Behind Joe Williams' unusual return from retirement to save Utah's playoff hopes

The ongoing mystery of Joe Williams can't be unraveled with a quote, an anecdote or even a record-breaking performance. It's more complicated than that.

When Utah's senior tailback ran for 332 yards against UCLA on Saturday, it first shined a light on the surging Utes, then on Williams and why he was on the field at all.

You see, he had just rushed through, over and around the Bruins five weeks after quitting the Utes. The politically correct word was "retirement." But that glossed over too much.

At the time he left the team two weeks into the season, Williams explained to his coaches and teammates that all of it had become too much. The football, the stress, the physical ailments. All of it had taken its toll.

Hey, it happens dozens of times each season all over the country. Nothing to be ashamed of. The difference is most of those players don't return to set records and bail out an entire program.

But as Williams walked out of the facility for what he thought would be the last time after Week 2, players and coaches hugged him, offered words of encouragement.

"I knew he was down a little bit at the beginning of the year," Utah running backs coach Dennis Erickson said. "He fumbled a couple of times. Mentally, he was drained a little bit. Physically, he was not feeling very good."

Make no mistake, Joe Williams had quit. That went against every pursuit of the American football dream.

"My parents were a little discouraged," Williams said, "just because everybody had known me as Joseph Williams, the football player, the student-athlete. They also knew I was a smart kid. They wanted to know at the end of the day whether I was happy with the decision. And I was."

Those who would question him couldn't possibly understand his underlying reasons. Erickson, a former national championship and NFL coach, has seen them for years.

"Anymore, man, it's 24/7 for 12 months," he said. "There's a lot of toll taken on these players both physically and mentally."

The NCAA is wringing its hands over how to turn down the noise for players. They call it reducing time demands. Somehow the games -- not just football -- got away from just complementing an education. They were jobs unto themselves.

"Life after football is going to be longer than my career playing football," Williams explained. "That's why I had to make the decision sooner rather than later."

Williams became a national story in part because he came back for more of the battering, stress and time demands. But it's still not altogether clear why.

A 23-year-old man who wanted nothing more than to graduate, go back to his native Pennsylvania and get into social work suddenly changed his mind.

"I followed my heart," he said.

Williams came out of Allentown as a two-star athlete. After signing with UConn, he attended Fork Union Military Academy -- the famed prep school -- before settling at ASA College, a for-profit JUCO in downtown Brooklyn.

Football in the middle of New York City is as misplaced as you can imagine. ASA's weight room was in the basement of the dorm. There aren't many college football stadiums in the Big Apple. Williams estimates he played one home game in two years. The practice field was a half-hour bus ride away.

"I've been to about every junior college in the United States of America," Erickson said. "The first time I ever went to that one was when I went to see Joe. ... Not a lot of people go in there."

It gets more complicated. Williams is back and just might be Utah's best shot at beating No. 4 Washington this week.

Last year, he was an effective backup to Devontae Booker. In the first couple of games this season, he fumbled. Then he was benched.

That had nothing to do, Williams said, with him quitting the team.

"Had I hit the century mark in both those games, my decision would have been the same," he said. "I wouldn't change anything. I would do it the exact same way."

Something changed two weeks ago when Arizona visited Utah. Williams was in the stands that night with his fiancée, Jasmine Jones. Utes running backs -- Williams' old teammates -- began going down with injuries. The problem became chronic. Utah was basically down to a walk-on and a freshman the coaching staff was hoping to redshirt.

Jones, who met Williams at ASA and joined him at Utah to study sociology, leaned over to her fiancé that night and mentioned the obvious. They knew what was coming next -- a phone call from the coaching staff on Monday.

Williams began thinking about coming back.

"I think it was on a lot of people's minds," Erickson said, "but nobody wanted to say it. Then, we got hold of him."

Williams says he returned out of loyalty, out of a sense of duty. His body and mind were refreshed. It was his team now that was wounded. Retirement? Sixty-five-year-old bankers retire.

"Calling it retirement, I put quotation marks around that word," Williams said. "It just fuels my play now just being more angry and having more attitude in my style."

In the first game back, Williams ran for 179 yards against Oregon State. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham loves angry, physical, downhill running. Booker ran for almost 2,800 yards and 30 touchdowns his final two seasons.

Against UCLA, Whittingham decided to feed the football to the player who had enough of the sport five weeks earlier.

The 332 yards were the most in FBS in two years. In only four games, Williams has run for the fourth-most yards in the Pac-12 (586). That fast, he went from giving up the sport to being inspired by playing in the Rose Bowl.

"I came back more for than myself," Williams said. "It was more like, 'I'm not going to leave you out to dry ... I'm doing this for ya'll. I'm going to put it on the line for ya'll.'"

It remains a tough life. Remember those college days when you pulled all-nighters? Williams chose to add -- again -- that full-time job called football.

"Being a student-athlete is one of the hardest things to do for people my age," Williams said. "They think it's real easy and we get everything paid for. Just to be able to balance 6 a.m. study hall and 6 a.m. lift and practice and going to class, not having money to buy food."

It's complicated, and it's not over. The Washington game could be a preview of the Pac-12 title game. If the Utes keep winning, a College Football Playoff berth isn't out of the question.

Erickson says the NFL might even become interested in a 5-foot-11, 205-pound back who loves to run angry.

"The NFL is like the FBI [now]," Erickson said. "He'll have to answer the question if it ever comes to that: 'Why did you leave?' He has to understand to play at that level, you have to be 100 percent in."

It will be up to Joe Williams to explain how he has been absolutely 100 percent in.

Twice.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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