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Former Sun Devil wide receiver ready for a career in medicine

August 19, 2022

Kyle Williams walked away from the NFL to pursue his academic passion

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

In August 2020, Kyle Williams was cut in training camp by the Tennessee Titans.

Williams could see it coming. He was an undrafted receiver out of Arizona State University, a longshot to make the regular-season roster.

But he was 23 years old. There would be opportunities with other teams to pursue his dreams.

Williams’ agent, Jon Baker, said he would make a few phone calls to see if other teams were interested. That’s when Williams ran a route very few 23-year-olds do.

He walked away from the game.

“Jon wanted me back in it,” Williams said, “and I literally just told him, ‘Hey, Jon, you know what? I think I’m good.’”

Williams had a different plan for his life, one that involved healing bodies instead of hurting them. He’s now a first-year medical student at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, the first step toward his goal of becoming a surgeon.

It’s a long and expensive journey: Williams said it will be at least 10 years before he gets his degree, completes his residency and is “emancipated, doing my own thing.”

“I talked to (former ASU running back and current Arizona Cardinal Eno Benjamin) when we were together at ASU, and he said, ‘Man, when my career is done, you’ll just be starting,’” Williams said.

Some waits are worth it.

“I do see myself, in whatever surgical specialty I choose, flourishing and changing lives for the better. Absolutely,” Williams said. 

Williams always had an affinity for math and science, which led to him earning a biomedical engineering degree at ASU in May 2020. As to how a student-athlete can spend that much time on a field, in a playbook and still graduate with honors from Barrett, The Honors College with a 3.69 GPA, Sun Devil football coach Herm Edwards said, “He’s one of those guys that’s way ahead of the curve.” 

Man sitting at computer in classroom with writing on the whiteboard behind him

ASU alum Kyle Williams is pictured at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine in August, where he is a first-year medical student. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Williams wasn’t sure he wanted to become a surgeon, however, until he injured his AC joint in his shoulder during a game against the University of Washington his freshman season and was examined by Dr. Anikar Chhabra, the medical director for sports medicine at Mayo Clinic in Arizona and ASU’s head orthopedic surgeon since 2007.

“He gives me the diagnosis, some words of encouragement and then the prognosis and treatment,” Williams said. “And I just kind of wondered, ‘What does he do?’ Here’s this big, tall dude, and he was able to explain my pathology in a pretty concise way and communicate to me pretty efficiently.

“That was like the advent of my love for medicine. Crossing paths with Dr. Chhabra literally changed the trajectory of my life.”

Chhabra said he knew from his initial evaluation that Williams wasn’t your typical freshman athlete whose key concern is how quickly they can play again.

“He was very inquisitive about the injury,” Chhabra recalled. “’Why did this happen? How can I prevent it?’ Most football players aren’t as worried about the anatomy or physiology. His questions were more on the level of a medical student than a first-year undergrad.”

Their kinship quickly formed; Williams began shadowing Chhabra in the fall of 2017 as a research intern in orthopedic surgery. He observed shoulder and knee surgeries and watched as Chhabra interacted with patients, the nursing staff and physician assistants. 

He was hooked.

“That’s when I really got gripped, if you will, by orthopedic surgery,” Williams said.

Chhabra introduced Williams to cutting-edge arthroscopic techniques and had him help write several research articles, including one on spinal injuries among football players.

“I think he’s going to be a perfect fit for academic medicine in the future,” Chhabra said.

Portrait of medical student in front of mural at Mayo Clinic

ASU alum Kyle Williams is pictured at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine in August, where he is a first-year medical student. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Although he has a natural propensity for orthopedic surgery and a desire to return to the sports arena — perhaps, he envisions, replacing Chhabra as ASU’s orthopedic surgeon — Williams has gone into medical school with an open mind.

He’s considering neurological and cardiovascular surgery. He spent about a year and a half between the NFL and medical school working as a cardiac rhythm management clinical specialist at Abbott Laboratories in Las Vegas.

Or, his practice could involve early screening and advocacy for people who are genetically susceptible to cancer. Williams’ brother, Kendall, died from colon cancer at the age of 33. 

“That has given me a deeper sense of purpose while studying medicine,” Williams said. “My brother was very supportive of me in football and in my decision to quit to follow my dreams of becoming a surgeon.” 

Williams does miss football, describing his permanent break with the game as a “super hard breakup.” It’s particularly trying this time of year, when teams are holding training camps and young wide receivers are catching footballs and chasing dreams.

“I mean, it’s integrated into my DNA,” Williams said. “It’s who I am. I played it for 18 years. Even today, a lot of my life resembles certain processes that I underwent in football.

“I’m used to the training table and getting food after practice. So, at Mayo, I’ll go to the cafeteria and chow down. That’s something I just can’t get rid of. And the long nights, even my mentality when it comes to grinding and studying emulates a lot of what I did in football.”

Williams has no regrets about walking away from the NFL so quickly, though. He has moved on.

“He said, ‘Look, I’m going to do this, and if I get a shot that’s great. But I’m going to have this in my back pocket,’” Edwards said about Williams. “He’s headed in the right direction.”

Top photo: Former Sun Devil wide receiver Kyle Williams is a current first-year medical student at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine. After a stint as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans, he decided to forgo further adventures in the NFL to utilize his ASU biomedical engineering degree to pursue a career in surgery. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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Is democracy dying?

August 19, 2022

ASU professor to talk about co-authored book during Center for Work and Democracy fall conference

What can be done to protect democracy?

