As someone who has attended youth sporting events in the DC area for half a century, I have seen many youth whose accomplishments made me believe future sporting greatness was more than possible, and I have followed them until it was no longer possible. Some stand out more than others. There was the high school halfback who ran 500 yards in one game. I heard he’s with Telekom now. There was the 12-year-old Little Leaguer, who hit 19 homers in 21 six-inning games, which for someone odd enough (me) to convert to adult baseball parameters, 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 safest thing I’ve ever seen.
Williams was a sophomore at Gonzaga College High School when I “discovered” him. I was with my older son when Gonzaga played DeMatha for the 2018 DC Catholic League Football Championship on the night Williams came out as a conspicuous kid. The game was played on the night of November 18, 2018, hours after Lamar Jackson made his debut as an NFL starter in Baltimore, a game I also attended with my family. If you’d asked me or my boy, we’d have said Jackson was the second best quarterback we saw that day.
About halfway through we got the title win and learned that Gonzaga was trailing 20-0 in the first quarter. But Williams led an amazing comeback, capped by his last-play touchdown throw that flew about 70 yards in the air. (John Marshall, the Gonzaga receiver who caught Williams’ sacred pass, is now the captain of the Navy football team.) One notable video showed the Gonzaga fraternity recite the Lord’s Prayer as Williams’ passport floated toward its fate. Part of the stands near me collapsed in the ensuing chaos. I still get goosebumps thinking about the game.
Williams hasn’t done anything since his Hail Mary in 10th grade to make me or anyone believe he was untouched by God. Although his entire senior year was wiped out by COVID-19, sports illustrated still ranked him as the top high school prospect of the class of 2021 for the entire country. His declaration to attend the University of Oklahoma was broadcast live by CBS Sports Network, and the self-produced video that accompanied his announcement had more melodrama than the mini-documentaries that show presidential candidates at national conventions before accepting the nomination .
By the time Williams joined the Sooners, head coach Lincoln Riley had led quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray to back-to-back Heisman Awards. Jalen Hurts had come second in the 2019 vote. Willams began his college career on the bench behind Spencer Rattler, the man who hoped to win the 2021 Heisman.
However, Chosen do not ride pine trees, even behind Heisman chalk. During an October 2021 game against Texas in which Oklahoma were up to 21 points behind, Williams unseated Rattler and led the Sooners to a 55-48 win, their biggest comeback win in the 121-year history of the Red River Shootout. The starting job was his.
Despite some miraculous moments — like that game against Kansas, where Williams stole football from his own teammate to go fourth behind — and an 11-2 record, Riley fled to USC at the end of the season, taking his phenomenal QB with him. Williams wears the same No. 13 that Todd Marinovich, the tragic “robo QB” and an unmissable kid who missed and missed and missed, wore for the Trojans without living up to the size of gridiron his father foisted on him . While Marinovich was crushed by expectations, Williams has flourished. His stats for the season so far: 3,712 passing yards, including 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 look set to secure a place in the college football playoffs should they beat Utah in tonight’s Pac-12 title game.
The DC area has always been a breeding ground for college basketball player of the year, but barring something unforeseen by me or the bookies, according to my research, Williams is poised to be the market’s first Heisman winner. He had botched all Heisman talks in a post-game interview after he defeated UCLA on Nov. 19 and claims he hadn’t given the honor much thought (despite USC’s ailing “He13man” media campaign to that end ). But Williams dropped the modest routine last Saturday during USC’s 38-27 win over Notre Dame, his side’s final game of the regular season. He was caught by network cameras on the sidelines doing the Heisman pose late in the first half.
Williams’ numbers that night were great — 18 of 22 passes for 232 yards with a touchdown, nine carries for 35 yards and three TDs — but they don’t show how dominant his mere presence was. When he was on the pitch, he was obviously the best player. He has retained the same aura he had in high school.
I watched the game at home with the same son who came with me to watch Williams hurl an Hail Maria in 2018. We both cheered as he struck the pose and agreed we were right about Williams from the start – he didn’t miss. It felt good to be right.