I want to start with an apology.
To the city of Buffalo.
We got off on the wrong foot, didn’t we? For those first two years, back in 2011 and ’12, you and me — we just didn’t click. And that’s on me. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Bills fans, it’s that you guys take your football seriously. And I think that’s where the disconnect was.
Back then, I didn’t take it seriously enough.
I came into this league with two things on my mind: money and fame. The way I saw it, I balled out at Texas, so it was a given that I was gonna ball out in the NFL, too. Easy money, right? So when I first came in, I didn’t work very hard. I didn’t watch film. I didn’t study. I pretty much made it through my first two seasons on straight athletic ability. Football wasn’t a priority. I was more concerned with what kind of car this guy was driving or what club that guy was posting up at. I was trying to live the NFL lifestyle you see on TV and in the movies — that baller life, where everything’s wavy and you’re the man. I wanted the money … the fame … the respect.
And when I didn’t get that respect, I got super defensive about it. When somebody would come at me on Twitter with something like, “Aaron Williams is trash! He can’t cover nobody!” I would hit them back and tell them that if they had something to say, they could say it to my face. If they had a problem, they could meet me at the Hamburg Walmart and we could settle it.
I just didn’t … get it, you know?
I even remember calling my parents after my second season — which was probably the worst season of my life — and telling them, “If things don’t turn around for me next year, I’m might have to find a way to get outta here.”
See … in my mind, I didn’t realize that Buffalo wasn’t the problem.
I was the problem.
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Everything changed for me that summer going into my third season. First off, and I don’t know why, but I started talking to the vets a lot more — especially Fred Jackson. One thing about Fred is that he has always been super involved in the community in Buffalo. I hadn’t been involved at all.
I remember when I got drafted, I was like, Hell yeah! I’m so excited. So blessed!
But … Buffalo? Really?
I was born in California and raised in Texas. I didn’t know anything about Buffalo. And I didn’t make any effort to get out and get to know the city when I got there, either. I just decided right off the bat that I wasn’t really feelin’ it, and I kind of left it at that.
But when Fred took me out and I started getting involved in the community, that’s when I started to learn what Buffalo — and the Bills Mafia — is all about.
There was this one moment that really got me. It was when I met this young Bills fan. This kid must have been like five years old, swagged out in Bills gear from head to toe. And I’ll never forget, this kid … he was telling me how he wanted to play in the NFL one day — that when he grew up, he wanted to be just like me.
And my first thought was, Wait, wait — hold up. This kid wants to be like … me?
Is that really a good idea?
That was the moment when I started to look at myself — like really look at myself — for the first time since I had gotten to Buffalo. I thought about all the things I was doing. If this kid saw me trying to fight fans on Twitter, or staying out late at the club, or giving anything less than everything I had to this football team and this city … would he still want to be like me?
And I swear, man … that summer, before the 2013 season, after I met that kid? I reevaluated everything. I realized that I hadn’t even given Buffalo a chance. And the more time I spent out in the community getting to know the city, the more I realized that Buffalo is … well, it’s just Buffalo. It’s a blue-collar city. People work their asses off, and they love their Bills. That’s the deal. And I finally started to understand what an incredible responsibility it was to play for this football team.
So I started to take my job more seriously, and it showed on the field. That next season, I had probably the best year of my career. It was because I was more focused on football than I had been since I came into the league, but also because y’all were behind me and I felt like I was at home for the first time since I had arrived.
I’ll talk about the rest of my time there in a minute, but off the top, I just felt like I had to apologize — just for those first two years. Because you guys deserved better.
You humbled me.
I’m grateful for that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those two years lately, because today, I’m officially retiring from the NFL. And those two years … man, I wouldn’t say I wasted them, but … I guess I kind of did. And that hurts now more than ever because I honestly wish I could have those years back — to do over, to do things the right way.
Especially now that the game has basically been taken away from me.
They were trying to bring the stretcher out, but I waved them off.
It was Week 7 of 2016. We were in Miami playing the Dolphins. I had just been blindsided by Jarvis Landry — I didn’t even see the hit coming. I turned my head just in time for Landry to catch me square in the chin, and when he did … man, it sent me flying. Everything went into slow motion. It felt like I was in the air for ages.
When I finally did hit the ground, I could taste the blood inside my mouth and I was screaming at the top of my lungs because I felt a burning sensation in my neck.
