One year after Antonio Bryant authored a compelling story of football revival, Cadillac Williams is writing a comeback script unique in NFL annals.
Tampa Bay's fifth-year running back has shocked everyone but himself by accounting for 162 total yards during an 0-2 start, becoming the first player in league history to overcome torn patellar tendons in both knees.
"In a word, what he's doing is amazing," said Ron Grelsamer, a knee and hip surgeon in the Department of Orthopedics at New York City's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "You fully expect an athlete to come back from an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tear, but when you rupture a patellar tendon, that's another story. You're lucky enough if you can walk to the grocery store, let alone compete."
Through two weeks, Williams is a leading candidate to succeed Bryant, his teammate, as the league's Comeback Player of the Year.
The first rupture, which occurred at Carolina in 2007, was diagnosed as a complete tear in the right knee. Williams worked diligently to return and he ran well after being activated in November 2008, only to suffer another torn patellar in the left knee in the season finale against Oakland.
"When I came here, I honestly didn't expect Caddy to play this year," said fellow running back Derrick Ward, who signed as a free agent in March. "To come back from two knee injuries like that ... I would have hung it up awhile ago. I probably would have hung it up after the first one. This guy came back after two."
Bucs general manager Mark Dominik knew Williams was passionate about football coming out of Auburn as a first-round pick in 2005.
"So many players would have buried their head after two injuries like this, but Caddy's resiliency is amazing," Dominik said. "What he's doing right now is somewhat unprecedented."
Denver's Correll Buckhalter is running well despite suffering a torn ACL in his left knee (2002) and patellar tendon tears to his right knee in 2004 and 2005.
Former defensive back Gary Baxter and wide receiver Wendell Davis each tore both patellar tendons on one play 13 years apart, abruptly ending their NFL careers.
"To be doing what Caddy is doing right now is just amazing," said Fox analyst Daryl "Moose" Johnston, a two-time Pro Bowl fullback for the Cowboys who opened holes for Emmitt Smith before suffering a neck injury that hastened his retirement. "From a running back's perspective, a torn patellar is considered the worst. You hear the words 'ruptured patellar' and you just shrug your shoulders and say, 'Oh, no.' "
Williams, 27, has shown incredible perseverance, but he hasn't done it alone.
"Obviously, his surgeons did a great job," Grelsamer said. "You need a great surgeon and a motivated patient. He's also had a great support system in Tampa."
Through all the rehab and all the pain, Williams willed himself back to the playing field.
"I'm not going to say I didn't have any dark moments, because of course I did," he said. "But at the end of the day, you've got to pick yourself up."
Grelsamer has written more than 75 publications on knee injuries and treatment, so he has seen his share of success stories. This one's different.
"The patellar connects your thigh to the shinbone and the only treatment for a rupture is surgery," he said. "But it's not easy to repair. The tear is very raggedy and it's an involved procedure. It takes about 12 weeks for the tendon to heal, and athletes are usually deconditioned at that point.
"It's very easy to become discouraged because you're looking at a leg that's weathered and atrophied. The forces on that tendon are absolutely tremendous. This is nothing like an ACL tear, where if you don't repair the ligament, 90 percent of athletes would be able to come back, anyway. Unlike the patellar, you don't absolutely need your ACL."
Williams, who registered the first touchdown reception of his 40-game career in Tampa Bay's loss at Buffalo, ranks 10th among NFC backs in total yards from scrimmage heading into Sunday's home matchup against the Giants.
As the Bucs make their way through the schedule, No..24 continues to garner ultimate respect among his peers.
"Caddy runs like he has something to prove," Bills safety Donte Whitner said. "Those guys are the most dangerous."