ATLANTA,GA-One year ago Toney Williams was a 6'1, 227-pound fullback coming out of Milton High School in Alpharetta, Ga.
Eager to get a head start on his football career, Williams graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled at the University of Tennessee. Little did he know his head start was not meant to be.
After a solid spring, Williams was participating in summer workouts when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Williams seems to remember the injury like it was yesterday.
"It was a day during the off-season workouts doing seven on seven," said Williams. "It wasn't a hit, I made the catch and we were doing the celebration. We did a chest bump, and I came down wrong."
That injury took place on June 19. Around three weeks later Williams underwent surgery that would shatter the high hopes he had envisioned for his freshman season as a Volunteer.
Williams underwent successful ACL surgery on Wednesday July 8, 2008. Drs. Greg Mathien and Russ Betcher of Knoxville Orthopedic Clinic performed the procedure that would sideline Williams for the entire 2009 season.
Following surgery the freshman tailback began what was arguably the hardest part of his football career, both physically and mentally. Williams underwent what he describes as an extremely difficult rehab process.
"It's been hard. It's hard to keep up with it when you have been doing it for six months. There are times when you don't feel like doing it, but it's only going to get you better," said Williams.
The Volunteer added that he has been extremely humbled by the experience of being injured in his freshman season.
"It's been hard because I came early to try to get to play," said Williams. "Then to get hurt and not be able to play this year has been real hard, but I think it has humbled me."
Williams has remained with the team throughout the rehab process, but he acknowledged the hollow feeling of being away from the football field. The abnormality of not preparing to play football was a constant reminder of his situation.
"Going to the games and watching, you don't feel like you are a part of it," said Williams. "You don't have to get yourself prepared. That is just what I am used to. I grew up playing, so when it's not what I am doing it's real hard."
There was one Volunteer that made Williams push through a very tough time in his football career. Austin Rogers, a fifth-year senior and wide receiver, also underwent season-ending knee surgery for the same injury.
Rogers and Williams have used each other to drive their success during the rehabilitation process.
"We always did everything together, so it's was always competition," said Williams. "Who would have better rehab, who would work out harder, it was always a competition. By him getting hurt it pushed me a lot."
The young Volunteer has learned throughout the 2009 season despite not being able to contribute on the field for the orange and white.
"Watching you just learn to look at little details," said Williams. "When you are playing you can't really pay attention to it, you have to go out there and react and play, but when you're not playing you study the playbook."
From the sidelines Williams has been spectator to a career season from senior tailback Montario Hardesty. Williams draws numerous comparisons between himself and the Tennessee star.
"It's been good watching somebody like him. It's kind of like watching myself in the future," said Williams. "I mean he went through the same things I went through. He tore his ACL his freshman year."
Hardesty was said to have been an injury prone running back for the Volunteers, but has since collected 1,306 rushing yards on 264 carries during the 2009 season, fifth among Tennessee rushers for a single season.
Six months have passed since Williams came down on his knee that summer afternoon and things are finally starting to become normal again. Williams said from the second he threw on the pads he felt like he was a football player again.
"The first day I put my shoulder pads on. When I got to go through individuals and just feel like I am playing again and part of the team," said Williams.
Sunday marked the end of Williams rehab process and although he will not play in the upcoming Chik-fil-A bowl Williams knows he is headed in the right direction.
"I actually got released from rehab. That means I must be going in the right direction. I must be strong enough because I got released today," said Williams on Sunday afternoon.
Williams says the knee feels great and he will be ready to go for upcoming spring practice.
"I can run and cut, the only thing I really can't do is take on contact," said Williams. "That pressure of somebody hitting me is bad on my leg right now, but I can do everything else."
Williams said that his injury has only intensified his love for the game of football, and he will enjoy every moment from here on out.
"When I come back I am going to go even harder and just do everything I can because I know it could be gone at any second," said Williams. "It makes you realize how much you love this sport to be honest."