Actually, I think maybe the screaming was half because of the pain and half me being like, Is this really happening to me again?!
I heard somebody — I don’t know who it was — call for a stretcher. I yelled, “Hell no! I don’t need a stretcher!”
I couldn’t get taken off the field like that.
You gotta understand … my mom was watching … and she had already seen me put on a stretcher four times in my life.
The first was back in Pee Wees. I was 11 years old and I took a helmet right in my back, and it had swollen up so bad I could barely move. The second time was when I was at Texas, my junior year. We were playing Baylor, and I collided with one of my teammates while I was trying to break up a pass and I got knocked out cold. The third was my rookie year against New England when I dove for a tackle and landed awkwardly. I had injured my chest on the play and could barely move, so they brought out the stretcher.
The fourth time was in 2015, Week 2, also against New England.
It was the third quarter and the Patriots were driving. Julian Edelman came across the middle, and nobody was on him. So he caught a pass at about the 20-yard line, and I was hauling ass trying to get there. He was running up the sideline, and it was basically a race to the pylon. As I closed in on him, I remember thinking that the only way I was going to get him was to lay out, so at about the five-yard line, I dove to try and knock him out of bounds.
I didn’t expect him to dive, too.
He stretched out and reached for the pylon, and I basically tackled him in mid-air.
Half my body felt like it was on fire. Then, that burning and tingling faded, and it turned into no feeling at all.
I remember grabbing him, holding on, and thinking, I got him!
But his momentum was too strong. He reached the pylon, got the touchdown, and when we hit the ground together, I felt my neck whiplash.
You ever hit your funny bone, and you get that tingling, burning sensation up and down your arm?
Well, imagine that … but on the whole left side of your body.
That’s what I felt.
Half my body felt like it was on fire. Then, that burning and tingling faded, and it turned into no feeling at all. I tried to get up — because you always get up, you know? You never wanna show weakness. But when I tried to roll over, only my right side moved. The trainers came out and told me to stay still. They were pinching my legs, pinching my arms, asking me if I could feel this, this, or this.
I remember looking up at the sky and trying not to cry — looking up to the clouds and thinking, God, please just let me walk again.
They got me on the stretcher and put me in an ambulance. On the way to the hospital, they kept pinching me, asking if I could feel it.
Finally, I was like, “Can y’all stop asking me that? Because you’re freaking me out.”
I just felt … helpless.
“When I feel something,” I said, “y’all will be the first to know.”
At the hospital, the feeling in my left side slowly returned. I was sent home later that day. I didn’t have a concussion or anything, just a really bad neck stinger.
But while the doctors were examining my neck, they found out why my stinger was so bad.
Basically, on your spine, there’s a space between each of your vertebrae where nerves run through. Well, apparently, the spaces between some of the vertebrae in my neck were abnormally narrow. So the nerves between them were easily aggravated or pinched, making me more susceptible to stingers or other nerve problems. It was actually kind of crazy that I hadn’t had more neck issues before that Edelman hit.
The doctors said I had two choices: Go back to playing and have the same high risk for stingers and other neck issues or have surgery to shave down the vertebrae in my neck and give the nerves more space.
Thinking long-term — and because I never wanted to feel that burning or numbness again — I decided to have the surgery.
Kellen MIcah/Icon Sportswire
The Bills put me on IR, and I missed the rest of the season. It was a tough rehab, but I was back working out for OTAs in the spring. By the time the 2016 preseason came around, I was cleared to play and I was back on the field, ready to pick up where I had left off.
Then, the week before our first preseason game, we were doing a light practice — just shorts, T-shirts and helmets. I was back on the field, feeling good. We were running full-team defense, and we were in man coverage. I was responsible for the running back, Reggie Bush.
So Reggie swung out to his right, and I was shadowing him. There was a receiver to my left running a slant, but I closed the gap, so Tyrod didn’t throw the slant. Instead, he hit Reggie in the flat. So I turned to see where the receiver was, and I remember hearing this crack! To this day, it was the loudest hit I’ve ever heard on a football field.
That’s the last thing I remember about the play.
After that, everything went black.
I don’t know how long I was out for, but it must have been a couple of minutes. When I regained consciousness, the trainers told me what happened.
That crack that I heard was the receiver and me colliding, helmet to helmet. He wasn’t looking. I wasn’t looking. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It was just this fluke kind of thing.
