For a few seconds, Wally Williams' trademark smile disappeared as he looked downward, focusing on the scar he has studied repeatedly for months.
"I can remember sitting up at 3 or 4 in the morning many times, looking at it," Williams said. "There's a chosen few that come through this league and leave without any surgical scars."
A week from Sunday, Williams officially will reclaim his title as the Ravens' chosen center when he starts against the Miami Dolphins.
The Ravens will try to snap a two-game losing streak that day, although Williams will achieve a gratifying victory the first time he snaps the ball to quarterback Vinny Testaverde. That will mark the first time Williams has played since tearing the Achilles' tendon in his right foot during an agility drill April 29.
That was a bitter day for Williams, who is perhaps more ready with a laugh than anyone else in the Ravens' locker room. Seven weeks before that routine day of off-season weightlifting and running at the team's Owings Mills facility, the Ravens had lost free agent Steve Everitt to the Philadelphia Eagles, then quickly replaced him with Williams.
For the first time in his five-year career, Williams, 6 feet 2, 305 pounds, would not be known as a guard/center, or Everitt's backup, or a guy who is a capable starter at either spot. Finally, he would become the offensive line's anchor, just as he was for four seasons at Florida A&M;, where the Cleveland Browns found him and signed him as a rookie free agent in 1993.
And with one bad step, Williams' immediate future was on hold.
"Initially, everything went so fast," Williams said. "I got hurt at 10 // a.m. and I was on the operating table at 4. Then, for the next couple of weeks, I just stayed home since I couldn't do much.
"This was an opportunity for me to play the position I've always wanted to play. I was really upset about the whole deal. It was hard to get a perspective on why this happened to me. Then I decided, I was either going to let this thing defeat me or I was going to come back and do all of the things I'd done before."
Five months of relentless, monotonous rehabilitation have left Williams with a different perspective on his livelihood.
While walking or riding an exercise bike on the side during training camp, he watched the offensive line and the rest of the team come together. He has spent the first six games in street clothes on the sidelines, which has left him feeling awkward but also tuned into the rhythm of the game in a way he never appreciated before. It also has turned him into quite the critic.
"I've looked in his eyes and could see how much he wishes he was playing, but he thinks he's a coach now," guard Jeff Blackshear said. "The first mistake he makes against Miami, me and Zeus [tackle Orlando Brown] are jumping all over him."
Added offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz: "I think the other guys wanted to make him a mascot at one point. They didn't want him in street clothes talking on the sidelines anymore.
"Wally is bubbly, very outgoing. And he's probably played his best ball in the past two years. Even though Quentin [Neujahr] has stepped up and done a good job, it was a real blow losing Wally."
The Ravens have missed the athletic ability that compelled the franchise to sign Williams.
In addition to being able to bench-press 500 pounds, Williams is probably the team's quickest lineman off the ball. He was a good enough baseball hitter to be a late-round draft pick of the Montreal Expos. He was a good enough punter to average 34.4 yards as a senior at Florida A&M.; He can run in the open field as a pulling guard or neutralize the bull rush of a massive nose tackle at center.
With the exception of a few periods of severe soreness, Williams' rehabilitation went smoothly. With more running of late -- and by cutting down on Tastykakes, his favorite snack -- he has dropped about 10 pounds. He wants to lose at least 10 more. On recent weekends, he has grown increasingly restless.
A week from Sunday, Williams' anxiety will dissipate.
"I haven't been sleeping too much on the weekends lately, thinking about putting on those shoulder pads and feeling some contact," he said. "I've missed it a lot more than I thought I would. It's different being on the outside looking in. It's good to get back with the 'in' crowd."
Pub Date: 10/08/97