Arizona State University’s Center for Work and Democracy will address that thorny question in its fall conference, to be held inside the Ventana Ballroom of the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus Aug. 26–27.

The conference will include activists, organization leaders and academics that will address issues — in the context of an authoritarian threat — such as diminished voting rights, conditions for working people and violent policing.

Marcia Howard, vice president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, and Dave Regan, president of United Healthcare Workers West/SEIU, will be the keynote speakers, and a late afternoon panel on Aug. 26 will address the book "Degenerations of Democracy," which was published in July and co-written by Craig Calhoun, a University Professor of social sciences at ASU.

ASU News talked to Calhoun about the book.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Craig Calhoun

Question: Let’s start with the title. How has democracy degenerated?

Answer: Democracy is a project and something people do. It’s not just a settled state of affairs, like, oh, if you have elections, that’s the story. And it’s a project of trying to create greater liberty, equality and solidarity self-rule by the people. When it stalls or is blocked, it degenerates, develops pathologies and loses some of the advances it has made. The institutional mechanisms are undermined.

Q: How has it been stalled or blocked? And is this a recent phenomenon?

A: Let me answer in reverse order. We mislead ourselves if we try to understand our current problems with a short-term perspective. The issues are rooted in larger social transformations, particularly in the way in which the broad post-war boom years saw advances in democracy in several different ways. After World War II and up until the early 1970s, equality was increased in the United States. There was increased voter participation. Then we start getting movements to limit that. So, we’re (the authors) suggesting that we need to have at least a 50-year perspective on these degenerations to see them well.

How does degeneration take place? It takes place institution by institution, based on shifting social conditions that damage democratic processes directly — for example, when people try to block voting rights for their fellow citizens but also indirectly by advancing polarization and creating extreme splits in the country. So that it’s hard for us to say, “We the American people.” People use that phrase, right? But they tend to mean the American people on my side, not the other side.

Q: Given how polarized our current political climate is, do you think the foundation of democracy is stable enough to survive?

A: I’m optimistic, but I see the reasons for pessimism. I think things are really difficult. I think we could lose democracy in the United States and in some parts of the democratic world. I don’t think the die is cast, but it’s up to us to take action, to try to renew it and rebuild it. That means overcoming the polarization, not just winning from our side. It will take movements. It will take struggle. It will take work we’re not quite ready for because we have to escape some of these polarized, knee-jerk reactions. At the same time, a longer historical perspective tells us we’ve come close to losing it before. One time, that resulted in a massive, hugely devastating Civil War, so it’s not a very optimistic story. But often since then, there’s been a sort of two steps forward, one step backward movement. And you can say we’re in one of the backward phases.

Q: What does the loss of democracy look like?

A: I think it would look like continuing and more extreme versions of polarization, disempowerment of citizens and destruction of what I call the ability to say “we,” the common institutional framework. The United States didn’t start with voting rights for everybody. It built democracy by building voting rights, by giving rights to men who didn’t have substantial property, by giving rights to women, by giving rights to the formerly enslaved population. Losing democracy would mean sliding back on that.

Q: Around the world and in the United States we see a nod to populism and even authoritarianism. How does that play into the degeneration of democracy?

A: Populism is always present in democracy because there’s always a question about who are the people and are they being listened to? But it can be a problem when it gets attached to really terrible ideologies or to bad individual leaders. And there is a temptation to authoritarianism if progress isn’t being made through regular electoral or other institutionalized means, or through ordinary social movements. People start to say, “What we need is a strong leader to really represent us.” And that is the slide from populism into authoritarianism, the belief that a strong man, a man on horseback historically, was going to save us.

But I think we need to remember that people are the basis of democracy, and we can’t give up on the people. We have to find ways for the people to gain greater empowerment. And that’s not by authoritarianism, which ultimately disempowers the people, but it’s also not by saying, “Oh, we just have to have conventional elites run things and the people should know their place.” That’s not right, either.

Q: In your book you say it will be movements, not policy, that restores democracy. Why is that?

A: The reason we need movements is because populism arises out of change. We’ve had huge transformations the last 50 years. The range of cultural changes that have come about, the role of women in society, the openness toward people with different sexualities. ... Some people are enthusiastic. Some people are saying, “Wait a minute, you’re changing my country out from under me.” So, what gives rise to populism is transformations that people experience as disempowering. They may be right or wrong about that, but that’s how they feel. The result is, there won’t simply be narrow policy fixes to deal with these problems. You can deal with some of the issues, like, say, voting rights. But can you have a policy fix on the basic issues of inequality and social change? No. You’ll have movements, like the trade union movement or Black Lives Matter or the religious evangelical movement.

Q: Where do you see democracy in, say, 2050?

A: It’s hard for me to disentangle where I see it and where I want to see it. Where I see democracy, when I’m feeling optimistic, is a reconstruction of social solidarity, as basic as social connections and integration and mutual support. ... I would like to reduce inequality, not to flat equality, but to less extreme levels of inequality. I’d like to see that reflected in universities and elsewhere. So I see rebuilding the institutional basis for democracy. Then, I see rebuilding the conditions to participation in voting. Finally, I’d love to see democracy thriving more at local and middle levels, communities and states.

Q: That’s what you’d like to see. Is that what you think you’ll see?

A: I see people fighting for this. I don’t know if they will win. I think the U.S. has a pretty good shot. I think we will still be on the defensive and inadequately coming to terms with that but doing better than we are today. This is because I’m optimistic that we will try to deal with climate change. We will try to deal with pandemics. We will try to achieve peace. All of that will require us to rebuild some relations.

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News