SANTA CLARA — Unless you're a Super Bowl champion, clearing out your locker at the end of the season is a somber ritual. It was especially subdued this year for the 49ers, who were still feeling the sting of Sunday's 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants, a game that left them one step short of the Super Bowl.
Monday, the locker room was filled with boxes, some standing empty and ready for equipment, others already beginning to fill with cleats and gloves and other tools of the NFL trade.
Players came and went during the 90-minute media session, and none of them drew more interest than Kyle Williams, whose two miscues on punts opened the door for New York's victory.
Early in the fourth quarter, he let Steve Weatherford's punt skip by him, and officials ruled that it grazed Williams' leg; the Giants took possession at the San Francisco 29-yard line and capitalized with a touchdown that gave them a 17-14 lead. It got worse in overtime when Williams attempted another punt return and was stripped by Jacquian Williams. Devin Thomas recovered for New York at the 49ers' 24, setting up Lawrence Tynes for the field goal that has his team headed for Indianapolis.
It was a crushing blow for Kyle Williams, the second-year player who was filling in for injured Ted Ginn both as a wide receiver and as a kick returner. His mistakes were replayed in an endless loop on the late-night sports highlight shows, and the response on Twitter was swift and savage. One follower said, "you should jump off the Golden Gate Bridge for that one." Another chimed in with, "HOPE U RUN n2 A BULLET DA WAY U RAN INTO DAT BALL."
Williams easily could have waited out the media session and cleared his locker in peace. But he wandered into the throng and dutifully answered every question, his face serious but assertive.
It took some guts. The loss is already being referred to as the Kyle Williams Game. And unlike, say, Roger Craig, who lost the fumble that enabled the Giants to beat the 49ers in the NFC championship game of January 1991, Williams does not have a deep body of work to fall back upon. For now, he is primarily known as the guy who flubbed two punts in the biggest game of his life.
"It's one of those feelings that you don't ever want to feel on the football field, to give it up in a situation like that," he said. "It's painful. We're very passionate about what we do, and we're very passionate about getting to the Super Bowl. To be able to be that close and not to get to it is painful, but hopefully we're going to get through it as a team and we'll be back."
Williams acknowledged he was trying to do "something to spark us" on the overtime play, but didn't feel he was out of control. He was attempting to switch the ball from his left hand to his right when Jacquian Williams poked it out.
And the first giveaway?
"I didn't think it hit me," Kyle Williams said. "I still don't think it hit me."