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Before He Was At USC, Caleb Williams Was A Can’t-Miss Kid

Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans celebrates USC Trojans defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 38-27 during a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 26, 2022.
Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

As someone who's attended youth sporting events in the D.C. area for half a century, I’ve seen lots of youngsters whose feats had me believing future sporting greatness was more than possible, and I followed them until it wasn’t. Some stick out more than others. There was the high school halfback who ran for 500 yards in one game. I heard he’s in telecom now. There was the 12-year old Little Leaguer who hit 19 homers in 21 six-inning games, which to anybody weird enough (me) to convert to the parameters of grown-up baseball would be a 219-homer season. After a dozen years in the minors, he became a major-league bullpen catcher.

But back in 2018, I wrote about Caleb Williams when he was a kid. He’s the surest thing I’ve ever seen.

Williams was a sophomore at Gonzaga College High School when I “discovered” him. I was with my elder son when Gonzaga played DeMatha for the 2018 D.C. Catholic League football championship, the night Williams came out as a can't-miss kid. The game was played the night of Nov. 18, 2018, hours after Lamar Jackson’s debut as an NFL starter in Baltimore, a game that I also attended with my family. If you asked me or my boy, we would have said Jackson was the second-best quarterback we saw that day.

We arrived at the title tilt around halftime, and learned that Gonzaga had trailed 20-0 in the first quarter. But Williams led an amazing comeback, capped by his touchdown toss on the last play of the game that traveled about 70 yards in the air. (John Marshall, the Gonzaga receiver who caught the holy pass from Williams, is now captain of the Navy football team.) A remarkable video showed the Gonzaga student section reciting the Lord's Prayer as Williams’s pass floated to its destiny. A portion of the grandstands near me collapsed in the bedlam that ensued. I still get goosebumpy thinking about that game.

Williams hasn’t done anything since his Hail Mary in 10th grade to make me or anybody think he isn’t touched by god. Although his entire senior year was wiped out by COVID-19, Sports Illustrated still ranked him as the Class of 2021’s top high school prospect for the entire country. His declaration to attend the University of Oklahoma was covered live by CBS Sports Network, and the self-produced video that accompanied his announcement had more melodrama than the mini-docs that presidential candidates show at national conventions before accepting the nomination.

By the time Williams arrived to the Sooners, head coach Lincoln Riley had guided quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray to consecutive Heisman Awards. Jalen Hurts had finished as runner-up in 2019 balloting. Willams started his college career on the bench behind Spencer Rattler, the guy favored to win the 2021 Heisman.

Chosen ones, however, do not ride pines, even behind Heisman chalk. During a game against Texas in October 2021 in which Oklahoma trailed by as many as 21 points, Williams deposed Rattler and led the Sooners to a 55-48 victory, their biggest comeback win in the 121-year history of the Red River Shootout. The starting job was his. 

Despite some miraculous moments—like this play against Kansas where Williams stole the football from his own teammate to convert a fourth down—and an 11-2 record, Riley fled for USC at the end of the season and took his phenom QB with him. Williams wears the same No. 13 that Todd Marinovich, the tragic “Robo QB” and a can’t-miss kid who missed and missed and missed, wore for the Trojans while not fulfilling the gridiron greatness his father forced him to strive for. While Marinovich got destroyed by expectations, Williams has thrived. His stat line for the season so far: 3,712 passing yards, with 34 touchdowns and three interceptions, as well as 351 rushing yards and 10 more TDs on the ground. He's the main reason the Trojans appear assured of a spot in the College Football Playoff should they beat Utah in tonight's Pac-12 title game.

The D.C. area has always been a breeding ground for college basketball players of the year, but barring something unforeseen by me or bookmakers, Williams is about to be the market’s first Heisman winner, by my research. He’d pooh-poohed all Heisman talk in a post-game interview after beating UCLA on Nov. 19, claiming to not have given much thought to the honor (despite USC's cringy “He13man” media campaign to that end). But Williams dropped the modest routine this past Saturday during USC’s 38-27 win over Notre Dame, his team’s final regular-season game. He was caught by network cameras late in the first half on the sidelines doing the Heisman pose

Williams's numbers on the night were great—18-of-22 passing for 232 yards with one touchdown, nine carries for 35 yards and three TDs—but they don't reveal just how dominant his mere presence was. Whenever he was on the field, he was obviously the best player on it. He's kept the same aura he had in high school.

I watched that game at home with the same son who came with me to watch Williams fling a Hail Mary in 2018. We both cheered when he struck the pose, and agreed we were right about Williams from the start—he didn't miss. It felt good to be right.

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