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Shawn Williams Shakes It Off Because The Field Is "My Happy Place'

Shawn Williams heads to his happy place.
Shawn Williams heads to his happy place.

Shawn Williams, the Bengals' indestructible safety, may have more nicknames than injuries. But he's all good for Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium even as he looks down at his wrist like some kind of traitor.

"Just a little break in my wrist. That's all," Williams is saying before practice earlier this week. "My legs still work. Everybody's got something. It will hopefully heal before the end of the season. Hopefully three weeks. The team needs me. And being on the sidelines stinks."

Williams is asked to run through his laundry list of lumps. A back in Buffalo, a game in which he played all but seven snaps. The next week in Pittsburgh, some kind of knee in a game he played all 58 downs. Then the next week was the thigh.

And somewhere in The Black Hole last week while playing all 70 snaps in Oakland, he broke a bone. Just another day at the office for Williams, the Bengals' seventh-year safety that leads by example and ace bandages, a true elder statesman for a team in the throes of transition. Since he got carted off the field against Arizona on Oct. 6 with that ghastly thigh bruise that he says he's just getting over, he's missed a mere 42 of those 335 snaps since. He's missed two of 256 plays in the last four games and that's why defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo gives him the communicator helmet.

"He never comes off the field," Anarumo says. "It's also because he's a captain and a leader. He's a grinder. A football junkie. Just a tough guy."

It's not that Williams won't come off the field. He can't. It's not in his DNA. It is his DNA. He needs the game too much. For him, football is bread and water. New head coach Zac Taylor is always talking about building his program's culture with "Guys That Love Ball." Williams should be plastered on Taylor's recruiting poster.

"It's my escape from the rest of the world," Williams says of the game. "It's what I love doing. It's what I always wanted to do. That's my happy place. That's the best way I can put it."

Taylor knows. Guys like Williams are keeping it afloat.

"He's one of those guys I rely on on defense because he goes about his business the right way and really works to keep everybody accountable on that side of the ball," Taylor says. "A dependable guy who lays it all on the field. Man, that guy has played through lot nicks and bruises this year … He's certainly in that category of guys you respect because of how tough they are and what they put their bodies through. He's certainly in that (upper) tier of guys I've been around."

 "Captain," is what left end Carlos Dunlap calls him and he's been here three years longer than Williams. When Williams arrived here via the third round from Georgia, his first head coach, Marvin Lewis, dubbed him "Peacemaker," because he was probably the opposite.

"When I was younger I would start problems on the field or I'd finish them," Williams says. "For whatever reason. Because I was young."

At 28, wearing the "C," on his jersey, the coach's helmet on his head and the fifth most solo tackles in the league with 58, he's no longer a kid. Slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who like Williams grew up getting tough in small-town Georgia, has another name for Williams in the defense.

"He's the heart," Dennard says. "No doubt one of the toughest guys I've ever played with. I've seen him play through just about every injury. If he can go out there and run, he's good … He's the leader. We go as he goes. He brings passion and energy to the game. When he's flying around and making hits."

Williams figures he got his toughness growing up in Damascus, Ga., a hard 60 miles from the Alabama line. Population, 254. No stoplights, but a few stop signs. Two gas stations. A Dollar General Store just went in there recently. If you wanted to go to the mall, it was a 45-minute ride to Albany, Ga.

"Everybody has a hard day, hard times," Williams says. "It makes you a man, makes you who you are. Our Pops was tough on us growing up. You had to be ready to handle anything that came your way."

Both parents raised their two sons (Williams' brother is about 10 years older) while working for decades in a chicken processing plant. His mother is retired, but looking for another job and his dad is now working at a jail as a processor. Sports and hard work were the passwords. Still are. Baseball may have been Williams' favorite sport growing up. A fleet center-fielder, Williams had a good enough bat the Georgia baseball team was looking to swipe him but football just meant too much for everyone involved.

"Yeah, old school," Williams says of his youth. "We grew a lot of what we ate. We sold greens, fruit, all the country stuff you can think of. That's how we survived, quote, unquote."

Williams and Dennard are always kidding each other about growing up in their little towns. Even though Dennard is five months younger than Williams, he says he's his older brother. He grew up in Twiggs County, Ga., population about 8,000.

"No stoplights," Dennard says. "But a caution light."

Neither of them seem to have any idea why Dennard says he's the younger brother, especially since Williams beat him to the pros by a year. Dennard agrees growing up in a little town environment hardens the soul.

"When I got here we were pretty much in the same position," Dennard said. "He was a young guy like me fighting for jobs and working our way up. Now you see him in this position. It's night and day. He's worked his tail off. Usually it was the Mike backer that wore the (communicator) helmet. Now he is. That shows you what they think of him. I can only think of one other guy in the secondary that wears it. (Rams safety) Eric Weddle. And he's a Pro Bowler and I think Shawn's that same kind of a player. He's underrated around the league."

But not in the PBS locker room, where Williams is lining up for another one because, well, he can only romp in his happy place 16 weeks a year.

"You've got the whole offseason to take time off," he said.