent."

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)