Life without football fit Joe Williams.
On Saturdays, he'd wake up and go to breakfast with his fiancée at their usual spot, The Park Cafe in Salt Lake City. He'd pick between the French Toast Foolishness and the Michigan Hash, mostly based on his mood.
Then, they'd go back home to watch some college football.
If Utah was home, he'd be in in the friends and family section at Rice-Eccles Stadium--Section E37, usually between rows 7 and 10 -- cheering on his former teammates.
On Sept. 13, nine days after Williams turned 23 and three days after Utah beat BYU, he retired from football. He never regretted the decision. That wasn't why, a month later, Williams returned to the field and ran for 179 yards on a career-high 34 carries against Oregon State last Saturday.
As Williams watched Utah rally from a fourth-quarter deficit to beat USC in the Utes' first home game after he retired last month, his fiancée, Jasmine Jones, wanted to know how he felt. Was there an urge to sneak into the locker room, grab his pads and jersey, slip on some cleats and see if he could convince coach Kyle Whittingham to give him a few touches?
"Honestly," Williams told her, "I'm having fun."
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Football wasn't very fun early in the season for Williams. Every day, he was dealing with pain in his lower back, shins and knees. Those unwanted souvenirs from injuries in junior college and at Utah made every practice an exercise in pain tolerance.
Two fumbles and a total of 75 rushing yards in the Utes' first two games didn't help.
"He started to not love the sport anymore," Jones said.
Williams surprised his coaches and teammates by walking away two games into a season that most expected to be a breakout year, setting him up for opportunities in the NFL after the season.
"They were upset. I was one of the leaders on offense," Williams told Sports on Earth this week. "But they were also supportive. We all know the grind of football and the toll it takes on our bodies."
Williams still visited the facilities periodically and kept in constant communication with his ex-teammates. But he and Jones focused on revisions to the life they'd planned on building. The two met at ASA College in Brooklyn, where Jones ran track and Williams grew into a juco All-American after transferring from UConn. When Williams joined the indoor track team, the two got closer and began dating.
When Williams graduated and transferred to Utah, Jones followed. She's taken a few classes at Utah and works as a cashier at Home Depot to earn money while Williams finishes a sociology degree.
With football behind them, the plan was to get married in June 2018. They'd move back to Williams' home state of Pennsylvania, where Williams could start coaching and/or start a business and Jones could stack a bachelor's degree in sociology on top of her associate's degree in criminal justice and work toward becoming a social worker for juveniles in the legal system.
For the first time since Williams was 6, football wasn't part of his life.
"No regrets," Williams said. "I made the decision because it was in my best interest."
Williams was watching Utah's 36-23 win over Arizona on Oct. 8 when he saw his former teammate Armand Shyne, the team's leading rusher after his departure, suffer a torn ACL. Walk-on Jordan Howard wouldn't be available the next week, either, and freshman Zack Moss has been injured as well.
Whittingham told reporters the next week he'd never experienced a season with so many injuries and that he planned "to look at any and all available options because we are in a pretty desperate situation."
"It really hurt him," Jones said. "He knew his team would need a running back."
Williams didn't expect a call, but he suspected one might be arriving soon as soon as Shyne went down.
He was correct.
On Oct. 9, running backs coach Dennis Erickson reached out to gauge Williams' interest. He was intrigued and reached out to his parents, grandmother and Jones for input. They all told him the same thing: Do what you think is right.
Williams didn't think it was right to leave his teammates paying the price for a situation to which he'd contributed. When he retired, he never envisioned his position mates getting pounded with more injuries than Wile E. Coyote. But they did.
So the Monday before Utah's matchup with Oregon State, Williams sat down with Whittingham. Whittingham asked about his health and how he felt physically. Could he do it after a month off? Williams felt he could.
"A couple hours later, he called me back," Whittingham said, "and said, 'Yeah, I'm all in. Let's go, whatever I can do to help the team.'"
The next day, Williams was back in practice.
"I came back for my teammates and my coaches," Williams said.
Williams looked good, but he also looked like a player whose cardiovascular system hadn't been subjected to the usual demands on a Division I running back.
Whittingham was hopeful he could get 15-20 carries out of his new, old running back. He got about twice that with 179 yards and a touchdown on 34 rushes, just eight yards short of his career high.
"It was pretty impressive. He hadn't practiced or really done anything physically for a month," Whittingham said. "When he did come back, one of the positive things is he was the exact same body weight as when he left. He hadn't deviated at all."
With Williams back on the field, the NFL is back on the table. A month off might have hurt his stamina, but it helped his back, shins and knees feel a little more fresh.
Whittingham's senior running back has returned and Utah is getting comfortable atop the Pac-12 South, tied with Colorado, a game ahead of USC and two games ahead of this weekend's opponent, UCLA.
For now, trips to The Park Cafe might have to be rescheduled for Sundays.