Kevin Williams goes from deathbed to starter

Wednesday, August 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.-Ten months ago, Kevin Williams lay in a hospital bed, fighting for his life. No one, least of all Williams, could see him fighting for a starting spot on the New York Jets any time soon.

Yet when coach Al Groh announced that Williams would open the season Sunday as his free safety, few among the Jets were surprised.

"Just overcoming a near-death experience, he definitely should be admired for that," teammate Curtis Martin said Wednesday, a few minutes after Groh said Williams will start ahead of Scott Frost. "It makes you appreciate what you have and not look at what you lost."

Williams, who played college ball at Oklahoma State, nearly lost his life. Struck by a throat infection, he fell so seriously ill that he was hospitalized for 27 days. Many of those were spent unconscious and doctors performed three surgical procedures.

First, they cleared abscesses from his throat, which had filled with fluid. Then, a week later, doctors removed fluid from the neck area. The next day, they cleaned out bacteria from his chest.

Through the entire ordeal, Williams, a third-round pick in 1998, never thought about resuming his football career.

"I could tell I was real sick through the whole thing," he said. "It was pain I never felt before, so bad I was close to dying.

"Football was not a big priority to me while I was sick. It could easily have gone the other way and I am just glad I was able to make this comeback. Where I've been and where I came from, I'm blessed to be here. I'm not scared of anything, I'm just trying to work and have fun and do my job."

Williams did a good enough job to get the starting nod, but he and Frost will split time at free safety.

The incumbent, Omar Stoutmire, was cut after being at fault for three long passes against the Giants in the final preseason game. Although Williams didn't particularly stand out in any preseason games, he did well in practices, and is less raw than Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback who also is in his third NFL season.

As a rookie, Williams started at San Francisco _ and was lit up by Steve Young. It was one of six starts that season for Williams.

"Perhaps it was a little much at the time," Groh said of throwing Williams into such a spot. "With three training camps on his resume and with the personal circumstances he has endured, he has gained personal and competitive maturity."

And the admiration of his teammates.

"It was frightening," strong safety Victor Green said. "One minute he is healthy and the next he is gasping for air.

"It's tough to think about playing football after what he went through. That's the courage of Kevin Williams and he's not going to give up. He bounced back from a life-threatening situation."

Williams' main challenge Sunday will be dealing with Brett Favre, not exactly the easiest assignment. Although Favre barely played in the preseason due to elbow tendinitis, Williams knows how dangerous the Packers quarterback is.

"I'm glad I'm getting the opportunity to challenge myself and make myself a better player by playing against that caliber of guy," Williams said. "I feel I'm a different player, but the same person, only a lot wiser. I've been through a lot."