When I got into the training room, I sat down on a bench and waited for the assistant trainer, Shone Gipson, to come in. And man … me and Shone? Out of all the doctors and trainers I’ve worked with in my life, Shone is my guy. He’s been with me through the absolute worst. And he knew how hard I worked to come back after that neck surgery.
When he walked in, he had our owner, Terry Pegula with him, along with our team president, the general manager and the head trainer. So I’m sitting there, and the only thing I’m thinking is that I can’t cry in front of all these people. Keep it together, Aaron.
And I’ll never forget it … Shone came in, and he said one word:
And I just started bawling.
In front of everybody, too. I just couldn’t hold it together. I had worked so hard to come back. To be at the top of my game. And now I was basically right back where I started.
Shone told me that he thought I had a concussion. They had to send me to the hospital. I couldn’t go back to practice. I couldn’t play in the preseason game. They had to keep me out at least a couple of weeks.
At the hospital, the doctors told me to avoid bright lights and loud noises. Don’t turn on the lights. Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t turn on any music. This was during training camp, so we were staying in dorms. It’s not like I was going home to the comfort of my own house or anything.
So that night, I went back to my dorm room and sat on the edge of my bed … in complete silence … complete darkness. It was just the loneliest feeling, man.
And I remember sitting there, saying under my breath, almost to myself, but really kind of silently pleading to the team and the powers that be:
Please don’t cut me….
“Hell no! I don’t need a stretcher!”
I was feeling the same burning sensation after the Landry hit that I felt on that Edelman hit, but this time, it didn’t turn to numbness. It faded away, and the trainers gave me the time I needed to gather myself, get up and walk off the field. No stretcher.
Now, you want my honest opinion about the hit?
I feel like it was unnecessary.
He didn’t have to hit me in the chin like he did.
But you know what? I remember when I was a little kid, I used to watch that segment they had on ESPN with all the big hits — Jacked Up! or whatever it was called. You probably remember it. I used to replay those hits on YouTube like crazy. And a lot of those hits were like the one Landry laid on me. So I can’t be a hypocrite. I glorified that kind of hit myself growing up. Football’s a violent game. Shit happens. I got no ill will towards Landry.
My only real regret about that day is that when I was walking off the field, I wish I would have just stopped and turned around and looked at the stadium … the fans, the cameras, the lights … just one last time.
Because in my mind, even though I kind of knew that was it and football was over for me, I didn’t stop to take it all in.
I didn’t cherish that moment.
I wish I would have just stopped and turned around and looked at the stadium … the fans, the cameras, the lights … just one last time.
Getting back to the team plane from the hospital was kind of … I don’t know … weird, I guess. The guys were coming at me with a lot of love, feeling sorry for me. I think they knew that that was gonna be it for me, too. I mean, how many guys have three big head-neck injuries in like a 14-month span and come back? Maybe there’s been one or two, but I ain’t never heard of one.
Fast forward to March 2017. I had missed the rest of the 2016 season after the Bills put me on IR after that concussion. But I was working my way back. I was getting ready to go work out one morning, and my phone rang. It was Doug Whaley. And everybody knows that when you get a call from the GM — especially in the offseason — it’s never good news. So I answered the phone, and I’ll never forget one of the first things he said:
“This is the part of the job I hate….”
Straight to the point. I couldn’t believe it.
I was like, Oh my God, they’re releasing me.
He kept on talking about how this was so hard for him and this and that, but I wasn’t even trying to hear it. I just know he said they were gonna let me go, and I was pissed.
After I hung up with Doug, I called my personal trainer and told him I wasn’t going to work out that day. I didn’t tell him why. I called my parents, told them what happened, and then I climbed back into bed. I pulled the covers up to my chest and just laid there, staring at the ceiling, thinking, I don’t care what they say.
I know I can still play.
Everybody wants to go out on their own terms. Give me two years, give me 10. It doesn’t matter. Just let me decide when I’m done, you know?
But man, that doesn’t happen very much in this league.
I had three teams call me in 2017 after the Bills let me go: the Jaguars and Texans in the off-season, and the Chiefs after Eric Berry went down in Week 1. And man … when I say I killed these workouts, I don’t even know how to tell you. I was stronger, faster, quicker than I had ever been. I was putting up numbers better than my rookie combine.
