By JANIE McCAULEY
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As Kyle Williams suits up for his first game in more than nine months, he will pull his No. 10 San Francisco 49ers jersey over a new No. 81 tattoo on his inner left forearm honoring a former teammate.
Williams added the fresh ink during the offseason as a tribute to an Arizona State teammate, Tyrice Thompson, who died Feb. 2 from injuries suffered when he was stabbed Jan. 27 while working at a popular Scottsdale, Ariz., nightclub. Williams will play in Thompson’s honor this year — the fourth-year pro’s return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that required surgery and ended his 2012 season in late November.
“He was family to everybody,” Williams said. “He’s a guy I played with at ASU, and kind of like a big brother to me. When he was here (alive) he was always looking over me and there for me, always sharing wisdom.”
Now that he is healthy at last, the 25-year-old Williams has a chance to be San Francisco’s No. 2 wide receiver opposite Anquan Boldin. Williams also will handle some kick return duties for the NFC champions.
Williams, Colin Kaepernick and Co. open the season Sunday at home against Green Bay in a rematch of the NFC divisional playoffs last January at Candlestick Park won 45-31 by the 49ers.
“Kyle Williams, we feel like we know what Kyle can do and we’ve been a little bit cautious there,” coach Jim Harbaugh said of pushing him too hard early.
Hanging up in Williams’ locker is a regular reminder of his dear friend — the program from the late 27-year-old’s service — Tyrice Allen Thompson. April 2, 1985, to Feb. 2, 2013.
The former tight end and wide receiver died a day before Williams and the 49ers lost the Super Bowl to Baltimore in New Orleans. Thompson was stabbed five times in the back, hip and arm after an early morning altercation at Martini Ranch near Scottsdale’s hip Old Town neighborhood, and only a few miles from Williams’ high school.
Ian MacDonald of Tempe is accused in Thompson’s killing and faces a charge of second-degree murder.
Williams last saw Thompson in the Phoenix area during San Francisco’s bye week after the 49ers played at Arizona on Oct. 29. The two played together for the Sun Devils for two years.
“When I saw him he kind of pulled me aside and we talked for about 20 minutes,” Williams said. “It was kind of crazy because I told another one of my friends, those two had always been like older brothers to me and watched out for me, I told him, ‘It’s crazy because whenever I talk to Tyrice he talks to me like it’s the last time he’s going to see me.’ And then that happened. I’ve always looked at him as somebody who’s looked over me. He’s always trying to prepare me and always trying to get me ready for what’s coming. So, I know he’s still got me, he’s still looking over me.”
For Williams, this season is one he has been waiting months to begin. He had to sit out the Super Bowl along with fellow injured receiver Mario Manningham — one of the toughest moments in their careers despite their immense pride in San Francisco being back there for the first time in 18 years.
Just when Williams was on a nice roll last season, he got hurt in a Nov. 25 win at New Orleans. A sixth-round draft pick in 2010, Williams had 13 catches for 212 yards and a touchdown in the first 11 games of 2012.
Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman expect a big year from Williams, who has shown significant improvements in the offense and with his strength after such a serious injury.
“Kyle is a dynamic player,” Roman said. “He’s got great short area change of direction. I think he can work a defender to get open and we can give him some different options on routes. And Kyle’s going to be a big part of what we do. He’s an ascending football player, got a great attitude and he’s meant a lot to this team and will in the future, more importantly.
“He’s definitely playing stronger, and we would expect it. I think his whole game’s improved, his understanding of the game, all the little nuances that go into the position. And he’s a competitive guy that I think is coming into his own.”
Thompson, Williams insists, will be with him each moment the 49ers wideout spends on the field, for practice or game day. And when he runs out of the tunnel on Sunday for Week 1.
“Absolutely,” Williams said. “Every time you lose somebody, you want to honor them in any way you can, especially him. I played with him and he was our leader when I was there.”