SAN FRANCISCO – After the disaster, Kyle Williams dressed alone, yet he was very much exposed. The San Francisco 49ers moved quietly around their locker room, quickly pulling on clothes, packing travel bags and shuffling toward the door. They wore blank expressions. They spoke in hushed whispers. And they stayed far away from the wood and metal locker assigned to the man who kept them from Indianapolis.
He pulled off his shoulder pads, his T-shirt and long lines of black tape that ran up the sides of his legs. He looked at the ground. He looked at his locker. He shook his head a couple of times and then he draped himself in towels. Better to look invisible even if he was never more in the open.
Outside in the glow of Candlestick Park, he misplayed two punts in the NFC championship game. Each led to New York Giants scores. The second, in overtime, gave the Giants the ball on San Francisco's 24-yard line and set up the field goal to win the game 20-17. But given that the first turnover – when a rolling punt grazed his knee – came early in the fourth quarter and prompted the touchdown that briefly gave New York a three-point lead, you could argue that he cost the Niners the Super Bowl twice. It was a realization that struck the Niners even as they tried to not state what was so painfully obvious: Their trip to destiny had fallen through the hands of a second-string wide receiver who was previously most noteworthy for being the son of Chicago White Sox general manager Ken Williams.
"We're a team," grunted the Niners monstrous defensive tackle Justin Smith. "We win together and we lose together."
But Smith, once nicknamed Godzilla, might have seen his best chance at a Super Bowl disappear in the hands of one of the team's more obscure players. And just hours after the Baltimore Ravens saw visions of the Super Bowl squashed when kicker Billy Cundiff sent a game-tying field goal wide to the left.
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The men who fight through 50 scrums a game never understand when the game is lost on a special teams mistake. This is the way of football. This is how it has been, this is how it will always be.
The Niners said the right things, but it will never be right. It can never be right, not when you stand so close to a Super Bowl that may never come again. The 49ers showed wonderful promise this season with a brilliant young coach, an aggressive defense and an ability to win close games. Planted in the NFL's worst division, the NFC West, they have the look of a team that could be back in this game season after season. Except there are no assurances in the NFL. How many times must Ray Lewis have thought he would go to another Super Bowl? Now he almost certainly won't.
Williams surely realized this as he changed alone. Before a small group of reporters, he answered a few questions:
"It was one of those situations where I caught the ball, tried to head upfield, tried to make a play and it ended up for the worse," he said of the overtime fumble.
Someone wondered about the weather. Did the rain make the ball slippery? Is that why he dropped it when the Giants' Jacquian Williams hit his arm?
"Everyone handled the weather OK," Kyle Williams replied. "I don't know if that play was because of [the rain] or not, but it was one of those situations where the guy made the play, caught me slipping and got the ball up."
The thing is he shouldn't have even been returning punts. In his two years with the Niners, Williams fielded only five punts. But the 49ers' usual kick returner, Ted Ginn, Jr., was injured in last week's win over New Orleans. And so it was Williams, the emergency returner, who returned kicks on Sunday night. Up until this playoff game, the Niners hadn't committed a turnover on special teams all season.
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Somehow this is the way it always happens. The player who wasn't supposed to be there is the one who errs. In 2003, on this very field, the Giants blew a chance at a game-winning field goal in a wild-card playoff game when long snapper Trey Junkin – pulled from retirement the week before – flicked the ball wildly behind him. Now another replacement had blown the biggest moment.
After that game, the Giants too said the right things, said they supported this man none of them even knew and then spent much of the next several years resenting him for ruining their great chance.
"Everybody in here shows the resolve of this team," Williams said. "Everyone in here told me to keep my head up and told me it's not on me. We'll move forward. It's just one of those things. You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it up that way in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude. It is what it is. We're going to move forward as a team. Everyone has come to pat me on the back and shoulder and say it's not on me.
"I couldn't be happier with the teammates I have in here."
Across the hallway in the Giants' victorious locker room, the man who recovered both of Williams' turnovers stood by his locker and smiled. Devin Thomas' body is covered with tattoos, mostly symbols of childhood heroes who gave him the strength to get through what had been, until Sunday, a discouraging pro career: Conan, Wolverine, a Spartan warrior (for his college Michigan State). He said he knew immediately when the first punt hit Williams' knee and was stunned when Williams made no attempt to turn around and recover it instead of pretending the ball hadn't hit him.
"He's going to be sick for a little while," Thomas said.
Then Thomas, who has played for three teams in two years, was asked if he could sympathize with the backup wide receiver. Thomas shook his head. "I have no feeling for him at all," Thomas said. "He's the opponent."
Yes, Kyle Williams was alone on the day he was introduced to the rest of the country. At one point, as he dressed, he noticed a man with a television camera filming him and he gave the man a cold glare. Otherwise, his eyes focused on nothing. He pulled on a White Sox cap and blue-hooded sweater, draped the hood over his head and quickly walked out of the locker room, into a tunnel filled with delirious Giants players, family members and eventually into the parking lot where he blended in with the fans and disappeared.
Outside the lot a line of red brake lights stretched up the hills. He would be going nowhere but at least nobody was going to know who he was.
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