The Texans were so happy with my workout that they sent me down to the equipment room and had me pick out a helmet, pads and a locker. They even showed me the defensive schemes they were going to run.
But none of the three teams could sign me.
They all told me that because of my history of concussions and neck issues, their doctors wouldn’t clear me to play.
All three of those situations pretty much sucked, but the Texans one hurt, man. Just because picking out my helmet and locker made it feel so real. Like it was a sure thing. So when it didn’t happen, I didn’t even know how to react.
I was just like, “Well I guess I’ll just take my ass back to Austin….”
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
So I told myself, The end of the year.
If I didn’t sign with a team by December 31, 2017, I was gonna hang it up.
Man … I love football. The way I learned how to play the game growing up in Texas was just aggressive. Not having any fear. Balls to the wall, you know? Like, when you played against me, I wanted you to feel my presence. I played angry. And I just loved it.
So when I woke up on January 1, 2018, and I hadn’t signed with a team, and I knew it was over, I just started to kind of wonder: What else could I love like that? What else in this world is gonna give me that fix — that adrenaline, that anger, that feeling of dominating somebody to the point where they don’t want any piece of you.
What else is there?
Honestly, I haven’t found the answer yet. It’s all just still so new. All I know is, I’m never going to play another down in the NFL. And that hurts, for a lot of reasons. But when I think about those first two years in Buffalo — those wasted years when I was just a young punk who didn’t get it — man … it hurts a lot more.
But it’s not all bad. Those years I spent in Buffalo turned out to be some of the best years of my life. And now that it’s all over, I want to thank some of the people who helped shape me into the man I am today.
I want to thank Ralph Wilson, may God rest his soul. You gave me my first opportunity, and I’ll appreciate that forever.
In the same breath, I have to thank Terry Pegula and the entire Pegula family. You picked up where Ralph left off, and you always had my back, even in the worst of times. I’ll never forget that.
Thank you to my teammates. I learned something from every one of you — things that I’m going to pass on to others for the rest of my life. Y’all shaped me, man. You made a young punk realize how lucky he was to play this game.
Thank you, Fred Jackson. You showed me the way, dawg. Endless wisdom. I could never explain to you how much I appreciate that. And it wasn’t just you … it was Da’Norris Searcy, Bryan Scott, George Wilson and Andre Davis. It was Shawne Merriman and his crazy self. Too many guys to even name. You guys always showed love. I know those first couple of years were rough for me, but in the end, I hope I represented you guys well. I hope I made you proud.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Thank you, Shone Gipson. My guy. We’ve worked together. We’ve battled back together. We’ve cried together, man. We’re there for each other for life. I appreciate you more than you’ll ever know.
Thank you to all the doctors who worked on me in my career — and there were a lot. I’m healthy today because of your dedication. I don’t know where I would be today without you.
And listen, I know I’m forgetting a lot of people here. My mom and my dad and my entire family, for always having my back. Donnie Henderson, Rex Ryan, Ed Reed and all the amazing coaches I played for. My guys back at Texas … the real DBU — don’t let anybody tell you otherwise!
And, of course, God — because with Him, all things are possible. (And if I didn’t thank Him, my mom and my grandma would kill me!)
I don’t want to forget anybody, and I’m sure I will. But you know what? You all know who you are. If you feel like you got snubbed, hit me up. I got no problem hearing from some old friends and letting them know how much I appreciate them.
And finally … to the Bills Mafia … you guys get the last and the biggest thank you of all. You didn’t put up with any of my shit, and I’m better off today because of that. We got off on the wrong foot, and that was on me. But man … I love y’all. And I’ll be back soon to stand amongst you and show love to our Bills as they keep climbing. And when we finally win a Super Bowl — soon — I’ll be able to say that I was a part of the come-up. That even though I wasn’t there when we finally made it back to the playoffs, or when we eventually lift a Lombardi Trophy, I helped put the franchise in position to accomplish those goals.
At least I hope I did.
I just hope I did enough, you know? I feel like I had so much more to give to you guys, and I just didn’t have enough time. I wasted time — time that I’ll never get back.
But that’s life, I guess.
So again … thank you, Bills Mafia. Because I was born in California and raised in Texas. But Buffalo will always be the place where I grew up — where I became a man. No matter what comes next or where the next chapter of my life takes me, we’ll always have that. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.