Nose tackle Ian Williams, who sustained fractures to his left ankle in back-to-back seasons, finally made it through an entire season healthy.
Williams experienced a breakout year with the 49ers in 2015, and was set up for a big payday as an unrestricted free agent. And on the eve of free agency, the 49ers agreed to terms with Williams on a five-year contract worth a reported $27.5 million.
But less than two weeks later, then-general manager Trent Baalke told reporters at the NFL owners meetings in Boca Raton, Florida, Williams had failed a physical due to an ankle condition. The sides worked out a revised one-year contract.
Williams never played another snap for the 49ers, and on Tuesday he revealed details about the complications from two ankle fractures that ended his career just as he was reaching his prime football years.
“It was a tough time,” Williams said on the 49ers Insider Podcast.
Neither the 49ers nor Williams’ agent disclosed any information about the cause or extent of Williams' physical condition. Williams said he initially heard speculation he injured himself in an accident involving an all-terrain vehicle. He said nothing could have been further from the truth.
Williams said he was walking around Los Angeles with friends early in the 2016 offseason when he first began to feel something was wrong with his ankle. And sensation continued to worsen as he went to Miami to begin his offseason training program.
“I had some surgeries to clear up – I had a bad infection that came back that kept me out longer heading into the 2014 season,” Williams said.
“It was really bad. Luckily, they caught it in time so that I could have the surgeries and get it cleaned out. It basically destroyed my joints. That’s why I haven’t been able to resume my career.”
Williams said he had five or six surgeries over a period of a couple of months in 2016. He knew early on that his football career was over. And if the infection had not been discovered until much later, the consequences could have been even-more devastating.
“After the first surgery I kind of knew then from what the doctor told me what happened and what was going on with my ankle,” Williams said. “Right then and there, it was a pretty rough time in the hospital with my mom.”
Williams, now 28, continues to undergo therapy and rehabilitation on his ankle in the Bay Area, he said.
“I’m doing much better these days,” he said.
“(I’m) trying to get this ankle as good as it can be, so I can play with my kids and do stuff as I get older.”
The initial injury in Week 2 of the 2013 season was the result of a since-outlawed chop block from then-Seattle right guard J.R. Sweezy, who dove at Williams’ legs while attempting a back-side block on a run play to the left.
Williams underwent surgery and missed the final 14 games of the season due to a fractured left lower leg. Williams said he did not use proper technique on the play. It was a large price to play for making a simple mistake.
“That was on me, not being on my P’s and Q’s and not running with the play,” Williams said. “I think I false-stepped the wrong direction first before he dove into my ankle. Just the fact that you make one mistake, you shouldn’t have someone diving at your ankle. If a receiver makes a mistake, you don’t have someone diving at his ankle or knee.
“I’m just glad that they changed that rule. They’re doing more player safety rules now, so I’m really, really excited about that for the future.”
The NFL passed a rule in 2016 that eliminates all forms of chop blocks.
Williams re-fractured his left lower leg after appearing in nine games of the 2014 season. He returned at the beginning of the 2015 season and played in a career-high 16 games before developing the career-ending complications in the offseason.
“It’s always tough to face reality and know that the chapter you’re in is about to close,” he said.