San Francisco's Kyle Williams is stripped of the ball by New York's… (John G. Mabanglo / EPA )
SANTA CLARA -- San Francisco's Kyle Williams lost the football. But as painful as that memory is, he doesn't want to lose the feeling.
A fumble by Williams in overtime of the NFC championship game — his second such turnover of the game — spelled doom for the 49ers on their home field, on the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
It came on the third punt of the extra period against the New York Giants, after Williams had been forced into returning because of an injury toTed Ginn Jr.
The Giants recovered the ball at the San Francisco 24 and kicked a field goal for a 20-17 victory. That slammed shut the season storybook on the 49ers, who had gone from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 under first-year Coach Jim Harbaugh.
"I don't try to block it out like it never happened, I'm not one of those guys," Williams said last week, sitting out steps outside the locker room at 49ers headquarters. "I know what happened. I'm going to learn from what happened.
"It's almost motivated me more, driven me more to work harder and get to where I'm giving my best opportunity to succeed and move past that in the eyes of everybody else."
Like an echo, that turnover had implications that reverberated long after the game. Williams received death threats on Twitter. Two Giants players offhandedly mentioned after the game that they knew of the 23-year-old receiver's history of concussions and their goal was to get a solid hit on him to take advantage of that.
An audiotape surfaced in April of former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams giving an obscenity-laced speech to his defense the night before a divisional playoff game at San Francisco, a week before the Giants faced the 49ers.
"We need to find out in the first two series of the game, that little wide receiver, No. 10, about his concussion," said the coordinator, who since has been suspended indefinitely by the league for his role in the alleged pay-to-injure Saints bounty scheme. "We need to … put a lick on him right now. He needs to decide. He needs to … decide."
It's understandable that Gregg Williams had taken notice of the unrelated Kyle, as the 5-foot-10, 186-pound receiver had flashed big-play potential in his two seasons in the NFL. Even though he was a sixth-round pick out of Arizona State in 2010, this is a player who's likely to carve out a career of note.
Just as the criticism rained on Kyle Williams, so did the support from his teammates, his family — including his father, Ken, general manager of the Chicago White Sox — as well as some notable former NFL players whom he'd never met.
"Roger Craig called me," Williams said. "Ronnie Lott, Earnest Byner, all these guys called me. Deion Sanders reached out to me on Twitter. Kurt Warner. All these guys that I've never met face to face told me, basically, 'You're a great player, you made a mistake and you're going to be fine. Don't let this break you.'
"When you hear it from these guys, you hear it from the guys in your locker room, you hear it from your family, all the stuff you get on the other side doesn't matter. It's almost like it didn't happen. The death threats on Twitter, it's almost like it's make-believe. I'm going to listen to the people who know."
Perhaps no one on his team knows the sting of public criticism as well as quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005 whose career barely stayed on the rails until last season, when he pulled a reversal and passed for 17 touchdowns while throwing only five interceptions — a franchise record for fewest picks by a starter.
Speaking about falling just short of the Super Bowl, and not specifically about Williams' fumble, Smith said this week that the 49ers are harnessing that disappointment as incentive.
"I think that feeling is still there," the quarterback said. "As much as we all talk about pressing delete on last year, I mean obviously a lot of excitement going to the playoffs and the 13-3 and things like that and getting a playoff win. But I don't think that anyone is pressing delete on the taste in our mouth.
"Working that hard to get that close to your goal and not get there is definitely, I think, even more bitter than some of the losing seasons that we've been a part, that I've been a part of. So, no question, that is still there. Whether or not it's a good thing, we'll see."
The 49ers have not repeated as NFC West champions since winning four consecutive division crowns from 1992 to '95. They are determined to prove they are more than a one-season wonder, and they have added some playmakers to their receiving corps in Randy Moss, Mario Manningham — who made a pivotal catch for the Giants in the Super Bowl — and first-round pickA.J. Jenkins.
In addition, the 49ers had the NFC's top-ranked defense last season, and a running game ranked eighth in the league.
"We have great expectations," Harbaugh said. "We've got big hopes. We've got big dreams."
Williams has his own dreams.
"There's a certain type of fire that burns in you after you've felt that type of pain," Williams said. "I don't know that I've ever understood that before, because it's never been that severe. I was fortunate growing up. My dad is who he is, and I was very fortunate to have the advantages I did as a kid. But now I understand it. Now I get it. There's a certain type of intensity that I've never felt before."